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Conference Realignment Is Coming: Where Could Utah, Cleveland St., St. Bonaventure, Hampton, & NJIT (And Hopkins) Go?

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The D1 lacrosse map is due for a major shake up.

South Korean Students Practise Language Skills In An 'English Village' Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Nothing gets college sports enthusiasts going like conference realignment talk. It’s an evergreen topic, right up there with whether or not to pay college football and basketball players (#PayThePlayers) or ranking all-time player debates. Everyone’s got a take ready to go when it comes to conference realignment.

Nationally things have quieted down for the most part bit since Maryland, Rutgers, and Johns Hopkins announced that they were going to the Big Ten. Nevertheless, the topic always hangs over college sports like a morning fog in a seaport city: sometimes it’s barely there, while other times it blankets the entire area.

Lacrosse is not immune to constant conference reshuffling (or the banter that comes along with it). Indeed, today we have 9 conferences and the ACC, in 2014 we had 10 conferences (The only season with a 6-team ACC) but no Big Ten or SoCon (R.I.P. Atlantic Sun & ECAC), in 2012 we had 8 conferences & the ACC, and ten years ago we had seven conferences, plus the ACC, AND Syracuse + Hopkins were the only two independents, boy, those were the days, amirite?! (Shout out to the GWLL!!)

By the start of 2019 (barring any other surprise D1 announcements) we’ll have 73 Division I men’s lacrosse teams playing in either one of the 9 full conferences, the ACC, or as an independent. There's always a lot of talk about growing the sport, but it should be noted that by 2019, we’ll have 13 more men’s programs than we did in 2010. That’s a 21% increase in a relatively short period of time, and a significant increase compared to the slow growth from the 90s through 2010 when we went from 52 to 60. (H/T Travis Holland.)

With a Power 5 school (Utah), an Atlantic 10 school (St. Bonaventure), and 3 independent squads still looking for a home, realignment banter is about roll in and cover lacrosse twitter like a foggy San Francisco morning in July. Moreover, the 5-year initial membership deal between Johns Hopkins & the Big Ten sunsets after the 2019 season. We should have a decision on what Hop will do by next summer, and while I see no reason why Hopkins wouldn’t or shouldn’t re-up/extend their Big Ten membership, it’s important to acknowledge that Hop could stay in the Big Ten, go back to independent status, or join another conference by 2020.

Below is my take on how I think the D1 lacrosse map could change over the next few years and the conferences I think Cleveland St. Hampton, NJIT, St. Bonaventure, and Utah should join by 2019. I threw in an extra take for Hopkins at the end too.

NJIT

I’ve said this before on Twitter, but I think NJIT would be perfect in the NEC. The Northeast doesn’t have a presence in New Jersey at the moment, and I think NJIT would be a major asset if the Highlanders were to join. Adding NJIT makes sense geographically and would give the conference a larger presence in that sweet sweet Garden State recruiting hotbed. Moreover, adding NJIT would help to create a nice regional rivalry with St. Joe’s, Wagner, & NJIT, which would help to increase the NEC’s presence in the NJ/NYC/Philly area.

I think competitively, NJIT fits with the NEC and it could (in time) significantly strengthen the conference. Just look at how Monmouth helped the MAAC in only 3 years. I am not saying that by 2020 NJIT is definitely going to be as good as Monmouth is today, but I do think having a program in New Jersey would help the NEC. Additionally, given the natural resources in its own backyard, NJIT could become a very respectable program in a few years, especially if it found the right conference to call home. NJIT is still a very young program and one I think the NEC should keep an eye on.

St. Bonaventure

I think the Bonnies & the MAAC are a match made in heaven. While St. Bonaventure wouldn’t extend the MAAC’s footprint into a new market/state, as there are already several NY teams in the MAAC, it would provide a close rival for Canisius in Buffalo & even Detroit Mercy, which is only 5 hours away by car from SBU.

The interesting thing about the Bonnies is that St. Bonaventure is really an Atlantic 10 school, and while the conference doesn’t sponsor men’s lacrosse, three A-10 schools (UMass, St. Joe’s, & Richmond) already have D1 men’s lacrosse. Additionally, the A-10 already sponsors women’s lacrosse.

Perhaps only being two teams away from their own natural A-10 men’s lacrosse conference (and the automatic qualifier for the NCAA Tournament that goes with it), might help convince other schools in the A-10 that adding men’s lacrosse is in their interest. Indeed, even just one more A-10 team besides St. Bonaventure would do the trick, as the conference could take the Big Ten route and go five natural A-10 teams plus an associate member to form the Atlantic 10 Conference in men’s lacrosse. (Ed. Note: A-10 teams George Washington, VCU, & La Salle don’t play D1 Football, all already have women’s lacrosse, and their athletic departments sponsor more women’s programs than men.)

Colleges around the country are facing a male enrollment problem. Indeed, a good number of universities are facing a male deficit on their campuses, which means lots of lost tuition dollars. Adding men’s lacrosse is seen as an easy way for some schools to help increase their enrollment numbers and their bottom line. When you add in the fact that many high school lacrosse players come from middle class to upper middle class backgrounds that can pay full or close to full tuition, it’s no wonder why adding lacrosse is an easy call, especially at the Division III level.

Moreover, with only 12.6 full scholarships to go around, most, D1 lacrosse players are paying their school full or close to full tuition to play lacrosse at their school. I think we’re going to see a significant growth spurt at the D1 level if these enrollment trends continue on the trajectory they are on, especially at smaller schools that don’t play D1 Football.

Indeed, here in Philly, La Salle (an A-10 school with a 37%-63% male-to-female ratio) is facing a huge financial problem and had to make major staff cuts back in 2015. The situation at La Salle is so bad that the school slashed tuition by nearly 30% late in 2016 to attract more students. Adding men’s lacrosse is not a panacea for all of La Salle’s problems, but it would be a profit-generator for the school, which is something the Explorers need more than anything.

The loss of male students on college campuses is disconcerting for university officials. Indeed, the Bonnies didn’t hide the fact that money & enrollment were factors in their decision to add men’s lacrosse.

"For a number of reasons, the addition of men's lacrosse at St. Bonaventure is extremely beneficial for the institution," Director of Athletics Tim Kenney said. "This is a strategic decision that recognizes an opportunity for our department and for the university. Over the next several years, men's lacrosse will add approximately 45-50 student-athletes to our growing department, which will be an integral part of enrollment at St. Bonaventure."

I would not be surprise if other schools in the A-10 followed St. Bonaventure’s lead and added men’s lacrosse. While I think the MAAC would be a good landing spot for now, keep an eye on St. Bonaventure & the A-10.

Hampton

Hampton’s still playing a transitional schedule, and is only 2 seasons old, but I think they could be an asset if they were to join the Southern Conference in 2019. The SoCon already has two Virginia schools in Richmond & VMI, and Hampton as a third Virginia school would provide the Commonwealth with a nice three team conference rivalry.

Competitively, Hampton is still a bit behind in development when compared with even the bottom of the Southern Conference, as they don’t even have a full four year’s worth of recruited players yet. Nevertheless, the distance between Hampton & the bottom of the SoCon shouldn’t be as wide in the next 3-4 years: Virginia is a very fertile recruiting hotbed, and Hampton’s status as a private historically black university is attractive for a large segment of African-American high school students interested in playing at the D1 level at a historically black college or university.

Hampton’s best course of action at the moment is to just get better as a squad. However, the Pirates could be a nice addition for the SoCon in a few years.

Cleveland State University

The Vikings are another team that I think would fit nicely in the MAAC. CSU proved that they were a competent Division 1 school in 2017, and even pulled off a victory over the MAAC’s Detroit Mercy in their last game of their inaugural season. The Vikings won all their games versus D II squads this year, and were actually competitive at times versus one of the toughest D1 schedules in the nation.

CSU also fits in nicely geographically in the MAAC. It’s only 3 hours away from both Detroit Mercy & Canisius. Moreover, were the Bonnies to join the MAAC in 2019, Cleveland St. is only 3 hours away from St. Bonaventure, NY as well. Competitively, even though they just completed their first season, CSU is not that far behind most of the MAAC. Indeed, as mentioned above, they went 1-0 versus the MAAC in 2017, and will only get better over the next few seasons.

Cleveland’s geographically blessed being in the midwest, which is a market no conference besides the Big Ten has a footprint in, moreover, its beautiful urban campus makes it an attractive addition for a few conferences. However, I think the MAAC makes a lot of sense for the Vikings. They could also be a nice associate member in a future Atlantic-10 lacrosse conference if a 5th A-10 school were to add men’s lacrosse in the near future.

Utah

We’ve now come to the belle of the ball! Stand up, Utah!!

Indeed. Utah has it all. It’s a Power 5 school, in a new market, and will soon be the westernmost men’s lacrosse outpost on the map. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, Utah is “in early talks with the ACC, Big Ten and Big East to join a conference.” All three make sense for Utah, however, given Utah’s fat bank account generous endowment and the fact that it is a Power 5 school that plays in a conference with its own network, they can afford to be choosy about where they will call home.

Of the three major conferences, the Big East seems like a natural home for Utah. Denver is right there as a conference opponent, moreover, Marquette is close enough that they’d qualify as a regional conference opponent as well. The Big East is a strong player in D1 lacrosse and would be a good place to land for Utah. However, Utah might be a bit out of place in a football-less conference like the Big East; I could see the Utes wanting to play in a major lacrosse conference, that is also made up of other Power 5 schools.

The ACC would be a great fit for Utah, but the conference probably needs Utah more than the other way around. The ACC doesn’t have an AQ anymore and the gap between it and everyone else gets smaller every year. Indeed, the Big Ten was the better conference last year and poses a major threat to the ACC’s lacrosse hegemony. Getting four or five teams into the tournament isn’t a given anymore, and the conference could use that AQ back.

Getting Utah as an ACC team would be a big coup for the ACC. They’d have a base in a new market in Utah, and a presence near that sweet sweet California recruiting hotbed. Moreover, I want this to happen because I want to make a lot of jokes about how the ACC refused to call former Hopkins Athletic Director Tom Calder back when he reached out to inquire if Hop could join as an affiliate/associate member in lacrosse only a few years ago.

(Ed. Note: If the ACC did respond to Calder’s call and let Hopkins join the ACC, there might never have been a Big Ten lacrosse conference, as Hopkins being an associate is a very special/unique case, and the ACC would never have lost their automatic qualifier after Maryland left at the end of 2014. Ha! Imagine that timeline.)

Now, while I think the ACC should go after Utah and I think the Utes would be a nice fit in the ACC, I genuinely believe that the Big Ten has a legitimate shot at getting the Utes. The Big Ten & Pac-12 already have a special relationship. Indeed, just this year the two conferences “announced a groundbreaking scheduling agreement that will impact football, basketball and more. The two power conferences have agreed to have all members schedule one football game each year against a school from the opposing conference.”

Moreover, the Big Ten & Pac-12 have had a long and storied football history as the the Rose Bowl Game has traditionally hosted the conference champions from the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences. The tradition (whenever possible) continued even through the BCS-era of college football and through today’s present playoff system.

If Utah wants to play in a major lacrosse conference, that is populated with Power 5 schools, it can’t go wrong with either the ACC or the Big Ten. However, if tradition plays any role in Utah’s decision, I could see them joining the Big Ten GAWD Conference as a placeholder until the rest of the Pac-12 gets their act together. Furthermore, getting Utah would be a nice insurance policy for the Big Ten in case Hopkins doesn’t renew their 5-year associate membership contract.

Johns Hopkins

Hopkins shouldn’t leave the Big Ten.

Let us know what you think in the comments section.