History Repeats: The MCLA Prepares to Debate a Third Division
There's that old maxim that history has a tendency to repeat itself. It certainly seems to be holding true within the MCLA. The association is contemplating expanding to a third division from its current binary setup and the Executive Board will, according to MCLA president Tony Scazzero, tackle the issue at its winter meeting in December.
For those familiar with the MCLA, this concept has been debated for nearly a decade. Five years ago when I first starting covering the organization, the idea was to create a so-called "Premier League," comprised of those teams operating at the virtual varsity level, followed by a Division I, which would be made up of all the rest of the teams that wanted to compete for secondary championship. Division II would be transitioned into a purely developmental league that might not have access to a national championship.
While there are still some details to be hammered out, it appears the proposal put in front of the Executive Board will be a slightly different variation of its predecessor. Instead of putting the emphasis on the top end and a Premier division, this year's version could concentrate on the creation of a Division III within the MCLA. It would be a "developmental" league without a championship where programs trying to get their feet underneath them in the increasingly competitive – and lopsided – MCLA would reside.
The advent of a Division III will likely be a welcome addition for those members of Division II that have been saddled with the "developmental" label since '05. Many of the high-end D-II programs bristle at this notion, but it has been a self-inflicted wound – three of the five teams who have won a Division II national championship (San Diego, Montana, Davenport) have bumped up to Division I within two years of winning a title.
Perceptions aside, a vote on the addition of a three-division MCLA model will probably resurrect many of the debates that have been brought up in the past.
The biggest argument against a Division III is from a branding standpoint. After years of growth and heightened national awareness, a lot of which came from the extraordinarily high expectations placed upon its member programs, the MCLA would suddenly be attaching its name to a tier of lacrosse that will be below its traditional standards. Without a championship, there is very little incentive to keep developmental teams from falling into the "club trap" – forfeited games, threadbare organization and middling dedication.
Three years ago, I wrote about the issue for another publication, concentrating then on the I-AA phenomenon. A Division III league is slightly different, but many of the same points are applicable.
The MCLA may believe they can create a clear distinction between its top two leagues and a developmental level, and it probably can within the association. But from an outside perspective, the different divisions won't be nuanced. While there is a greater awareness of what the MCLA has to offer, it will always be judged on its lowest denominator. If a developmental league fills that role, it could set the MCLA's image back a decade.
Another potential problem of a third division is the lack of viable competition for those programs going the developmental route. There were 211 total teams in the MCLA last year and if, say, 50 of them decided to go Division III (which is likely a very high estimate), that would average out to five teams per conference. Since no right-minded program in Divisions I or II would burn a date playing a D-III team, unless a D-III team had a large travel budget (which wouldn't make sense), those programs would only have a handful of games every year. Does that help "development?"
There's also an inherent financial peril with a Division III. Since they don't have a championship, those programs in a developmental league would have to be given a discount off the usual dues (if not, why wouldn't they just stay in their current division and roll the dice?). This would bleed off funds from the organization as a whole, placing even more of a burden on those teams who choose to compete at a championship level. They might be okay with that, but I didn't hear too many coaches in Greenville talking about how much extra cash they were sitting on.
All that being said, there is certainly plenty of dead weight under the MCLA's current configuration. There were 21 teams in Division II alone last year with one win or fewer, meaning nearly one in five programs were not operating at a competitive level. Throw in the four one-win Division I teams along with the annual influx of new teams that want to get involved in the MCLA from the NCLL and other leagues, and having a developmental league could certainly serve a beneficial purpose.
In addition, without these developmental teams on the conference slate (in either division), there will be a cost savings, especially in the west, where geographical distances are exponentially higher than in other locales.
This will ultimately boil down to a philosophical decision for the MCLA. The association certainly will be able to survive financially even with the addition of a JV division. The question, as it has been for nearly a decade, is whether the MCLA's general mission is to foster growth across the country or highlight their marquee teams.
Or perhaps there is room for both?