By Gary Brown
When the NCAA Executive Committee signed off on expansion for the Division I Women’s Rowing Championship earlier this month, it was cause for celebration not only for the rowing community but also for the committee that administers the event.
Expansion from 16 to 22 teams beginning with the next championship in 2013 means more access for teams not accustomed to making the field. But it also alleviates what could have been a headache for the Division I Women’s Rowing Committee and likely quiets a debate about automatic qualification that has churned among rowing constituents for several years.
Women’s rowing, which the NCAA began sponsoring as a championship sport in 1995, used to be categorized as an individual/team sport and as such had a championship with 12 full teams (schools that brought two 8s and a 4) and then four other teams that brought one boat.
Beginning in 2009, though, rowing was considered a team sport, and its sponsorship was enough to merit a 16-team “bracket.” But with the team-sport designation came automatic qualification, since rowing would have been the only team sport without it. Even though the rowing coaches were divided about the merits of automatic qualification, the committee proposed it as an incentive for schools that were considering launching a program.
Enter the potential headache, however. As all of that was happening, the committee was already aware of conference movement that would by the 2012-13 academic year produce 11 leagues vying for automatic-qualification status. With only a 16-team field to accommodate them, the committee would have no choice but to establish a logistically awkward “row-in” system to comply with NCAA policy allowing no more than 50 percent of the field to be filled through automatic qualification.
That prompted the request to expand the field.
“Certainly with the advent of AQ and the number of conferences that would qualify for AQ in 2013, that’s when it became clear to the committee that expansion would be the best option for the sport, especially regarding viable postseason opportunities,” said committee chair Anne McCoy, a senior associate AD at Washington State. “Otherwise you’re getting into row-ins or play-ins, which are logistically challenging and expensive. Expansion was not only the best option for the sport but also for the participants.”
The 22-team field should keep the rowing community happy for the foreseeable future. Of the Division I schools currently sponsoring the sport, only five are not already in a conference, so it would be unlikely for that 11 number to change.
That allows the committee to hold on to the idea of automatic qualification as an incentive for growth, and it alleviates the fear some coaches had that it would dilute the field.
“It absolutely helps mitigate the debate on AQ,” said committee member Matt Weise, the head women’s rowing coach at Michigan State. “It was pretty much a 50-50 split among coaches on who wanted AQ and coaches who didn’t.”
The debate was familiar to those in other sports mulling automatic qualification as a way to encourage schools and conferences to fully fund teams that would compete for conference and national championships. Conferences that have little trouble qualifying a number of teams even without automatic qualification typically resist the idea, since AQ doesn’t always guarantee the best teams will be selected. The non-power leagues are naturally prone to liking automatic qualification since it assures access those conferences wouldn’t otherwise have. The challenge is for the two sides to agree upon automatic qualification as a way to grow the sport.
At the time the committee proposed automatic qualification, then-chair Tom Bold of Brown University said his group certainly heard the concerns over a “watered-down” pool – even from the conference he represented. In the end, though, Bold said the committee recognized that automatic qualification grew other sports and believed it was the right approach for rowing, too.
With the 22-team field now in place, both sides should be happy.
“Rowing is still a relatively young sport for the NCAA, and so this is a good next step for the sport to grow and to encourage other schools to build their programs,” said the current chair McCoy. “You want schools that are in their development to have that incentive of postseason participation – it helps fuel their growth.
“It helps unite the sport and get the AQ debate out of the mix, since expansion is good for everyone. You legitimately give an opportunity for more schools to participate that might not have otherwise.”
Northeastern women’s coach and committee member Joe Wilhelm said the real winner in all of this is the sport itself.
“It benefits the so-called ‘mid-majors’ because they’ll have a very clear path now to the NCAAs, whereas in the past it was a little muddy how those schools could put together a schedule that showed they were worthy of competing at the national meet,” he said. “And it does that without disadvantaging the traditional power conferences.”
Now the challenge for the committee is how to accommodate the larger field at the championship. The additional six teams certainly will alter the racing format, but the expansion likely won’t add any days to the championship.
McCoy said the committee will convene again soon to begin figuring out the specifics, but she said that task is far less daunting than a row-in system would have been had expansion not been approved.
“From the format perspective, the play-in structure would have affected things more than expansion will,” she said. “We’ll still need to discuss how we use regions for selections, and we’ll need to determine how many heats to add for the races, but expansion is much easier to handle than a row-in would have been.”
Women’s rowing is one of three Division I sports whose championship brackets will expand in 2013. In August, the NCAA Executive Committee approved a budget that included a recommendation from the Division I Championships/Sport Management Cabinet to expand championships in the Division I Football Championship Subdivision, women’s lacrosse and rowing.