The structure of the NCAA is likely changing and the powerful, football-driven conferences will grow more powerful.
Wichita State wants to keep pace as much as possible. The quest for autonomy by the five high-profile conferences (Big 12, Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Pac-12) is understood and accepted by athletic director Eric Sexton, as long as it is directed at improving conditions for athletes and not dramatically changing competitive balance.
“I would hope there is not a sub-intent to eliminate the opportunities for the Wichita States to win a national championship in men’s basketball,” Sexton said. “For the Loyolas of the world to win a national championship in men’s volleyball. For Indiana State to have a championship pole vaulter. That can be concerning and it really goes away from what I believe providing that intercollegiate, student-athlete experience is all about.”
Cost-of-attendance stipends. More meals. Expanded insurance. Sexton said WSU will do its best to compete with schools in the high-profile conferences and their budgets that far exceed those in the Missouri Valley Conference. WSU is upgrading facilities and plans to do more. It is planning for mandated increases in meals for athletes.
“A lot of the things, with their focus on the student-athlete experience … are part of our strategic plan, a first-class student-athlete experience,” Sexton said. “We are in full support of the best student-athlete experience possible. We are committed, on many of those things that we can fiscally afford, or we can fiscally develop, we’re going to provide them.”
On Aug. 7, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors will vote on a governance proposal that will give those five conferences the power to adopt policies (such as stipends) that schools in the other 27 conferences would have the option of adopting. It would also give those five conferences weighted voting power on issues shared by all 32 conferences. The specifics of what autonomy would bring are still to be decided, but the expectation is that schools in conferences outside the top five must be prepared to spend money to keep up with benefits afforded to athletes.
Sexton, and Missouri Valley Conference commissioner Doug Elgin, are sympathetic to the top conference’s desire for autonomy. There are, as a study of athletic budgets makes clear, significant differences between Ohio State and Wichita State, just as differences exist between Wichita State and an MVC school which prioritizes football or a private school that prioritizes soccer and puts little emphasis on track and field. Even within the high-profile conferences there are significant differences, as Northwestern or Baylor may face different financial realities than Michigan or Texas.
So if Texas can afford to give iPads to all its athletes for class work (something WSU does), Sexton is supportive. Giving Texas more basketball or volleyball scholarships is another matter. He is fearful of autonomy allowing the high-profile conferences to set their own scholarship limits or transfer rules. Those issues, ones that directly affect his coaches’ ability to recruit and retain athletes, are ones he says should be decided by the entire membership. Weighted voting is another issue that concerns athletic directors at MVC schools.
“For Wichita State, the challenge that I see is this balancing act of focusing between focusing on a student-athlete experience and those things that may bleed over into competitive questions that can lead to some competitive imbalances,” Sexton said.
Autonomy over transfers was on the original proposal, then removed to Sexton’s relief. Schools in the MVC have no desire to become a feeder system for other conferences. Granting the Big 12 or ACC the power to hand out 15 men’s basketball scholarships (the limit is now 13) would provoke the same reaction.
“That would further skew advantage to the high-resource institutions,” Elgin said. “We want to keep the spirit of competition as it is now.”
MVC schools, Elgin said, are committed to spending on men’s and women’s basketball to try and keep pace. They are already at a competitive imbalance. MVC’s men’s basketball has produced two at-large teams in the past seven seasons — Wichita State in 2012 and 2013. In 2013, Creighton, now in the Big East, became the lone MVC women’s team to earn an at-large spot since 2002.
MVC schools will keep trying. They face an uphill battle against schools in conferences that rake in millions in TV money. According to The Kansas City Star, most schools in the SEC and Big 12 will receive around $20 million from TV deals. WSU’s athletic budget is around $22 million, according to Sexton.
“I don't think there's any question that we will certainly fund to the highest degree permitted our basketball programs,” Elgin said. “I think beyond that, selectively, schools will opt in as they are able to support and sustain other programs at those higher levels. We will certainly be unified in full support for men’s and women’s basketball.”
Valley men’s coaches know that the finances are difficult, but they say keeping pace is critical.
“There’s a lot of things happening that could squash us mid-majors,” Indiana State coach Greg Lansing said. “We have to take the lead from our conference commissioner and staff, and a school like Wichita State, and all up our game. We have to rise to that level and not settle.”
Sexton wants to keep WSU in the lead by providing his coaches more assets to recruit against their big-budget rivals.
The men’s basketball locker room was renovated before last season. The women’s locker room will be renovated before this season and work on volleyball’s will start after the season. WSU will kick off a $250 million capital campaign this fall. The athletic department’s part of the campaign will include building more academic space (Sexton said there are around 100 more athletes, mostly track, than when Koch Arena was renovated in 2003). At Eck Stadium, coach Todd Butler wants a strength and conditioning center connected to the indoor practice facility and dugouts updated to address safety concerns.
The race never stops. In August, schools such as WSU will learn more about how much of a head start the power conferences want.