RICHMOND, Va. – After weeks of speculation and soft, dodgy denials, VCU President Dr. Michael Rao saddled up to the podium Tuesday at the Verizon Wireless Arena and announced the Rams would be moving to the Atlantic 10, effective July 1. He may have also lit the fuse on the dynamite at Colonial Athletic Association headquarters, but that’s a discussion for another time.
What we should talk about is why this move is good for VCU, as many believe it is, myself included (obvious institutional bias aside).
First, let’s be frank about this. Men’s basketball is the catalyst for this. Yes, the logistics of other programs are important to this discussion, but without men’s hoops, this would have been just another Tuesday in May.
After a run of five NCAA Tournament bids, two NIT appearances, a Final Four, four conference titles and seven NCAA wins (and four close losses) since the 2004-05 season, VCU felt it had reached a ceiling with the CAA. In an effort to keep the program on an upward trajectory, Rao, VCU Interim Athletic Director Dave Benedict and the Board of Visitors jumped at the A10 opportunity.
1-Level of competition: While the CAA has enjoyed recent success, it was undeniably top-heavy. There’s a clear divide of haves and have-nots in the league. You all know who you are. The A10, which is losing Temple and Charlotte in 2013-14 but adding Butler, has produced 20 at-large NCAA bids since 2000. Over that same span, the CAA has produced four. I could stop writing there and be good, but I’ll go on…
In addition, a core of Butler (in a year), Xavier, Dayton, Saint Joseph’s, Saint Louis, UMass, Rhode Island (although terrible last year), LaSalle (on the rise), Saint Bonaventure (emerging), George Washington (usually solid) and Richmond is substantially better than what the CAA can offer. It’s actually not even very close.
In 2011-12, the 14-team A10 ranked seventh nationally in RPI, ahead of the Pac-12 and Missouri Valley and just behind the ACC. The CAA ranked 15th in RPI last season. Drexel finished 16-2 in league play and won 19 straight games at one point, but missed the NCAA Tournament.
The 2010-11 season is regarded as the best in CAA history. The league received three NCAA bids for the first time and ranked ninth in RPI. But that was the exception and not the rule. Sure, VCU could sit around and hope for that to become the norm in the CAA…or they could go to the A10, where three NCAA bids is a nearly annual occurrence. The league received four bids last season. That has never happened in the CAA.
In other sports, it’s a little muddled. You could argue the move might be good for volleyball, but is a small step down in baseball or men’s soccer. But again, men’s basketball is driving the bus, so while those things were considered, they were likely not deciding factors.
2-Potential for increased revenue: Men’s basketball produces vital revenue for the entire athletic department. In addition, the more revenue basketball produces through NCAA bids, TV contracts, ticket sales, etc., the more money that can be funneled back into hoops and, theoretically, the better the program can be.
It is true that VCU is leaving about $5 million on the table from forfeited NCAA Tournament shares over the next six years by leaving for the A10 (conferences retain NCAA shares). Additionally, VCU will need to produce a $250,000 CAA exit fee, an A10 entrance fee and cover about $150,000 in additional travel expenses across the board, but both Benedict and Rao believe there will be more money available in the long term.
Benedict also implied that those costs can be offset in the short term by a number of sources. He can expect an increase in donor contributions and said that VCU had already added 700 new season ticket accounts for next season – before Tuesday’s announcement – just to name a couple of potential revenue bumps. We also don’t know what financial incentives VCU was able to arrange with the A10 as far as picking up NCAA shares vacated by Temple and Charlotte or TV money. It’s safe to assume those things were in play to some extent.
The A10 is also in the final year of its ESPN television contract and will be seeking potentially lucrative deal. The additions of Butler and VCU should add some bargaining chips to those discussions.
3-All of these points are intertwined, but I’ll separate this one for clarity’s sake. Rao and Benedict confirmed that the A10 splits NCAA shares 75/25, meaning the school that earns those shares by participating in NCAA Tournament games retains 75 percent of that money. The other 25 percent is divided amongst the other schools in the league. Each NCAA Tournament game is worth around $1.4 million currently. The CAA split is closer to 60/40. Yes, the A10 has more teams, but it also has substantially more NCAA units than the CAA.
When asked if that increased the pressure on VCU to win, Rao was direct.
“We wouldn’t have it any other way.”
4-Will the last school left please turn out the lights?: George Mason was also rumored to be A10-bound, but announced last week that it will stay in the CAA for now. Georgia State will leave for the Sun Belt in 2013-14. Old Dominion is considering a move to Conference USA.
VCU couldn’t afford to wait around and hope everybody stayed put. Without Old Dominion and George Mason, the Rams would have been stuck in a dramatically worse league. VCU had to be proactive. It’s dog eat dog out there.
Of course there are drawbacks to this move. VCU’s strong rivalries with Old Dominion, George Mason and Drexel are up in the air, although Benedict said VCU had entered into preliminary talks with ODU Athletic Director Wood Selig about continuing one of college basketball’s best series.
VCU fans will also incur some additional travel (Saint Louis/Butler/Saint Bonaventure/A10 Tourney in Brooklyn), and there is that pesky matter of $5 million left on the table (enjoy the extra cut, Towson).
But in the end, those reasons weren’t nearly enough to hold VCU back from making this move. This was a rare opportunity for long-term growth, one VCU couldn’t turn down.
The announcement came as a surprise to few. Such a move was reported by CBS Sports weeks ago and another report Monday indicated a formal announcement was imminent. The biggest surprise Tuesday was that VCU would depart the CAA and head to the A10 on July 1, avoiding a year’s worth of “lame duck” seasons for the Rams, as they would have almost certainly been banned from participating in CAA championships across the board. The A10 and VCU’s fall sports will now scramble to reconfigure schedules, but that is a minor speed bump, all things considered.
We can talk about that stuff another day. Today, it’s about VCU forging ahead boldly into a brave new world.