Wichita State to the American Conference. Any one of four teams to the Missouri Valley. Someone to replace them. Another round of realignment musical chairs has been kicked into full gear.
The fact that it takes a team being poached to stir everything up is exactly the problem. Any change requires a domino to fall; and when when it does every conference races to protect its own best interests.
What if we blew it all up and started from scratch? How might conferences look in a world where everyone had a chance to start again?
Those are the questions I set out to answer this past month. But I didn’t want to guess. (Because honestly, I would have been biased toward the current configuration.) Instead I let data decide. How is best served for a Github repository, which I’ll release at the end of the week. Here though are the factors I used:
Overall athletics spending and men’s basketball spending: Both of these data points were collected from the Equity in Athletics data, which is published by the Department of Education. I used the most recent data, which for most schools is financials running from July 1, 2015 to June 30, 2016.
One note about athletics spending: Unfortunately, the military schools—Army, Navy and Air Force—don’t receive Title IV funding and therefore don’t participate in the survey. That’s why even though there are 351 teams in Division I basketball only 348 will be in a conference. It would certainly be an interesting thought experiment, but one I’ve decided is outside the scope of this exercise, to figure out where those institutions fit.
Three-year average attendance: Attendance was used as a proxy for fan support. I used the average three-year attendance (2013-14 through 2015-16) to smooth out any bumps. Here’s an example of the 2015-16 data in PDF.
Location: This is just the latitude and longitude of every Division I school in the country.
U.S. News rating: I considered other metrics of academic performance, such as APR scores, but in the end conferences care about academic prestige. U.S. News is the best metric of that distinction. The magazine divides schools into National and Regional Universities and doesn’t score every institution. I adjusted regional university scores and assigned a minimum score to every school in Division I to make sure all schools were comparable.
None of these metrics (besides perhaps location) are perfect representations of what we’re looking for. A national athletics donations database might have been a better proxy for fan support—but is certainly something the NCAA doesn’t want to separate out. The Equities in Athletics data has its own quirks.
Still, I combined all of this information, normalized it, and placed teams into 32 (mostly new) conferences. The rest of the week I’ll be releasing these conferences in reverse order of their average 2017 KenPom rating. Hopefully most of them will make sense, but I’ll also include a few thoughts about why the schools are grouped together. (One is particularly obvious.) Please let me know what you think!
- Conferences 27-32 — 12 p.m. on Monday
- Conferences 24-26 — 9 a.m. on Tuesday
- Conferences 18-23 — 12 p.m. on Tuesday
- Conferences 13-17 — 9 a.m. on Wednesday
- Conferences 8-12 — 12 p.m. on Wednesday
- Conferences 1-7 — 9 a.m. on Thursday
- Winners & Losers — 9 a.m. on Friday
- Learnings & Github link — 12 p.m. on Friday