Back in Oct. 2019, Tarleton State announced that it would leave the Lone Star Conference and move up to Division I. Without knowing it, Tarleton set off a cataclysmic shift that will have significant ripples in the small college universe.
Now, the “Texas Four” of Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin, Lamar and Abilene Christian are all heading to the Western Athletic Conference with the Texans. Central Arkansas is now heading to the Atlantic Sun. We’re nowhere near done.
In fact, some around the small college ranks feel that the next target is obvious. With both the WAC and Southland Conference now looking for members, the Division II powerhouse Lone Star Conference suddenly looks pretty appetizing. And for the class of the LSC, Division I has never looked more attainable. Tarleton’s jump could be the canary in the coal mine for the future of Division II football.
Division II football is a fascinating animal. D-II is the lowest NCAA level that offers scholarship football, but teams are capped at 36 scholarships, well behind the 85 in FBS and 63 in FCS. But as college football coalesces around “haves” and “have-nots,” it’s hard not to see that middle ground becoming a place of irrelevance.
Granted, every time a high school athlete is able to receive assistance to play the game they love at the next level, it’s a win. But as the financial realities of COVID-19 start to sink in, I think it will only hasten a decision on whether scholarship football is a priority.
The costs of maintaining a college football program are immense. Not only must a school invest in equipment, staff and trainers to accomplish the day-to-day of playing football, they also have to create spaces for a roster of players to play, practice and workout. With hundreds of thousands of dollars going to scholarships at the D-II level, facilities and resources often actually lag behind Division III.
From a revenue perspective, you’re not getting a huge bang for your buck. Midwestern State, for example, generates about $1.6 million in football revenue according to the Department of Education. D-III Mary Hardin-Baylor generated a cool $1.7 million. Granted, as a nationally-relevant program, the Crusaders aren’t quite a fair comparison, but many Division III teams push $1 million in revenue without incurring the cost of athletic scholarships.
On the flipside, there are some huge advantages of moving up to Division I, if you can work out the startup costs. Now that Tarleton State has invested in the increased scholarship numbers and facilities to compete, the Texans will be rewarded with nationally-accessible broadcasts, March Madness revenue and marquee noconference games against recognizable opponents – not to mention a full-page spread in the summer edition of Dave Campbell’s Texas Football.
We here at DCTF fervently cover every level of college football, but Division I is Division I. The task is much harder, but the rewards are much greater. Will Tarleton’s old conference foe Texas A&M-Commerce watch the Texans get their flowers without wanting to prove they can do the same? Will Angelo State? Will West Texas A&M?
And on the other side, does Texas A&M-Kingsville want to invest heavily into upgrading facilities? Is the cost of scholarships paying off for the program or would it benefit more from simply playing non-scholarship football? Another Lone Star Conference exodus could expedite that decision.
That said, there certainly is a place for Division II athletics outside the realm of football. Offering 10 scholarships for basketball, 7.2 for softball and 8.0 for water polo are all perfectly reasonable middle grounds for schools wanting to dip into the scholarship athletic world without going all the way. Because of all the costs involved, it’s very difficult to half-ass football. And oftentimes, the minor prestige of playing “scholarship football” simply isn’t worth the cost.
Decision day is coming. It may be in five years. It may be in 20. But eventually, schools will be forced to decide whether they want to truly invest in football. And when they do, Division II could find itself in no-man’s land.
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