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Division III commissioners and sport committees are collaborating to redraw sport regions

After a pair of unsuccessful attempts over the past decade to recalibrate Division III’s sport regions, a Division III Conference Commissioners Association subcommittee convened in 2016 to try to succeed where other efforts had fallen short. Its goal? Account for the rapid — and often geographically disproportionate — growth of many Division III sports, balance the number of schools in those regions and try to ensure conference members were placed in the same regions. Unbalanced regions can cause difficulties in the championships selection process and in crafting regional rankings, among other issues.

“I did this job for 26 years, and I swear for the last 15 we’ve had some iteration come forward of, ‘Should we do something with the regions?’” says Steve Ulrich, the now-retired executive director of the Centennial Conference, who served as chair of the Division III Commissioners Association subcommittee that examined regional realignment. “So we said, ‘OK, let’s get together. Let’s make this happen.’”

By late 2018, that group of commissioners, having worked in concert with the Division III Championships Committee and solicited feedback from members, had the blueprints for a regional realignment model. It recommended bumping some sports with high sponsorship levels up from eight to 10 regions, hoping to keep roughly 40 teams in each region. The Division III Championships Committee endorsed the proposal in February. That decision, though, was met with criticism from some conferences and Division III sport committee members, who felt the new model might create competitive imbalances.

“The biggest critique I heard, and the one that really put me on edge to realize the challenge we were facing, was we started hearing from members of the sport committees that they had not been brought in and they were not aware of what we were doing and proposing,” Ulrich says. “They did not feel they were in the loop.”

Rather than scuttling the effort for a third time, the Championships Committee instead sought input from the sport committees. The issue of perceived competitive imbalances created by the new model quickly rose to the forefront — the commissioners group and the Championships Committee both intentionally had avoided taking competitive strength of regions into account because it’s a variable that can shift over time. Several sport committees have expressed worries that competitive imbalances could skew teams’ records against regionally ranked opponents. Many committees rely on that metric when awarding at-large championship bids.

“We thought that from a regional perspective, it had to be geographic, first and foremost, which is even more paramount now than it may have been 10 or 15 years ago. Finances are a concern, and you’re being evaluated by people that are in your region, and you want those regional opponents to be as close as possible,” says Brad Bankston, Old Dominion Athletic Conference commissioner and a member of both the Championships Committee and the DIIICA subcommittee. “Doing it competitively, knowing that it could be cyclical at times, we didn’t feel comfortable doing that.”

But given that near-universal pushback from sport committees, the Championships Committee has agreed to allow competitive balance to be considered. During its most recent discussion, the group has asked sport committees to put forward suggestions for new regions governed by the DIIICA subcommittee’s overarching principles while also accounting for competitive inequities. 

“They are much more in tune to what balancing competition looks like in their respective sport,” said Bill Stiles, Championships Committee chair and director of athletics at Alvernia. “Sending it back to them with that in mind, saying that we’ll entertain some of that consideration while staying within the framework of the guiding principles, I think is a great place to land and indicative that we’ve solicited their feedback, heard their feedback and we want to take it into account.”

Now, the onus rests with sport committees to craft proposals that create both geographic and competitive balance. The Championships Committee will review the revised models this fall and hopes to put forward a formal recommendation soon.

“I think we’re on the right track,” Bankston says. “It may take us a little bit longer, but in the long run I think this concept will stick and we’ll get it right.”

A Blueprint for Change

A handful of sports, including women’s golf, women’s lacrosse, men’s lacrosse and wrestling, have realigned their regions recently to accommodate growth, and additional feedback has not been sought at this time. Other sports, including cross country, ice hockey, men’s volleyball, rowing and tennis, were not included in the review for various reasons, including current sponsorship and region numbers and championship qualifying formats. 

Sport
2018-19 Sponsors
Current Number of Regions
DIIICA Proposed Number of Regions
Baseball
392
8
10
Basketball (M)
427
8
10
Basketball (W)
443
8
10
Field Hockey
166
6
6
Football
250
4
6
Golf (M)
309
6
7
Soccer (M)
420
8
10
Soccer (W)
442
8
10
Softball
417
8
10
Volleyball (W)
438
8
10