What the Future Holds for the Summit League
Over the past decade, the Summit League received a much needed boost to it’s profile. As the Mid-Continent conference and then re-branded as the “Summit League”, the conference grew from being just a wayward home for new Division 1 upgrades, to a conference with a better defined regional footprint. And the individual schools that made up the Summit League seemed to have more similar profiles.
It started with the upgrades in the Dakotas with North Dakota St. and South Dakota St. Both were brought into the Summit in 2007 and started another positive redefinition of the conference. This was just months after the Summit League rid themselves of struggling Chicago St.
That same year, Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne was brought in, giving the conference a second Indiana school along with IUPUI in Indianapolis.
This past year, struggling Centenary, a small private school far outside the primary Summit League footprint in Louisiana announced they were downgrading to Division 3 and leaving the conference.
And as Centenary is leaving, University of South Dakota is officially entering the Summit League.
With University of North Dakota resolving their school nickname issue, it appeared the Summit League was all set to bring in the 4th Dakota school and solidifying this northern US region as Summit League country.
But now the Summit League could all be changing.
Multiple reports claim that there exists a possibility that the four Dakota schools might be split between two conferences before they ever had a chance to all participate together.
NDSU and SDSU participate in the Missouri Valley Football Conference for football, but with all other sports in the Summit. USD and UND were left behind in the Great West for football, but it was still only a single sport that was on the outside.
But now, we might see South Dakota and North Dakota pack their bags, South Dakota tear off their Summit League badge, and both schools migrate over to the Big Sky Conference.
Southern Utah, who has always been clear that they preferred the Big Sky (since it’s a more logical regional footprint), might be leaving as well.
The result: All the progress the Summit League has made in defining themselves, improving their athletic performance, and establishing a solid membership core could be about to go through a radical change.
With what seems like a real threat that the Summit might lose USD and SUU…and never getting to bring in NDU, the Summit League members will need to look at their options.
If SUU and USD leave, the Summit League would include:
- North Dakota St.
- South Dakota St.
- Missouri-Kansas City
- Oral Roberts
- Western Illinois
- Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne
- Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis
That’s an 8 school conference. It’s all they need. But 8 doesn’t give as much stability when all your members would jump at the chance to join another conference:
- Oral Roberts could defect to the Southland Conference when Texas St. and UTSA leave for FBS. The Southland could also lose schools like Lamar and SHSU down the road to create more Southland openings.
- NDSU and SDSU would like to be in the Missouri Valley for all-sports as the 11th and 12th members.
- Western Illinois would likely rather be in the Ohio Valley Conference as their 12th member, where there are 2 other Illinois schools (EIU, SIUE).
- IUPUI, IPFW and Oakland are less likely to leave, but would welcome an invite from the Horizon League, as long a shot as that is.
- UMKC has few options, but if the Southland were in a position where they needed 4 replacement schools, even UMKC could make it on the Southland radar.
So if you’re the Summit League with only 8 members, what do you do?
Remaining at 8 schools could be risky, but the Summit League could remain calm without expanding right away. If they were to lose 1-3 schools in the future, they’d still have the time to find replacements before losing their NCAA automatic bid.
But if there is a need to expand, there are very few options.
Schools from the Horizon aren’t going to move backwards to the Summit League. The Summit has been a feeder league to the Horizon for some time, with Valparaiso (2007) and Youngstown St. (2001) being the most recent defections.
The OVC is another nearby conference, but like the Horizon, you won’t see OVC schools make the move.
So the Summit League has only 3 options:
* Great West schools
* Current D1 independents
* Upgrades currently not in Division 1
So lets’ look at some of the Summit League expansion options:
As a non-football school in the FBS Sunbelt Conference, UALR has been on the outside of the conferences primary mission. UALR has already had preliminary discussions with the Summit League about potential future membership. But if UALR was forced out of the Sunbelt, it would seem that the Southland might be a more attractive destination than the Summit. The Southland will soon be looking for replacements once UTSA and Texas St. leave for FBS. And UALR is just a few miles away from Southland member Central Arkansas.
Like UALR, Denver is the other non-football Sunbelt member. Denver has for decades had their eyes set on joining the WCC as the conference fits their academic and school profile as a private school. Denver is also an option to join the WAC as a non-football member. The advantage of the WAC over the Sunbelt is that at least as a non-football member, Denver would be in a conference with other regional schools such as Utah St., New Mexico St., Idaho, etc. Future WAC members could even include Montana. So if Denver is forced out of the Sunbelt and has options such as the WAC or Summit, they will likely chose the WAC. The Summit League needs to hope that a WAC invite is never extended to Denver.
It is alarming to see Chicago St. even on this list. The Summit League wanted them out not that long ago, got them to leave, but might now need them return in order for the conference to even exist. While the school offers little in it’s athletic profile, Chicago St. would give the Summit League a school in the newly defined footprint and a school in the large Chicago market.
When one of your only options is to expand further south into Houston with a recent D1 upgrade, it’s not a good sign.
The one positive of losing Southern Utah was a tighter knit conference footprint. But if you lose USD and never get to bring UND in, it becomes a numbers game. And Utah Valley, as far from the conference base as they’d be, would give the conference membership stability.
Another Texas option and located near the Mexico border. But beggars can’t be choosers if the Summit really needs new members.
Another potential Division 1 upgrade that would provide the Summit with some exposure in a larger market. Their addition would give the Summit schools from Missouri in both St. Louis and Kansas City (UMKC).
A longshot upgrade candidate to Division 1
Other longshot schools not currently in Division 1:
Central St. (Ohio)
Oklahoma City University
There’s no other way to look at this: if the Summit League loses South Dakota, Southern Utah and never gets to bring in North Dakota, it will be a blow to the conference.
The best hope that the Summit League has is that the Southland does not go after Oral Roberts, the most likely future Summit defection. And it would also be helpful if Denver is not extended an invitation to the WAC and along with UALR are forced out of the Sunbelt, and forced to look for a new home.
If the Summit League could replace Southern Utah and South Dakota with Denver and UALR, it’s a coup. But few of the other scenarios offer such a positive impression of the future of the Summit League.