College basketball's "most wonderful time of the year," A-Sun hoops, conference realignment, the gridiron and the future of college athletics are all topics addressed by Atlantic Sun Conference Commissioner Ted Gumbart in this inaugural "Take Five" blog.
1. We are in the midst of March Madness, when interest in college basketball peaks. How do A‑Sun schools benefit from all the attention focused on basketball during March?
It is amazing to see the continued growth in the public fascination with “brackets,” “bubble teams,” “championship week” and all the madness surrounding conference basketball tournaments and postseason play. Whether we look at TV ratings, on-line viewing data, website hits, and now social media data – nothing compares with the public and media interest in our activities around tournament time. Noting that this is when the spotlight burns the brightest, the teams that have a successful finish to the season provide great national exposure for their universities overall. The emotional connection to a winning basketball team provides not only a means to solidify affiliation with the university, but it inspires multiple development benefits, from an increase in overall student applications, to increased alumni giving, to building an increased season ticket base to support the program’s continued growth. We recognize these benefits and aim to capitalize on them to the greatest degree possible.
2. The A-Sun has initiated a Basketball Improvement Program. What are the ultimate goals of the program?
The A-Sun Basketball Improvement Program is designed to raise the level of achievement – and thereby the university-wide benefits derived from that success – in a comprehensive manner for the entire membership. In the simplest terms, we aim to raise the overall level of play in the A‑Sun to the point where we have men’s and women’s teams annually competing for at-large NCAA bids. We’ve noted the great positive benefits that accrue to the university when basketball teams have success. The next step is getting all of our schools to work together towards a unified goal. We know raising the level of basketball in the A-Sun will require investments, but our Presidents Council has committed to this. We have committed to postseason play the past three years and seen record-setting participation for A-Sun schools. In that period we’ve had eight different schools playing postseason basketball, we’ve hosted eight postseason games the past two years, with three home postseason games set this week. Plus, we’re winning! Five different teams have won games in postseason play just the past two years, highlighted by Mercer’s men claiming the 2012 CIT Championship. We are building a foundation where the team and institutional goals are rightly set on reaching postseason and performing well once there. We’re also investing a great deal into our television production capabilities to help share the success of our teams on the floor with the broadest audience possible. We also have invested in expert guidance in building this plan by hiring our basketball consultant, Mr. Greg Shaheen. The goals are reachable, and commitment to a cohesive plan will absolutely allow us to continue our positive trajectory and move up to a nationally recognized basketball conference.
3. Conference realignment continues to be an issue of national focus. How do the changes in conferences such as the Big Ten, Big East and Atlantic 10 affect others, and specifically the A‑Sun?
I have consulted my magic crystal ball and have seen the future. I’m just not at liberty to divulge that future because each time I look, the outcome is different. In all seriousness, conference realignment affects everyone except maybe the Ivy League. We are all affected either through changes in membership, or through the implementation of strategies to retain and or expand current membership. We are no different. A few years ago we decided to be deliberately pro-active in maximizing growth opportunities for our student-athletes, teams and institutions. We have expanded not only through full membership, with Northern Kentucky adding a very well-rounded program that fits our desires for top level basketball, but through the addition of sports as well. The A-Sun was the first in the nation to sponsor sand volleyball after it was recognized by the NCAA, and we now have an automatic bid to the national championship – the only conference in the country that provides that opportunity to its student-athletes. We merged with the National Lacrosse Conference to form an A-Sun women’s lacrosse program that will determine an NCAA automatic qualifier this spring – an opportunity that wouldn’t exist without the efforts of our membership. Next spring we begin men’s lacrosse through a collaborative effort between schools from the A-Sun, Southern, Big South and A-10, and our A-Sun champion is eligible for qualification into the NCAA championships in our first season. We strongly believe there are many ways to work within the NCAA rules governing conference structure to preserve and enhance competitive and promotional opportunities for our student-athletes, teams and universities. We plan to continue a strong leadership role in building opportunities.
4. Football is a sport that more A-Sun schools are either playing or expressing an interest in playing. Could football become an A-Sun sport?
No doubt – football could certainly become an A-Sun sport. We are in the service industry and aim to deliver what our clients – our member universities – desire from the marketplace. The increase in the number of football-playing institutions, as well as expansion of the FCS postseason championship bracket, both present obvious growth opportunities for us. We’ve accomplished a great deal in building championship opportunities with various models, including swimming and diving (the A-Sun is a partner in the four conference operation of the Coastal Collegiate Swimming Association along with the Big South, Southern and Mid-Eastern Athletic conferences), lacrosse and sand volleyball. We could simply declare football a sport and build up, we could find partners that could form a new football league, we could execute a collaborative model, or even work with an existing AQ league to build towards a shared commitment in providing two AQ opportunities. We continue to work on various future outcomes and have not ruled out anything regarding the initiation of football as an A-Sun sport.
5. With college athletics getting much publicity recently in areas such as compliance and infractions, conference realignment, big money television contracts, and differences between Division I members that invest $100 million in athletics versus $10 million or less, what do you see in the future as to how college athletics operates?
Well that is the proverbial $64,000 question for sure. You know how my crystal ball works, but overall I see continued overall success for the college model of athletics. Despite the issues that might have carried the broadest recent headlines, the NCAA and college athletics are wildly successful. The learning laboratory that intercollegiate athletics provides is incomparable. The graduation success rates continue to climb and student-athletes continue to graduate at a higher level than student bodies overall. Athletics successfully teaches so many life skills, and team participation is a kind of glue that keeps the students in school and on track for graduation. Remember, Division I includes more than 400,000 student-athletes. We are committed to our role as educators and we are extremely proud to be part of an enterprise that truly is, as we say in the A-Sun, Building Winners for Life.
Commissioner Gumbart is working his 28th year in college athletics, his 22nd year in conference administration and his seventh as commissioner of the A-Sun.