Conference realignment is nothing new in college sports. Teams constantly look for ways to improve the level of competition they face. Examples of this include Butler and Creighton joining the Big East and Wichita State joining the AAC. This shows that mid-major schools can climb the ladder of relevance in college basketball. A few other schools have joined Florida A&M in switching leagues during the extended offseason.
Mid-Major Conference Realignment
Robert Morris to the Horizon League
The news of Robert Morris joining the Horizon League has been surfacing for a week or so now. Jon Rothstein reported it on June 4th and doubled down on his report this week, reporting on rumblings coming from Robert Morris’ current conference foes.
Sources: Members of the NEC are expecting Robert Morris to officially join the Horizon League for the 20-21 season. Official announcement expected soon.
— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) June 11, 2020
The Colonials move will be effective for the upcoming athletic year, which begins on July 1st. Robert Morris had not been affiliated with any conference other than the Northeast Conference since joining Division I in 1981. The move aligns with Purdue Fort Wayne joining the league as well from the Summit League. This will move the Horizon League to 12 members for men’s basketball.
PGH Sports reports that the move will save the program a little bit in terms of travel. The Colonials average distance to conference opponents goes from 408 miles to 334 miles. However, the biggest difference is the quality of the league. While the Horizon League is most well-known for Butler’s rise, the conference is deeper than that. League champions are often getting seeded around the 14-line and are capable of pulling off upsets in March. Meanwhile, NEC champions tend to find themselves playing in the First Four in Dayton.
NJIT to the America East
NJIT seemed to be a prime candidate to replace Robert Morris in the NEC due to geography. However, the America East swooped in and is taking the Highlanders in as their tenth member, effective for the upcoming athletic year. Jeff Goodman first broke the news.
NJIT is joining the America East starting this season, source told @Stadium. NJIT was previously in the Atlantic Sun.
— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanHoops) June 11, 2020
This move has a lot more to do with travel. Most of the Atlantic Sun members are located in the Southeast, with NJIT being much closer to the New York City metro area. The Highlanders originally joined the A-Sun to shed their status as a Division I independent when they first transitioned up. Now, they are moving to a league that will make conference road trips much less taxing, with the furthest southern road trip taking them to UMBC.
This announcement did not come without controversy from the Atlantic Sun:
Rumor broke recently that NJIT is going to the America East. The tweet published by Jeff Goodman is inaccurate. More to come! Maybe we can become "trending" on this rumor. That would be cool.
— ASUNCommish (@ASUNCommish) June 11, 2020
Further tweets from the mid-major league’s commissioner seemed to have fun with those asking questions about the move. However, based on his initial reaction, it seems Ted Gumbart was blindsided by the announcement. While one can imagine that it hurts to lose a member of your conference, it is beneficial to everyone. NJIT is not having to take long trips down south, with A-Sun members not having to make long trips to New Jersey.
The financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has a lot to do with these moves. Mid-major schools are feeling the biggest impact of losing revenue from the cancellation of the remaining sports calendar this past year. Many announcements have been made of school’s cutting sports to survive. Wright State’s recent announcement of slashing programs put them below the minimum threshold to remain a Division I program, though they are seeking a waiver.
It is rare for schools to leave conferences and join their new league for the upcoming season. There is usually a one-year gap. However, with schools looking to save money as much as possible, the geography is playing a big role in regard to travel costs. It is already being noted that non-conference match-ups are getting regional for the upcoming season. Now, some programs, like Robert Morris and NJIT, are looking to reduce their expenditures for league travel as well.