In December 2021, MRJ Advisors presented their Division 1 feasibility study to the Wright State University administration. Ultimately, MRJ advised Wright State to maintain its membership at the Division 1 level instead of dropping down as the cost savings at the lower levels would only be marginal.
While we don’t have access to the entire feasibility study that was conducted, this news brings up many questions about Wright State’s future at the Division 1 level. We’ll take a closer look at some of the lingering challenges Wright State faces if they do wish to remain a Division 1 institution for the foreseeable future. We’ll also look at how Wright State is not alone in navigating an uncertain Division 1 landscape – with or without a football program.
Wright State History and Background
Wright State is located in the Dayton suburb of Fairborn, Ohio. It was originally founded in 1964 as a satellite campus of Miami University and Ohio State University. Wright State became its own independent institution in 1967 and was named after the Wright brothers Orville and Wilbur. They offer 160 undergraduate and 155 graduate programs across its two campuses in Dayton and Lima. Wright State enrolled 11,469 students as of the 2021 fall semester and held a total endowment of $112 million.
We mentioned that Wright State is located in the Dayton area and that presents a challenge for them as they have plenty of competition from other universities in the area. The University of Dayton and Kettering College are in the immediate area while Central State University, Wilberforce University, and Wittenberg University are also relatively close if you expand the radius a bit more.
Beyond that, Wright State has to compete with larger universities in the southwestern and central parts of the state in both Cincinnati and Columbus as well as Miami University near the Indiana-Ohio border. They also need to contend with a plethora of universities in the Great Lakes region, which only adds to the competition for students. Below is a map showing higher education universities and colleges in southwestern and central Ohio that Wright State is attempting to draw students away from. A full map of Ohio colleges and universities can be found here courtesy of Ohio Higher Ed.
Wright State typically serves the blue-collar community and attracts first-generation college students. The modest yearly annual costs of $12,000 for students living off-campus and $21,000 for those living on campus are designed to be attractive to potential students that don't wish to pursue education at typically more expensive private schools. Speaking of students, it's time we look at how enrollment has fared going back to the mid-1970s, which is the earliest date Wright State provided on its digital archive.
Enrollment Struggles Compounded
The total enrollment of part-time and full-time students at Wright State was fairly stable between the late 1970s and early 2000s. The school made solid gains going from approximately 16,000 in 2001 to 19,600 by 2011. Since then, enrollment has fallen off a cliff with about 11,500 as of the 2021 fall semester. That represents a drop of 40% in just a decade. The chart below shows enrollment at Wright State dating back to 1977. (We used 5-year increments going backward from 2021 to 1977, which was the earliest point in WSU archives).
There are several reasons for the drop in enrollment. High school graduates have declined in Ohio and across the United States. Wright State is particularly affected as the Ohio counties that produce the most enrollees will have fewer high school graduates. As a result, the university plans to use reserves to help make up the shortfall for the declining enrollment.
Another aspect hurting enrollment was a series of bad decisions and news cycles. The university violated the work visa laws in 2017 that cost the university not only bad publicity and potential international enrollees but also $2 million in fines.
There was also the aspect of a failed bid to host one of the 2016 presidential debates. The university spent over $4 million dollars in upgrades to the Nutter Center in hopes of being selected to host a debate. 10 weeks before the debate, the university was not selected as the fundraising efforts were not enough to help cover the renovation expenses and WSU lost $1.7 million in the process. There has been a host of other issues that the university has faced, which have led to financial losses and bad publicity.
In summary, enrollment has been declining due to demographic changes and administrative blunders. This has not gone unnoticed as some close to the university are worried about stemming the string of losses. A declining enrollment and publicity problems do not bode well for the athletics arena either.
Wright State Athletics
Wright State was a Division 2 member from 1968 until 1986. They moved up to Division 1 starting with the 1987 season and joined the Mid-Continent Conference (now Summit League) in 1991. They joined the Midwestern Collegiate Conference in 1994, which became known as the Horizon League in 2001 where they still reside.
Wright State is part of the Division 1 institutions that do not sponsor football, otherwise considered D-1AAA. The men's basketball program was consistently an NCAA tournament team at the D2 level from 1976 through 1986 with 7 appearances and one national title. At the D1 level, it has been a different story with only three tournament appearances (1993, 2007, and 2018) in 35+ years since moving up.
The women's basketball team has fared similarly. They struggled to assemble a competitive team until after the turn of the century and the last decade has seen the most success. Like the men, the women's basketball program has made 3 NCAA tournament appearances (2014, 2019, and 2021) including the only D1 tournament win for either program in 2021.
The most successful Wright State team is the baseball program with 8 NCAA tournament appearances at the D1 level. 7 of those 8 appearances have been since 2006 and the Raiders have made 2 regional finals in 2016 and 2016. While they haven't advanced beyond the first round, it's clear that Wright State has fielded many competitive baseball teams over the past 15 years.
We arrive at a key point for Wright State and its Division 1 future by mentioning different sports teams. In June 2020, the university announced they would cut the trio of softball and men's and women's tennis to reduce costs by $2 million. This put the school at 11 sports, which is 3 below the NCAA required 14 to be a Division 1 member. The NCAA subsequently granted WSU a two-year waiver to remain at the D1 level without having the 14 mandated sports programs.
The waiver granted by the NCAA will end after the 2021-22 academic year meaning that Wright State will need to add 3 programs by the start of the 2022-23 academic year. It is unknown which sports Wright State will bring back but there have been some discussed such as the three programs cut in 2020 or new ones such as football or bowling. No matter which sports Wright State chooses to add, that will cost money and resources, which the university has been lacking the last several years.
It's fair to ask whether dropping the 3 sports might be indicative of a difficult D1 future. Let's take a look at how Wright State stacks up against fellow D1 institutions.
Stay D1 or Drop to D2?
When it comes to Division 1 athletics, it is very much the haves and have nots. For a school like Wright State, they are in the lower part of D1 simply because they don't have a football program that can generate larger revenues. However, having a football program isn't a silver bullet especially for those outside the Power 5.
Wright State has another problem even among its peers at the D1 level without football. There are 96 programs at the D1 level without a football program and Wright State ranks 79th among that group in terms of revenue. When compared to the D2 group of schools that don't sponsor football, Wright State towers over the average team (the Raiders would have the 4th highest revenue in this case). The chart below shows how Wright State stacks up against fellow non-football schools at each level of the NCAA.
As shown above, Wright State is really in no man's land as a D1 member. At the current revenue and expense numbers, they would tower over D2 opponents. At the D1 level - without football - they're behind similar schools.
Another factor that needs to be considered is the D1 label as being a division 1 school has benefits. The perception of a D1 school - whether it's true or not - is that they're playing among the best of the best and that makes it easier to attract sponsors or donations. For example, a regional company would probably be willing to sponsor a school like Wright State if it gives them exposure on a platform like ESPN+ compared to a local or regional channel. That assumes Wright State could find a platform at the D2 level given the competition they would face from fellow Dayton and Cincinnati-based schools for the airwaves.
None of this is to say that a Horizon League program like Wright State is receiving earth-shattering amounts from corporations or sponsors but it wouldn't be as much if they dropped down to D2. Overall, the costs would be lower in Division 2 but they also wouldn't have nearly the exposure (or potential exposure) that they receive at the Division 1 level. The issue is quantifying how much exposure is gained as a D1 member or would be lost if they reclassified to D2.
Wright State is Not Alone
The dilemma Wright State faced with this feasibility study is not unique to them nor is it unique to those schools that do not sponsor football. We have already seen the University of Hartford - a non-football school - announce its decision to drop from Division 1 to Division 3.
Even schools that sponsor football are questioning whether continuing to do so is worth it. Big Sky Conference members Eastern Washington and Portland State have both discussed whether to drop football or continue funding them at the current levels. Plus, we cannot forget that Idaho left the FBS to return to the FCS due to the financial obligations it took to compete at the NCAA's highest level for football. All these examples point to an important trend. The graph below will show the median revenues generated by FBS, FCS, and non-football schools according to the NCAA's financial database.
The above chart shows the immense gap in median revenue over the last decade between the four Division 1 groups - the Power 5, Group of 5, FCS, and non-football schools. All four classifications have seen revenues increase over the last decade as well. The median Power 5 team revenue has grown by 51%, Group of 5 by 39%, FCS by 46%, and non-football by 41%.
In absolute terms, the Power 5 has grown by nearly $40 million in the last decade, which should be no surprise. The most interesting aspect as it pertains to Wright State is that non-football schools saw revenue increase by $5 million compared to FCS programs which increased by $6 million over the last decade. Having football at the FCS level provides only a marginal bump in revenue compared to the non-football schools. On the other hand, FCS schools make far less than FBS programs but that also means FBS schools have much higher expenses.
This is why teams operating at the lower levels of D1 as "mid-majors" might struggle in the future. Becoming a household brand for any non-Power 5 school is difficult though not impossible (i.e. Gonzaga basketball). Perhaps a focus on a single sport would be worth exploring to become better known throughout a region or even nationally. In Wright State's case, baseball would be the most likely program given the recent success but there are other sports worth considering such as esports or lacrosse. This would be a small step to get closer to the 14 sport minimum in D1 while also trying to attract new students.
A key takeaway from this article is that mid-major programs like Wright State have already faced and will continue to struggle against the growing gulf between the FBS and non-FBS schools. Even the FBS demarcation between Power 5 and Group of 5 is enormous and will likely get worse. Throw in the NIL, transfer portal, reconstitution of the NCAA, and players unionizing among other issues, and the uncertainty schools face become clear - for all categories of Division 1 athletics.
The changes that have already happened or are in the works could change the landscape of collegiate athletics as we know it. The only determination left to ponder is whether it will be good or bad for all parties involved. That part won't be known for a while and is yet another hurdle for schools as they face an uncertain future.
What was presented above focused mainly on Wright State and isn't meant to be applied to every mid-major. Some schools won't have as many universities in their proximity, struggle with publicity issues, or even suffer from financial constraints. All of them have their own set of issues that can vary from a small set of minor annoyances to potentially catastrophic items. Furthermore, they will all have to contend with the changing collegiate landscape future just like Wright State.
Wright State's path in D1 and as an institution can also be made less uncertain by making better financial decisions. There have been too many instances of throwing good money at bad ideas and the ensuing bad publicity only paints a worse picture for anyone thinking of attending, working at, or affiliating with the university.
For Wright State, they believe the positives of being at the Division 1 level - at least in its current state - outweigh the negatives. Dropping to Division 2 (or lower) might mean the university is more competitive in athletics but the reduction in revenues, exposure, gifts/donations, corporate sponsorships, etc. would leave Wright State in a worse position (i.e. losing far more money than they are right now).
Despite the negatives discussed above, remaining in Division 1 is a reasonable decision considering the current shifting landscape of higher education and collegiate athletics. It probably won't hurt to assess the matter again in 5 to 10 years when some of the major changes have occurred. We say probably because when it comes to realignment and college athletics, nothing is certain.
Photo courtesy of Albert Cesare / The Cincinnati Enquirer