The talks will continue Thursday and Friday.
“What we’re trying to have a conversation about is what I call the new world order in Division I athletics,” LeCrone said. “No. 1, it’s driven by football. No. 2, football has driven large media contracts, which has created unprecedented conference realignment. There are 31 Division I conferences, and in the last two years, 21 of those leagues have had members who have either departed or come into their league. It’s all driven by football, all driven by access to the postseason, by the financial rewards the leagues have received from media companies.”
That’s not going to change, LeCrone knows, so the question becomes, “How does a conference without football prosper in that world?”
The growth agenda has five points.
“That doesn’t mean we will or won’t expand,” LeCrone said. “We will consider it. It needs to be done at the presidential level. It needs to be driven by our values.”
Many have speculated about whether the Horizon will add one school to get back to an even 10 or perhaps make a bigger splash and expand to 12.
LeCrone is also considering scenarios in which the league stays at nine, and in that case, a current Horizon League member without baseball might add baseball so the league can get back to six baseball-playing schools and retain its NCAA bid. If the league expands, Oakland University, near Detroit, has already expressed interest in joining the Horizon. That alone would seem to make it an odds-on favorite. Oakland also comes from the Summit League, and the last team to jump to the Horizon was a Summit League school (Valparaiso in 2007).
With an enrollment of 11,466, Oakland would fit right in the middle of the league, which has an average enrollment of 8,900. Perhaps most importantly, it fits geographically with the rest of the conference.
Travel distances haven’t been much of a concern for most conferences with the recent wave of expansion, but Wright State AD Bob Grant hopes it remains a concern for his league.
“You never say never, and I don’t have any inside scoop, but I think it’s a big selling point for us,” Grant said. “You look at some of these conferences, and the travel is brutal.”
If distance is important, schools from lower-ranked RPI conferences, in addition to Oakland, that are also within shouting distance of the Horizon members include: Robert Morris University, of the Northeastern Conference; Western Illinois, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, of the Summit League; Northern Kentucky University, of the Atlantic Sun; Murray State, Morehead State and Southern Illinois, from the Ohio Valley Conference.
A little further afield is Belmont, a school in Nashville, Tenn., that is moving from the Atlantic Sun to the Ohio Valley this year.
The second item on the growth agenda, LeCrone said, is identifying programs that have won games in the NCAA tournament and received at-large berths into the field. Butler expanded the Horizon’s profile with its success in March Madness, and the conference has received two bids three times the last 10 years (2003, 2007 and 2009).
“We can identify fairly easily probably a dozen programs that are built for at-large,” LeCrone said. “They’ve always had at-large opportunities and won games in the tournament. We want to collect data on those schools and compare them to our schools and prepare a list of possible expansion candidates.”
The Horizon League wants to work with like-minded conferences in the Midwest in terms of scheduling agreements, television deals and digital and social media.
“There are non-BCS conferences that have a lot to offer,” Grant said. “If you pool your things together, it makes you more marketable. It makes perfect sense.”
NCAA reform agenda
LeCrone wants the Horizon League to help shape the future of Division I. “We want to make sure our voice is heard,” he said. “We want to stay engaged at every level.”
Review of policies and procedures
The final prong of the growth agenda is a systematic review of everything the league does. The men’s and women’s basketball schedules for next season have already been thrown out and are being reworked, LeCrone said.
LeCrone is determined not to rush into any expansion, but the timetable has changed with the announcement that Butler will start competing in the Atlantic 10 this fall. The baseball problem looms.
“We take baseball very seriously,” Grant said. “I’d like to think we’re one of the bullies on the block as far as baseball in the Horizon League.
“This does start the clock ticking. We want to find another baseball school. Other schools feel the same way.”
While LeCrone said the conference is on good financial footing, Grant is also concerned about the loss of the Butler game on the basketball schedule.
“It’s a great game for us. I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” Grant said. “My hope is we’ll get some sort of regular Butler visit to the Nutter Center and also that we’ll visit Hinkle.”