MJ: The Localization of Division III
Not surprisingly, the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference formed a fracture in its 12-school membership recently, and will splinter into two leagues starting with the 2012-13 academic year. It's not terribly shocking because the SCAC, which just finished its first year as an NCAA automatic qualifying men's lacrosse league, was a Division III monstrosity, stretching from Colorado, through Texas and into the Deep South.
The perforation of the SCAC leaves a five-school contingent (Austin, Colorado College, Dallas, Southwestern and Trinity) that will keep the conference's name, along with a new, as yet unnamed, league featuring seven break-away schools (Birmingham-Southern, Centre, Hendrix, Millsaps, Oglethorpe, Rhodes and Sewanee).
Why did this schism occur? There are several factors -- some known, others not -- that played a role, but most of it can be chalked up to the fact that we're about to enter a new era in Division III athletics, an epoch that's hallmark will be the downsizing and localizing of conferences to fit new economic realities facing institutions of all types.
Back in the late 1990s, endowment funds were like money fountains, spewing seemingly unlimited amounts of cash in the air as school presidents stood beneath, their arms reaching skyward as the greenbacks cascaded all around them. Inebriated with resources, administrators at all levels made some relatively shortsighted decisions.
"So you want us to join an athletic conference that stretches from Terre Haute, Ind., to Georgetown, Texas, to Atlanta, Ga.? Why not?!"
It was this logic that made the SCAC as big of a bubble as the housing market. Some saw it coming. DePauw and Rose-Hulman, both schools in Indiana, bolted the SCAC for different conferences (the NCAC and Heartland, respectively) within the last five years. But other institutions, including the geography-stretching addition of Colorado College, filled the void and further inflated the bubble. Until it burst, anyway.
The SCAC will not be the only league affected by this bubble. Other conferences will be reshaped with an eye on the bottom line. The Commonwealth Coast Conference, a group of New England schools, is splintering into an as yet unknown form. The CCC covers a relatively small geographical footprint, but financial responsibility also means keeping an eye on your peer group (another key factor in the SCAC break). Stevenson made the jump from the CAC to the MAC mostly because the Mustangs had to ensure the addition of football was fiscally sound.
For the foreseeable future, there will be a continued movement of Division III schools toward more localized, budget-friendly leagues if they are provided the opportunity. Many of the older leagues are already built on this concept, but don't be surprised if some of those, too, are redrawn.
This newfound provincialism will have a serious impact on those institutions on the fringes of the lacrosse boom. While the NCAC is nearing the end of its "independent" hegemony, there are plenty of Pool B schools ready to fill that vacuum. They won't be as strong as the Denisons and Ohio Wesleyans, however; rather they'll be emaciated lone wolves foraging for their place in the division, unable to find a conference that makes fiscal sense.
Division III lacrosse is entering a precarious time. The sport's boom is undeniable -- it has helped to shape the (former) SCAC to some degree. But that fractured league is also a canary in the coal mine. As much as we'd like to believe that institutions of higher education are immune to economic realities, they are perhaps the best indicator of what lies ahead. Div. III lacrosse isn't going anywhere, but don't be surprised if the conference landscape looks a lot different in a couple of years than it does now.