Which college basketball programs made a mistake going to Division I?

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Over 30 teams have made the jump to D-I hoops over the last 15 years. For some, it was a calculated risk. For others, a likely disaster. Who could succeed, and who is likely to regret that choice?

The long, national nightmare of February is finally behind us, as we prepare for the madness of March. And what is indisputably the best part of March Madness? It isn't trying to figure out the winners of the 8/9 games, or trying to guess what underachieving major schools will sleepwalk into an at-large bid. It's rooting for the overmatched underdog, the plucky 13 or 14 seed who will invariably somehow win a game, making us all frantically google everything we can about Florida Gulf Coast, Bucknell, or Weber State.

Everybody this side of the traditional college powers in Austin, Gainesville, or Columbus would love a chance to be the underdog that captures hearts and minds nationally. It's a major reason why smaller schools try to join Division I in the first place. Since 2000, 36* schools have either joined Division I or are in the process of joining Division I, per College Basketball Reference. They run the gamut from northeastern to southern, sprawling commuter colleges to small and selective institutions, from urban to rural. That number does not include schools who previously had Division I programs, lost them, and brought them back, like Houston Baptist, or Seattle.

Of course, these schools aren't likely to compete for national titles, or even come close. They're schools like High Point, New Jersey Institute of Technology, or North Florida. They aren't chasing championships, and they aren't exactly chasing the almighty dollar either. None of these schools are likely to ever turn their athletic department into a pure profit center. According to the most recent USA TODAY budget database, every one of these schools relies on subsidies (either student fees, university fund transfers, state money, or others) to fund at least half of their athletic budgets, and most need at least 75%. That is unlikely to change dramatically.

So why do it? After all, moving to Division I isn't cheap, and requires a significant amount of institutional investment. Some schools, especially commuter schools, might look for athletics to help improve student life and build a sense of community, something that isn't easily measured. The most likely reason though, is the hope that a competitive team can provide more tangible results. And nothing can provide those results more than a competitive men's basketball team.

A school can send all the letters they want to high schoolers, or put up all the billboards, but it's hard to compete with the sheer volume of advertising that the school can get from making the NCAA basketball tournament. Even some modest athletic success has been shown to correlate with increased alumni engagement, donations, and freshman class size. The team might not necessarily be profitable thanks to ticket sales, hot dogs and t-shirts, but if the school makes the big dance a few times, leading to some higher SAT scores on campus and maybe an uptick in endowment or alumni funds, a school could convincingly argue that the risk was worth it.

Of course, those benefits require some level of athletic success. Nobody is opening their wallets to support a six win team in the Atlantic Sun Conference. Not everybody gets to be a winner, and not every school, even every small school, has an equal chance at becoming even an occasional success. We think it's possible that some of these schools were a little optimistic about their chances when they decided to move up.

Why is that a problem? Well, for starters, college basketball doesn't really benefit from a proliferation of overmatched punching bags. If you create another single digit win team in the basement of some godforsaken conference, Cincinnati or Pitt is going to try and schedule them in December, and we're going to have to watch it.

More importantly though, there is an opportunity cost to dedicating resources to competing athletically at a high level. If a school has to dedicate a lot of money to subsidize that program, it's worth knowing if they are ever going to be any good, right? Many of these schools use student fees to fund the athletic departments, which can be tough when college costs are rising dramatically. At Longwood, for example, about one fifth of a student's entire tuition check goes to subsidize athletics. If their flagship program is probably never going to be good, the wisdom of competing at the Division I level becomes an important question.

So we decided to take a look at the schools who recently moved into Division I, and figure out if they made a good choice or not. This list of schools was culled from Sports-Reference.com's basketball roster. It does not include schools that previously had programs and reclassified. We figured that an institution with a previous basketball infrastructure, no matter how old, would be operating from a different playbook. We also did not look at the schools that are in the process of reclassifying. Those schools are Grand Canyon University, Nebraska-Omaha, UMass-Lowell, Incarnate Word and Northern Kentucky. We don't have budget data yet for these schools, and it may be too soon to try and draw any meaningful conclusions.

Here are some of the variables we looked at when evaluating the programs:

1) Proximity to other Division I schools. Not only will a new Division I school need to compete for basketball recruits, they're going to need to compete for eyeballs, period. A new program that opens up only a few miles away from another program, especially one that is much larger and more established, will likely have a harder time cultivating a local fanbase, or local media attention. On the other hand, a team that is the "only game in town", even if they're struggling a bit more, could punch above their weight in both coverage and fan support.

2) Proximity to recruits. If you can't offer flash, a fancy TV deal, a great conference, or superior facilities, a new school can offer recruits a chance to play a little closer to home. Schools that are near these recruiting hotbeds are projected to have a better chance at success than schools that don't. Per this map, in raw numbers, high school basketball prospects tend to congregate along the East Coast, Midwestern population centers, Texas, Florida and California.

3) Conference affiliation and stability. A school that finds themselves in a strong, stable conference will not have to worry about scheduling issues as much, and convey a stronger brand to both recruits and fans. Schools that struggle to find an affiliation, or are joining conferences with high potential instability, open themselves up to significantly more risk.

4) Budgets. The higher a subsidy for an athletic department is, the higher the opportunity cost for maintaining the department. Ideally, a school should work to decrease this number as much as possible, especially if the subsidies are coming from high student fees.

5) Athletic success. It's early, but have the teams been competitive? Have they qualified for any postseason tournaments?

6) Attendance. If nobody is showing up to the games, nobody is going to want to play there, the school won't make any money, and nobody wins. We took attendance data from the official 2012-2013 release, and compared it to the stadium capacity. After all, you can't penalize a team for only drawing 1,600 fans a game if their gym only holds 1,800. 

We didn't look at things like quality of coaching hire, athletic director, or recruiting classes. We feel like players and administrators come and go, and shouldn't necessarily validate or invalidate a decision to commit the resources to move up to Division I. A school with a very bad situation could theoretically hire the right coach, overachieve for a few years, and then lose that coach (or administrator), and fall right back into crisis. From afar, it can also be difficult to measure the quality of these hires.

We also didn't look at other sports. It's entirely possible that some of these schools are excellent at volleyball, tennis, or track. No other sport provides the exposure and marketing benefit to a small school that men's basketball does, and it's usually the most expensive sport. If a school decided they wanted to move to Division I and hang their hat on say, their swim team, well, that's a different conversation.

Below is a chart showing the schools we looked at, their records, their level of budget subsidy, the number of schools in their state, and the number of schools nearby. Location data was taken with Google Maps, and isn't exact (several schools were just inside or outside the one hour radius, so take this data as an estimation).

School First Season Seasons in D1 Games W L W-L% Reg Season Conf Titles Conf Tourney Titles NCAA Bids Schools within an hour drive* Schools within the same state Avg Attendance % of Capacity filled (arena capacity - avg attendance) Subsidy Level
Bryant Bulldogs 2011 4 121 47 74 0.388 0 0 0 3 3 1525 58.65% Private
Cal State Bakersfield Roadrunners 2011 4 117 51 66 0.436 0 0 0 0 23 1252 33% 69.36
Central Arkansas Bears 2011 4 114 33 81 0.289 0 0 0 1 4 1651 28% 78.33
Florida Gulf Coast Eagles 2011 4 129 70 59 0.543 0 1 1 0 12 2291 51% 74.31
North Carolina Central Eagles 2011 4 120 76 44 0.633 2 0 0 5 17 1361 45% 73.3
Presbyterian Blue Hose 2011 4 122 41 81 0.336 0 0 0 4 11 807 35% Private
South Carolina Upstate Spartans 2011 4 127 59 68 0.465 0 0 0 4 11 707 80% 88.55
South Dakota Coyotes 2011 4 119 50 69 0.42 0 0 0 0 1 1486 15% 65.04
Southern Illinois-Edwardsville Cougars 2011 4 112 38 74 0.339 0 0 0 1 12 1850 46% 85.57
Kennesaw State Owls 2010 5 155 33 122 0.213 0 0 0 2 6 1191 26% 83.72
NJIT Highlanders 2010 5 151 69 82 0.457 1 0 0 13 7 489 32% 91.44
North Florida Ospreys 2010 5 159 72 87 0.453 0 0 0 1 12 1636 26% 75.9
Utah Valley Wolverines 2010 5 152 82 70 0.539 2 0 0 2 5 2275 27% 91.36
South Dakota State Jackrabbits 2009 6 192 115 77 0.599 1 2 2 0 1 3625 58% 55.84
California-Davis Aggies 2008 7 215 74 141 0.344 0 0 0 2 23 2027 27% 81.44
Longwood Lancers 2008 7 218 76 142 0.349 0 0 0 1 13 1077 60% 85.38
Lipscomb Bisons 2004 11 330 167 163 0.506 2 0 0 4 11 1948 39% Private
Gardner-Webb Runnin' Bulldogs 2003 12 366 156 210 0.426 1 0 0 4 17 1797 36% Private
IPFW Mastodons 2003 12 359 149 210 0.415 0 0 0 0 9 1443 54% 74.4
Savannah State Tigers 2003 12 353 122 231 0.346 1 0 0 0 6 1487 25% 79.65
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Islanders 2003 12 356 175 181 0.492 4 1 1 0 20 1168 12% 84.43
Binghamton Bearcats 2002 13 385 148 237 0.384 1 1 1 0 21 2614 51% 77.49
California-Riverside Highlanders 2002 13 374 124 250 0.332 0 0 0 4 23 758 24% 88.78
Morris Brown Wolverines 2002 2 57 13 44 0.228 0 0 0
Alabama A&M Bulldogs 2000 15 424 190 234 0.448 1 1 1 0 8 1098 18% 67.84
Albany (NY) Great Danes 2000 15 455 205 250 0.451 1 3 3 1 21 2924 64% 79.41
Elon Phoenix 2000 15 454 191 263 0.421 2 0 0 8 17 1336 84% Private
High Point Panthers 2000 15 447 205 242 0.459 1 0 0 4 17 1446 83% Private
Oakland Golden Grizzlies 2000 15 476 253 223 0.532 3 3 3 3 6 2478 83% 76.91
Sacred Heart Pioneers 2000 15 439 159 280 0.362 0 0 0 5 6 788 39% Private
Stony Brook Seawolves 2000 15 447 204 243 0.456 4 0 0 3 21 1447 35% 69.74

Success Stories:

Oakland University: 253-220, three NCAA bids

The Grizzlies might be struggling a little this season, but they aren't far removed from some big success, including an NCAA bid in 2010-2011, where they put the fear of God in Texas, thanks to a strong season from big man Keith Benson. Oakland has enjoyed the benefit of coaching stability (Greg Kampe is the only coach the team has had at the Division I level), and conference stability, doing well in the Summit League before getting the call up to the Horizon League, where they seem a much better fit. Perhaps most importantly, Oakland's location is great. They're very close to Detroit, a city they only share with Detroit Mercy (hardly a heavyweight), a pipeline they have mined well. 11 players on the roster hail from Michigan, with many from the greater Detroit area.

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Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Oakland hasn't needed to charge a student fee to support athletics since 2006, and ticket sales and contributions were at their highest level in 2012. While their general subsidy level is high, the program has the potential to keep their financial burden at a more manageable level. They've also been a hit at the box office, as Oakland has one of the highest attendance figures of any team in this grouping, averaging over 80% capacity while drawing well over 2,000 fans a game.

South Dakota State: 115-77, two NCAA bids

Thanks to a kid named Nate Wolters, the Jackrabbits grabbed two NCAA bids and put the school on the proverbial map. SDSU shares their small state with another school that joined the big leagues at around the same time, so they aren't at a significant fan base disadvantage, and share a conference (the Summit) with several other schools who could be considered peer institutions, (half the conference is relatively new to Division I), so they shouldn't be at a huge competitive disadvantage, although Oral Roberts will join next season. It's unclear whether SDSU can sustain their success in a post Wolters world, but the school got the marketing bump that they would have hoped for when they launched the team.

Ticket sales for the program have increased nearly every year, and subsidy level for the program is now roughly 50%, far and away one of the best financial situations for recent Division I schools. In fact, The Jackrabbits had the highest average attendance figure of any school in the group. If SDSU can remain decently competitive, it has a great chance to not become a financial boondoggle on the school, the students, and the community.

Florida Gulf Coast: 70-59, one NCAA bid, two NCAA wins, Internet fame

Dunk City is the newest school on the list, but it would be impossible not to single them out. FGCU represents the best case scenario for a small school hoping to make the jump to Division I: some quick success, a historic win, and a run of publicity that the school could never hope to get from anything else. The Eagles have a shot at making a second NCAA run if they win the Atlantic Sun tourney this year, but their ability to sustain long term success with Andy Enfield off to USC will be something to watch. The school has taken advantage of their location, with six players from Florida on the roster, and has a conference where it should be competitive.

While the athletic department does rely heavily on student fees, the school reported its best year ever for ticket sales and athletic contributions in 2012, and with no other Division I programs close by, the school has a chance to become a real community institution.

Risky Investments

New Jersey Institute of Technology: 69-82

It's hard to imagine how this process could have gone any worst for NJIT. After flailing around and looking for a conference, the Highlanders secured refuge in the Great West, a sort of halfway house for transitioning programs that nobody else wanted (Houston Baptist, Chicago State, etc). Last season, the league disintegrated, and everybody else found a new conference home – except NJIT. This year's schedule contained four D2 teams, and the team has struggled against the lousy Division I squads they've faced.

It gets worse, though. NJIT is an hour or so drive from a whopping 13 other Division I programs (and a short bike ride down Orange Ave from Seton Hall), while operating in the most expensive media market in the country, making generating exposure almost impossible. It's not like folks in Newark are wanting for things to do on a Saturday night. The financial side is also bleak, with NJIT operating as the most subsidized athletic department in the country (91.44%).

It shouldn't surprise you that NJIT had the worst average attendance of any school in Division I last season, failing to average even 500 fans a game. Your local high school basketball team probably drew more fans than the Highlanders did, and that really isn't an exaggeration.

Without a stable conference home, it's hard to imagine a scenario where NJIT ever becomes a stable, even replacement level program, and even if they do secure a home, it's likely that their athletic department will be a drain on the university of years to come. Of all the schools in the data set, it looks like NJIT made the worst call.

Utah Valley University: 82-70

I realize the Wolverines may very well make the NCAAs this season, since they're atop the WAC standings, but I think there is little reason to be optimistic about the program's long term viability. UVU sits in Utah County, perhaps the most LDS place in the entire world, and less than twenty minutes from BYU, a large, already established program that can suck oxygen away from any possible UVU success. The school is also less than an hour from Utah, and only a little more than an hour from Weber State, one of the state's mid-major darlings. Utah State, less than two hours away, has also seen success.

So those are a lot of other schools to compete with in a very close geography. It doesn't help that Utah, as a state, doesn't produce a ton of prep talent. It also doesn't help that UVU is currently the second most subsidized athletic program in the country, with nearly 90% of their budget coming from student fees, direct or indirect institutional support, or state money. Plus, UVU's conference, the WAC, is a truck stop for wayfaring programs, and could legitimately disintegrate if any of the other schools can secure a bid to the Great West or Summit League. Even if UVU makes a few postseasons, it's difficult to imagine a future where their basketball team consistently competes, and represents something more than a financial boondoggle for the university.

Sacred Heart: 159-280

Sacred Heart is a private school, so we can't really speak to their budget situation, but from a basketball standpoint, this move has not gone well. The school has been playing Division I since the 1999-2000 season, but the Pioneers have only finished with a winning record three times, and have never finished better than 18-14. They've won single digit games seven times, and sit on a tidy 5-26 record this season. Their fans have responded, as SHU had some of the lowest attendance in all of Division I last season, failing to average even 800 fans to their games, averaging less than 40% capacity in an already tiny gym.

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The Star-Ledger-USA TODAY Sports

SHU is only 6 miles away from another Division I school (Fairfield, which has won 20 games or more three out of the last five years), and is within an hour drive of just about every other school in the state except for UConn. When you play in a state that doesn't produce a ton of prep talent, in a crowded space, and in a league that perennially sits near the bottom of the RPI ranks (the Northeast is ranked below the WAC this year), what's the plan for long term success?

Also, they hired Bobby Valentine as their AD?

Longwood: 76-142

The Lancers do have the advantage of being located in a state that produces a fair amount of talent (and given demographic changes, that could become even more true in the future), and they do a good job of going after local kids. Seven players on Longwood's roster come from VA, after all.

But that's about it for the positives. The school saddles their students with a large and expensive student fee to prop up athletics, and the team has had exactly one winning season in their history, a 17-14 campaign when they were an independent, a year that included four wins against non D1 teams. The school is located in a town called (I'm not making this up) called Farmville, with a population of less than 9,000.

Attendance has been low (1,077 fans a game last year), and the athletic department has an 85% budget subsidy. Given how heavily the school leverages student fees for the athletic department, and how terrible the program has been, and how unlikely it is that the team will become competent anytime soon, it's tough not to argue that the school could be using that money in a better way.

Special Lifetime Achievement Award

Morris Brown: 13-44

So on paper, Morris Brown joining Division I didn't seem like a totally terrible idea. The smaller HBCU in Atlanta played two seasons as an independent in the early 2000s, perhaps angling for an invite into something like the MEAC. The team wasn't very good, but they knocked off a few other HBCU schools.

Then, after their second season, Morris Brown lost accreditation as a school, as a massive fraud scandal enveloped the school, eventually leading to the near destruction of the entire institution. When your enrollment drops to double digits, it's safe to say that sports are not longer a primary concern.

So yeah, while some of these Division I promotions may seem like questionable uses of university time, energy and money, hey, at least the school still exists.

Potential success sleeper

IPFW: 149-210

Historically, the Mastodons haven't been that great, but that doesn't mean they can't be in the future. IPFW is the only Division I program in Fort Wayne (a decently large city), and the only program within an hour and a half radius. Indiana is a basketball mad state that also produces a decent number of recruits, so theoretically, there could be both local demand to watch games, and a pathway for recruits. IPFW also is part of a conference that shouldn't be impossible to win (the Summit).

IPFW's athletic budget still has a high subsidy rate (74.4%), but it's on the lower end compared to other schools that have recently joined Division I. The program is in the midst of their most successful year yet, at 22-9, and should end up playing in some postseason tournament. If the team can sustain their momentum and keep their coaching staff, the decision to move up might ultimately be a good one.

Conclusion:

It would appear that several of the schools on this list will have a significantly uphill climb to make good on their investments. Some might have been better served keeping the money and reinvesting it in academic programming, marketing, or construction projects. Others could potentially be successful programs, reaping the rewards that come with such a distinction. Belmont, after all, a Mid-major darling, started playing in the late 1990s, only just after this window. North Carolina Central might have the best basketball team in the history of the conference this season.

It's also worth noting that a lot of these problems, from low attendance to high budget subsidies, are not unique to relatively newer schools. They're common across small schools in general, and plenty of teams that joined in the 1970s, or before, have the same struggle. To me, that makes me question the worth of throwing lots of money at building a Division I basketball team even more, but others might disagree.

Administrators and fans should be very cautious about promoting a jump to Division I, and should be frank and honest about what they expect that path to success to look like. Otherwise, they risk wasting millions of dollars, not to mention the embarrassment of getting  clobbered routinely on TV, or worse, irrelevancy. Certainly, a few of the schools on this list have pretty dubious paths to making high level basketball a successful endeavor.

Big programs are often in the news for perhaps dubious uses of university money to promote athletics (I'm looking at you, Rutgers). If you look into the numbers though, there are plenty of smaller schools who just might be offenders as well.

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