New Orleans (SBC) - The Sun Belt Conference announced today wide sweeping changes to non-conference scheduling and oversight for its men's basketball teams. The set of standards will begin with the 2011-12 men's basketball season.
The announcement comes after numerous discussions amongst the Sun Belt Conference's league presidents. Concern amongst the group about the quality of the league's men's basketball teams has been mounting following inconsistent and downward trending Rating Percentage Index (RPI) and Strength of Schedule (SOS) numbers over the past several seasons.
The 150 Rule
The core component in the new standards for men's basketball non-conference scheduling is the expectation that each Sun Belt Conference member institution will ensure that its men's basketball program competes in the top half of NCAA Division I. An institution must meet this standard in one of two ways. First, an institution can meet this standard if the average three year RPI of its opponents on its non-conference schedule is equal to 150 or lower. An institution can also meet the standard by finishing with an institutional RPI of 150 or better at the end of the season.
This standard, known as "The 150 Rule", is not new to the Sun Belt Conference – in fact it had previously been implemented during the 2003-04 and 2004-05 seasons. During those two seasons the Sun Belt Conference saw higher numbers in non-conference win percentage (58% in 2004-05), average institutional RPI (135 in 2004-05), league RPI (12 in 2004-05), average schedule strength (151 in 2004-05) and average attendance (3,351 in 2003-04) than any other season over the past seven seasons.
Non-Conference Scheduling Opportunities
The Sun Belt Conference is in continuing discussion with a similar conference regarding non-conference scheduling opportunities. This would provide each member institution in the league with one home and one away game per season with a member of that conference. Additionally, the league is in continuing discussions with other conferences in the Sun Belt footprint that would result in one home and one away game per year with members of these conferences.
Elimination of non-Division I Games
Over the last several years teams from the Sun Belt Conference have routinely played games against opponents outside of NCAA Division I. In fact, the Sun Belt Conference played a league record 22 games against non-Division I schools in 2009-10 – a number that ranked the Sun Belt third out of 31 Division I conferences for most non-Division I opponents. While competition against non-Division I opponents is not a direct factor in RPI numbers, the scheduling of these games has taken away opportunities to schedule more competitive Division I games. Additionally, scheduling non-Division I opponents is generally met with a negative attitude by the NCAA Men's Basketball Selection committee and could damage a team's NCAA postseason tournament résumé.
Attendance and Season Ticket Sales
During the 2009-10 men's basketball season the NCAA Division I national average for attendance was 5,038 patrons per game. No member institution from the Sun Belt Conference had a higher average than the national average last season. Furthermore, only one member institution has averaged over 5,000 patrons per game over the last five seasons. It is generally agreed that attendance is a measurement of the public's satisfaction with a program. Moreover, the inability to sell tickets results in lost financial opportunities that could have been used to further a program's success.
The Sun Belt Conference will begin to assist with season ticket sales beginning next season by establishing a new initiative. The Sun Belt Conference will create a promotional season ticket holder contest and provide each host institution with the incentives, marketing tools, strategies, and resources on how to increase their overall season ticket holder base. This new initiative will also act as a referral and rewards program for season ticket holders and future season ticket holders.
Sun Belt Conference Director of Basketball Operations
In order to properly evaluate and advise the Sun Belt Conference member institutions, it was agreed that a Director of Basketball Operations for the league be given a one year appointment. The conference has appointed Lee Fowler to act as a consultant to the league. Fowler spent the previous ten years as the Athletics Director at North Carolina State where, in 2002, he chaired the prestigious NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Committee after serving on the committee since 1997. Fowler previously served as the Athletics Director at Middle Tennessee and was a letterman on the Vanderbilt men's basketball team. Additionally, he served as an assistant basketball coach at both Vanderbilt and Memphis.
Moratorium on Discussion
As it has been hotly debated over the last several years, the discussion of men's basketball non-conference scheduling will be limited over the next four seasons following the enactment of the new standards for the 2011-12 season.
In recent years Sun Belt Conference men's basketball has struggled to maintain a level of consistency that is acceptable amongst the league's university presidents.
Furthermore, the general lack of quality in the league has led to teams in the Sun Belt Conference missing out on opportunities for financial gains and recognition from the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament and from ticket sales.
It is widely agreed amongst Sun Belt Conference leadership that there is urgency for improvement and that there are certain steps that can be followed to get to an improved men's basketball league.
Sun Belt Conference President and Troy University Chancellor Dr. Jack Hawkins, Jr.
"This is a common-sense move for our league's leadership if we are serious about returning our men's basketball to the level of national esteem it once held. In the decade of the 1980s Sun Belt Conference men's basketball received 41 post-season bids compared to just 19 over the last decade. Our students, alumni and fans of our basketball teams deserve programs that set high standards."
Sun Belt Conference Athletics Director Chair and ULM Athletics Director Bobby Staub
"It has been a discussion point around the conference to identify measures that will address RPI and other ranking indices. These are strategic initiatives that will aggressively reposition our league and in turn hopefully increase the Sun Belt Conference's post-season opportunities. This places a challenge before our programs, but with a clear benefit to be potentially realized."
Sun Belt Conference Executive Committee At-Large Representative and UALR Chancellor Dr. Joel Anderson
"The steps we are taking to improve the level of play for men's basketball will be beneficial to all campuses in the Sun Belt Conference. Our student-athletes ought to have the best possible athletics experience, and these measures will ensure challenging and competitive seasons. I expect great things from the Conference's commitment to men's basketball."
Western Kentucky University President Dr. Gary Ransdell
"This is an important policy action by our Conference presidents. As important as all of our Conference sports are, NCAA men's basketball represents our league's best chance at national prestige and our best chance for revenue growth. The Conference is as strong as its member institutions allow it to be. Every member institution must play at a sufficient level to give the leading programs in any given year the best shot at multiple bids to the NCAA Tournament. Scheduling and the RPI are at the core of this goal. The more teams we get in, the better our chances of playing deeper into the tournament and earning multiple shares of revenue-- which are then distributed to all league members. These policies are aimed at strengthening our NCAA Basketball value for our fans and capturing a larger share of the NCAA revenue distribution."
University of North Texas President V. Lane Rawlins
"College basketball is one of the most exciting sports venues in America and there seems to be no limit to the public appetite for it. In that environment, the lack of support for men's basketball in the Sun Belt Conference is both disappointing and surprising. I support this initiative as welll as bringing in Lee Fowler as a consultant. This is a great opportunity for the conference to make a statement about the sport."
Florida Atlantic Head Men's Basketball Coach Mike Jarvis
"The 150 Rule is a great idea, it encourages teams to play schools that are in the top half of Division I, which will help build up the Sun Belt's reputation as a whole and the school's reputation in particular."
Sun Belt Conference Commissioner Wright Waters
"I am very pleased that the leadership at our member institutions came together to address such an important issue," said Sun Belt Conference Commissioner Wright Waters. "The Sun Belt Conference was founded as one of the best men's basketball leagues in the nation – and we owe it to ourselves to reestablish the conference as a premier men's basketball league. We need to do this not just because of reputation though – every season that our men's basketball does not meet a certain level of play we are allowing national recognition to fade, financial rewards to pass us by, attendance to fall and apathy to rise. The presidents, athletic directors and coaches at our member institutions understand that and I commend them for taking these actions."
Sun Belt Conference Director of Basketball Operations Lee Fowler
"I am excited to be working with the Sun Belt Conference because of the great tradition, quality institutions and outstanding leadership that this league has. I am looking forward to aiding each institution in any way that I can and I am very appreciate to Commissioner Waters for giving me this opportunity."
Jim Sukup, Collegiate Basketball News and The RPI Report