For the next entry in our long-running list on realignment speculation, we venture into unchartered territory: a look at a top-tier Division III football program. We’ve discussed Division II programs moving up to Division I before, primarily looking at teams becoming FCS members as well as FCS to FBS cases. Below, we will discuss the Division III program the University of Mount Union.
Before we go any further, the usual disclaimer: the hypothetical presented below is purely conjecture. It is just a thought exercise, not based on any rumor or inside information, and we do not have any indication that Mount Union is looking at leaving the OAC. With that out of the way, let’s get back to talking about the Mount Union Purple Raiders.
The Purple Raiders have been the best team in Division III football since the early 1990s with 21 national championship game appearances since 1993 and they have won 13 title games. The next best team has been rival Wisconsin-Whitewater who has 10 appearances and 6 wins since 2005. And that is to say nothing of the 30 Ohio Athletic Conference titles Mount Union has won since 1985 or the 112-game winning streak against Division III foes from 2005 through 2016.
Beyond success on the football field, Mount Union has been competitive in the OAC in cross country, track and field, and wrestling. While those sports are not typically viewed in the same vein as football or basketball, bringing competitive athletic teams in addition to football is never a downside when potentially joining a new conference. Below is a map of the OAC for reference as we consider different potential conferences for Mount Union.
Let’s take a look at several realignment options below for Mount Union starting with Division II.
Unsurprisingly, any move from Division III to Division II would mean satisfying additional requirements to become fully eligible as a member. Fortunately, some requirements do not change between divisions such as the required minimum of five sports for both men’s and women’s teams, which Mount Union already satisfies as a D3 member. Another requirement that is the same is the lack of a minimum required attendance for football and no minimum arena size for basketball.
However, there are some slightly more stringent criteria for Mount Union to achieve in the event they moved up to Division II. First, they would need to play at least half of their games against Division I or Division II opponents in football as well as men’s and women’s basketball. That should not be an issue as Mount Union would likely join a conference and have no lack of interest as a non-conference opponent.
Secondly, Mount Union would likely need to begin providing financial awards for student-athletes if they moved up to Division II in order to be competitive in all sports. For football, they would be allowed to distribute up to 36 full scholarships though schools often choose to offer partial scholarships to entice more athletes to join the program. Ultimately, the total number of partial scholarship awards must be equal to a maximum of 36 full scholarships. For men’s and women’s basketball, the equivalent amount must be equal to 10 full scholarships.
Let’s put some real numbers on paper using the NCAA’s own data. As of 2019, the average amount of athletic student aid given for Division II programs that sponsor football was roughly $2.6 million across all sports not just football. That accounted for roughly one-third of expenses for Division II programs. Given Mount Union’s football prominence, we assume they would want to provide athletic aid to be competitive in football and other sports at the Division II level as they sponsor 12 men’s sports and 10 women’s sports.
There’s no sugar coating the revenue side in terms of ticket sales as neither division is reliant upon gameday revenue. Division II football programs received about 1.4% of their annual revenues from ticket sales, which averages out to $110,000 per year. In Division III, the annual revenue percentage is 0.5% and averages out to roughly $27,000 per year.
Relatedly, Mount Union Stadium has a capacity of 5,600 and, in 2019, they averaged about 2,700 fans per game for attendance. Furthermore, without attendance requirements, Mount Union wouldn’t need to have major capital outlays for a stadium expansion but they may look into upgrading some facilities to host championships. There’s definitely room for growth to get fans in the stands, which would likely happen with a move up to Division II.
Overall, attendance is a rather small factor in the decision to move up to Division II and would be insignificant in terms of additional revenue. Other expenses like travel, coaching compensation, recruiting, and administrative costs and compensation would also increase. In terms of overall revenue, nothing would increase dramatically compared to a team moving from FCS to FBS. A move up to Division II might provide more exposure leading to more donations, corporate sponsors, alumni giving, or increased applications/student population. That begs the question… is the additional exposure worth more than the additional expenses?
Possible Division II Conferences
Given Mount Union’s location in Northeast Ohio, they could be a geographic fit for several conferences: Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, Great Midwest Athletic Conference, Mountain East, and Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference.
If Mount Union moved to the GLIAC, they would become the 9th member as Ashland leaves after the 2020-21 academic year. The map below shows the GLIAC membership with Mount Union in purple, outgoing Ashland in yellow, and non-football members in orange.
Compared to the compactness of the OAC, this arrangement would see travel go up across the board for all sports. The upside in terms of football would be facing the likes of Ferris State and Grand Valley State. The Purple Raiders would be a good fit and, assuming continued success, they would have a good chance at being one of the top seeds each year.
Great Midwest Athletic Conference
If Mount Union joined the G-MAC, they would be the 11th member overall and the 8th football member. Mount Union is shown in purple on the map below and non-football members are shown in orange.
Compared to the GLIAC, it would be more travel-friendly and the Purple Raiders would be vying for top-dog in this conference on the gridiron. The competitiveness of the G-MAC wouldn’t be as high as the GLIAC at the top level but it should be noted the G-MAC has existed as a conference for only a decade and is continually improving.
One aspect not previously mentioned is that Mount Union would join a group of schools that are private and small in terms of the student population. Mount Union has an enrollment of 2,200, which would be roughly the average of the conference if they joined the G-MAC. Both the private aspect and small enrollment are identical to the current situation in the Ohio Athletic Conference.
A move to the Mountain East Conference would make Mount Union the 13th member and the 12th football member. While not as ideal as their current alignment in the OAC, a North-South split – one already implemented by the Mountain East for basketball, baseball, and softball – could help limit travel. The map below shows North division teams in yellow, Mount Union in purple, South division teams in blue, and the non-football member Davis & Elkins in orange. UNC Pembroke is an associate member of the Mountain East in football, swimming & diving, track & field, and wrestling. They are eligible for the conference championship and would be situated in the South division under this arrangement.
The Mountain East would get even more competitive with the addition of Mount Union in this hypothetical proposal and it is a mix of public and private universities. Also, the enrollment of Mount Union is comparable to the current conference members.
Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference
Admittedly, this one will seem like the least likely scenario given all but one member is located in Pennsylvania but hear us out because it will make sense in the end. Mount Union joining the conference would make them the *19th* member of the PSAC. Yes, the 19th member. Mount Union would be the 17th football member, which means we have quite a crowded space.
Below is a map of the 19 members and 17 football teams. They are broken down by football’s East-West divisional format with Mount Union predictably in the West. Mansfield in the East and Pittsburgh-Johnstown in the West are the two teams that do not sponsor football.
One potential issue is the Pennsylvania-centric location. The one non-Pennsylvania member? Shepherd University from West Virginia, which was the most recent addition to the conference beginning with the 2019-20 academic year. Given the Rams’ football and baseball prominence, it makes sense to have them in the conference. The door outside the state has been opened and Mount Union is not egregiously far away from the West Division members.
As for the scheduling with Mount Union, it would be of little consequence in football. The PSAC already has its members play a division-only schedule in football with the East and West division winners teams meeting in a conference championship before the Division II Playoffs. While the travel for Mount Union and its opponents would be a little bit more than the current situation, a divisional format is already applied to Olympic sports and could easily be modified to keep travel to a minimum.
A potential academic issue could be that Mount Union would be one of just four private institutions in the conference and the Purple Raiders would have the second smallest enrollment.
Division I Path
If this article was written two years ago, the Division I path would have never been considered because… well, it didn’t exist. Even the typically glacially slow-moving, arcane, and draconian regulatory body known as the NCAA has made a few good decisions in the past year. One of those was providing a waiver from Division III to Division I for the University of Saint Thomas though it must be noted it was an extraordinary circumstance for UST as they were booted from their conference.
Nevertheless, the route from D3 to D1 is close to formally existing and it might suit teams like Mount Union quite well. They would need to obtain an invite from a conference before being able to apply for the transition to Division I. The conference they join depends on whether they want to offer football scholarships AND which conferences would be willing to accept them. There is a massive $1.7 million dollar application fee to join Division 1 as well, which might be a big enough deterrent for some schools.
That opens a breadth of possibilities from the Big South to the Ohio Valley Conference and maybe extending to the CAA or Northeast Conference. That would make quite the long list of possibilities but for the purposes of this article, we will assume that Mount Union joins the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League as the 12th team for reasons we discuss below.
Geographically speaking, the PFL is not the best fit as shown on the map below, however, it makes sense in several ways. The cost of 4 road games in the PFL (plus non-conference games) is dwarfed by the savings of not having to provide 63 scholarships for football. Mount Union could also schedule money games against FBS opponents to help fill the athletic coffers a bit assuming they don’t turn into a North Dakota State upset-type. The PFL also provides a path to the FCS Playoffs as an Automatic Qualifier without having to provide those costly athletic scholarships.
Another positive to joining the FCS and Division I is that there are no stadium requirements for attendance purposes. The Purple Raiders would not have to expand the current stadium and the current capacity of 5,600 would be in line with most of the other schools. There is also no attendance requirement for basketball.
There is also the potential to join up with former Division III member St. Thomas and start a new rivalry with them as potential king of the PFL (to say nothing of the current king in San Diego) and further improve the conference’s product. Furthermore, the PFL is full of relatively small private colleges and universities. Mount Union would have the third smallest enrollment of PFL members if they joined.
Moving up to Division I would mean not only maintaining at least 7 sports for both men and women, which Mount Union currently does but also providing athletic scholarships in sports other than football. Division I members are also required to spend at least $1.755 million in financial aid for student-athletes in sports other than football as well as men’s and women’s basketball with half of that amount going towards women’s sports (page 428). For obvious competition reasons, Division I programs may choose to offer more. Division I FCS programs spent an average of $6.1 million on athletic aid in 2019 across all sports. By comparison, Group of 5 teams spent an average of $8.3 million on athletic in 2019.
Now that we have covered why the PFL makes sense for Mount Union’s football team, the question turns to where will the rest of the athletic teams will reside. That’s where it becomes tricky…
Three conferences come to mind right away for Mount Union’s non-football sports: the Horizon League, the Summit League, and the ASUN. Mount Union would fit well within the Horizon League beyond just geography as shown in the map below. Although the Horizon does not sponsor football it has two football-playing members among its ranks. Robert Morris (Big South) and Youngstown State (MVFC) both play scholarship football in other conferences.
In addition, if the Horizon League felt the need to do so, they could split the conference into divisions to ease travel for Olympic sports. The recent addition of Robert Morris – a small private college – is also a reason why Mount Union might fit. The conference appears to be open to smaller schools if the circumstances are right.
Two potential drawbacks are that Mount Union would easily have the smallest enrollment at 2,200 and some capital improvements may be needed if they wanted to host Horizon League Championship events.
The Summit League is another potential destination. St. Thomas is joining the Pioneer Football League and the Summit League for its other sports starting with the 2021-22 academic year. The map below shows the current members in blue, St. Thomas in yellow, and Mount Union in Purple. The Purple Raiders would become the 11th member in this scenario.
One issue with this setup is that Mount Union becomes the most easterly team by quite a margin, which would cause travel to go through the roof. That can be mitigated with divisional alignment or a pod scheduling system (i.e. a mini-conference tournament with four teams at one central location). However, there’s no getting around how far away Mount Union would be from other teams and that might be too much distance for both sides. Alternatively, if the St. Thomas transition goes well, the Summit League might be willing to take on another top D3 program regardless of the travel considerations.
The final Division I conference possibility Mount Union could send its other sports to is the ASUN. The conference has been extremely aggressive in its expansion pursuits and quite frankly this seems like a swing they would take. The map below shows the ASUN if Mount Union were to become a member. As a reminder, the trio of Central Arkansas, Eastern Kentucky, and Jacksonville State will join the conference starting in 2021-22 except for in football where they are expected to join the WAC for just the 2021 season.
There are two potentially major issues that make the ASUN an unlikely landing spot. For starters, the Mount Union seems to be too far north for the ASUN’s liking given that NJIT left the conference for geographic reasons after the 2019-20 academic year. Secondly, the ASUN would prefer to add another football member or two to obtain AQ status for the FCS Playoffs. Mount Union joining in all sports except football doesn’t fit that profile even if Stetson currently has the PFL/ASUN agreement in place.
We presented quite a few scenarios above and a summary is definitely in order. Potential realignment spots for Mount Union included moving up to Division II into the GLIAC, G-MAC, Mountain East, or PSAC. We also reviewed the possibility of a move to Division I with football in the PFL and the other sports in the Horizon League, Summit League, or Atlantic Sun.
A move up to Division II would likely mean the introduction of scholarships in order to maintain competitiveness. They could certainly opt not to provide athletic aid but that would put them at a disadvantage on the recruiting trail. On the revenue side, ticket sales are not going to offset the additional expenses in scholarships. However, a move to Division II in terms of additional tuition, sponsorships, donations, corporate giving, naming rights, etc. can vary from school to school to help ease the increase in expenses.
Then again, a move to Division II could be used to gauge the possibility of entertaining scholarship football at the FCS level further down the road. Similarly, a move up to Division I can allow Mount Union to assess the costs of being a Division I institution before adding in the cost of scholarship football.
There are also perks to moving up to Division I including increased ability to obtain donations, sponsorships, increased revenue streams from conference media deals, ability to attract more students due to increased visibility at the higher division, access to March Madness (which is a boon in itself if your lucky enough to be a frequent participant and pull a couple of upsets), more gifts from alumni, and the list goes on. Undoubtedly, there are numerous expenses that will increase such as administrative, compliance, coaching salaries, capital outlays, potential renovation for athletic facilities, etc. that must be factored in.
What we provided above were several different conferences for Division III’s best football program to consider if they wanted to move. We don’t believe Mount Union is leaving the OAC any time soon as it’s a conference they’ve been a member of since 1914 and eight other current members have also been there since 1932 or earlier. They already have most, if not all, of what they’re looking for at the D3 level at both an athletic and institutional level with a small enrollment, private schools, compact travel schedule, and lack of athletic scholarships just to name a few aspects. The numbers don’t add up for the D2 level and moving D1 would have some ancillary benefits but finding a suitable home outside of football might be a tough sell to a prospective conference in the short-term.
If we had to choose two paths – one for Division II and one for Division I – we would say G-MAC (small private colleges) and PFL/Horizon (non-scholarship football with the full array of Division I perks) are the best options. The PFL/Horizon option is particularly intriguing because of the process St. Thomas will be going through as a barometer.
It would not be surprising to see a few Division III programs consider a move straight to Division I if St. Thomas does well. However, that does not mean it will be viable in every case or even the majority of cases. It requires the right set of circumstances for success as well as an institution with good foresight, financials, strong alumni support, conference support, buy-in from the school administration, etc. It will be worth dissecting what goes right and wrong with both St. Thomas and any other institutions that forge ahead on the Division III to Division I path to truly understand how to make the transition a successful one.
Photo courtesy of the Associated Press