Since 2005, Bellarmine has successfully competed at the DI level in men’s lacrosse. Our athletics staff is familiar with the requirements and challenges that accompany DI membership.
The move to DI will support Bellarmine’s already-high academic standards for our student-athletes, while extending the university’s geographic reach and broadening awareness of, and engagement with, the university. This can make Bellarmine more attractive to all students—athletes and non-athletes alike—which will support enrollment growth, improve diversity, achieve better gender balance and attract more international students. In addition, the increased exposure will greatly enhance institutional awareness, improve communication with stakeholders within Kentucky and the region and expand partnership opportunities.
Bellarmine would compete in DII in the 2019-20 school year and make the move to compete at the DI level in the 2020-21 school year.
Bellarmine already competes effectively in men’s lacrosse and has for 15 years. Bellarmine has a long and distinguished history of success in men’s basketball competing at, or near, the top of DII for many years. In the 2018-19 season alone, the Knights won national titles in track and field, dance and cheer. Men’s and women’s soccer, women’s basketball and women’s tennis finished as runner-ups in their conference tourney runners-up.
We believe in our student-athletes and our coaches. Our coaches have long recruited DI caliber student-athletes who chose to play in DII. Other schools of similar size, such as Abilene Christian and Lipscomb, which have qualified for the NCAA tournament in recent years, have demonstrated that smaller institutions that have reclassified can compete.
Bellarmine would begin competing in DI in all sports in the 2020-21 school year. By NCAA rules, BU would not be able to compete in an NCAA-sponsored national tournament until 2024-25. However, there are a handful of conferences, including ASUN, that allow new entrants to compete in conference tournaments and contend for conference titles during the first year of participation. This will be a valuable benefit, as eligibility to compete for conference championships will help significantly with the recruitment of student-athletes during the transition period.
First, it is important to note that a conference must invite a school to join, and if that invitation is accepted, then the formal application is made to the NCAA to move to DI. Throughout Bellarmine’s study of a potential DI transition, it was evident that an invitation from a conference providing the right fit is paramount to success. And we wanted a conference partner that helps realize the priorities of the strategic plan—including providing a transformative student experience, expanding our geographic reach and impact and demonstrating commitment to equity and inclusion.
As part of this, our ideal conference partner would offer the opportunity to greatly expand our geographic reach into large metropolitan areas in eastern and southeastern cities beyond our traditional recruiting boundaries. Further, in greatly increasing student recruiting geographically, there is greater opportunity to become a more diverse and inclusive institution. The increased media exposure that accompanies a DI move not only increases our visibility in those large markets but provides additional financial resources to ensure our financial strength and stability.
ASUN also offers us the important opportunity to compete in conference tournaments in the first year after the transition to DI. Many other conferences require transitioning schools to wait several years, which can be a detriment to recruiting. For all these factors, ASUN is a great conference fit for Bellarmine.
The schools in the ASUN Conference are both private and public. Additionally, there are some schools that are larger, and some that are smaller than Bellarmine. Like all conferences, there will be a variety of healthy competition. Bellarmine University already recruits athletes of DI caliber and our athletic programs are on par with our peers.
ASUN embraces a student-first mindset, and Commissioner Ted Gumbart is a believer both in Bellarmine’s academic reputation and our athletic programs. He has been on the staff of the Conference since 1991 and held the position of commissioner since 2007. Currently the president of the Collegiate Commissioners Association, he has created a conference culture that prioritizes student needs and academics. On his watch, 99 percent of ASUN teams have cleared the NCAA’s benchmark in the annual Academic Progress Report.
Bellarmine fields 17 sports sponsored by the ASUN Conference. Additionally:
- Men’s lacrosse, which has been a DI program since 2005, will continue as a member of the Southern Conference.
- Men’s and women’s swimming will participate in the Coastal Collegiate Sports Association.
- Field hockey and wrestling will compete in DI with independent status.
Long-distance travel is nothing new for BU’s coaches and student-athletes. Only three of the twelve current members of the GLVC are within a three-hour drive of BU’s campus. Moreover, the decrease in the number of DII institutions in our area has made it difficult to build schedules. In recent years, BU sports teams have had to go outside the Southeast, and in some cases across the country, to find DII opponents for non-conference games.
While there will be travel involved for conference play in ASUN, some of it would be more convenient and efficient air travel, compared to bus travel. The university has accounted for that additional cost in the financial plan for the transition.
Transitions are challenging, but that’s the nature of sport. Bellarmine believes in its student-athletes and coaches and we are confident we can establish ourselves quickly as a competitive program. The first two years in a new conference (2020-21 and 2021-22) are anticipated to be the most difficult due to the dynamics of recruitment and limits on post-season play. With each passing year of the reclassification process, these challenges will lessen, and BU will have the opportunity to demonstrate its growing commitment to excellence.
Many other schools, such as Lipscomb, Abilene Christian, Northern Kentucky and more have successfully made the transition and competed well in their conferences.
Although many aspects of our current facilities are DI ready, there are some improvements necessary to keep them competitive and improve their revenue generating potential regardless of competing in DI or DII. Examples will be improvements to our baseball and softball complex, to Knights Hall and our Newburg Sports Complex. These improvements are in the design phase now and will help improve game broadcasts, heighten fan experience and increase revenue generation.
Bellarmine currently meets NCAA rules requiring DI members to offer at least 14 sports (at least seven for men and seven for women, or six for men and eight for women). Adding new sports will further the goal of expanding reach and impact in a way that supports enrollment growth. Additions will be assessed to ensure we remain compliant with Title IX requirements.
At this time, we see no major changes in administrative restructuring or staffing. Additions may include an operation’s director for men’s basketball; however, we will assess these needs, and any additions or organizational restructuring will be implemented to support current staff. In addition, we would envision some staff additions to facilitate the increased coordination between the academic side of the university with athletics in order to meet DI academic standards.
The move to DI will have a positive impact on Bellarmine’s academic profile and enrollment. DI academic standards ensure student-athletes take appropriate steps to earn their degrees and include everything from grade point average to credit hour requirements. The Academic Progress Rate (APR) is a term-by-term measure of eligibility and retention for DI student-athletes. The NCAA uses APR to hold institutions accountable for the academic progress of their student-athletes. DII has no similar model in place to hold member institutions accountable.
Information from several schools we have consulted with indicate that following the transition from DII to DI they experienced measurable enrollment growth. With additional students applying for admission, Bellarmine would have more options to expand or to balance growth with an increase in admission standards.
The transition to DI will enrich the value of a Bellarmine degree for all graduates as BU Athletics increases media coverage, and thus brand awareness, for the university. We want to tell the story of our students and alumni more effectively, and to a larger audience that extends beyond our immediate service area. DI is an excellent platform for that.
Alumni fans will also benefit from the higher caliber of sporting events and spectator experience resulting from Bellarmine hosting more DI teams on campus for games.
A move to DI transforms the brand of the entire university, not just athletics. The increased awareness and expanded reach of Bellarmine can beneﬁt the Louisville region significantly. Consider the financial impact of sustained enrollment growth: an increase of 100 students translates into a $3.8 million impact on the local economy. In addition, our city will benefit from more visiting fans coming into our area, staying in area hotels and dining in area restaurants.
Ensuring that a Bellarmine education remains affordable and attainable remains a top priority. Since the finance plan for a DI shift will cap the spending on Athletics at the university’s current level, and any needed additional capital would be raised, there should be minimal impact to the university’s tuition structure.
Yes, BU is committed to close monitoring of athletic expenses in order to continue to promote the academic core of the institution. The construction of a financial plan built around this goal has been an essential part of the exploration of a move to DI. A new development plan is in process to fund the transition cost of specific facility upgrades and operational expenses over the next five years so as not to divert resources from academic programs. Additionally, fundraising for athletics is done in conjunction with the university’s other fundraising efforts, in order to ensure we maximize opportunities and that one does not take away from the other.
The administration and Board of Trustees are mindful of athletics expenditures as a percentage of the university’s total budget. In planning for a DI transition, the percentage of the total spend will remain the same, and the funding plan will cap the amount of direct support provided to athletics from the university at generally the same level it has been over the past several years. Keeping athletic spending consistent with prior budgets represents an important institutional commitment to fiscal responsibility.
Discussion of DI has actually been happening at Bellarmine for some time. President Joseph J. McGowan first looked into DI possibilities in 2001 and we began lacrosse in DI in 2005.
This most recent DI exploration stemmed from the extensive, 12-month strategic planning process that President Donovan initiated in January 2018 and that involved significant input from faculty, staff, alumni, students and other community stakeholders. Expanding Bellarmine’s geographic reach and impact became a consistent theme throughout these conversations.
In order to protect the reputations of all parties, studies of conference realignment typically involve a great deal of confidential one-on-one negotiation. A school must accept a conference invitation that must then be approved by the NCAA. No conference wants to run the risk of inviting a school to join only to be publicly rejected. Similarly, no institution wants to publicly announce the intent to make the transition to DI, only to find there is no invitation being offered. For these reasons, Bellarmine has proceeded through the preliminary discussions with utmost care.
While the matter was approached with much discretion, the potential DI transition has been thoroughly examined with attentiveness to all relevant factors and points of view. The due diligence process sought to identify and understand all key issues. In our effort to do so, we commissioned a feasibility study by Collegiate Consulting, in addition to speaking directly to leadership at five universities that made the move to DI successfully and unsuccessfully. We have also made in-person site visits to four universities to better understand all aspects of the transition process.
There have been two prior instances where Bellarmine evaluated the move to DI and elected not to move forward. Today, with the framework of the new strategic plan charting our course, we have concluded this type of divisional transition can help meet the strategic goal of expanding Bellarmine’s geographic reach and impact, while supporting enrollment growth and diversification.