The WAC recently announced it would allow transitioning teams to participate in their conference tournament. This is a bigger deal than it may seem at the surface for several reasons.
For those that are not familiar, the NCAA has rules regarding schools transitioning from Division II to Division I. They require a four year “transition period” so schools can adjust to the change in Divisions.
The most notable characteristic of this is the ban on participating in NCAA tournaments. In turn, conferences do the same by deeming transitioning schools ineligible for their own tournaments. While this serves to prevent awkward situations, it is an unreasonable regulation.
For the WAC, it expands its own tournament immediately, as Cal-Baptist will be allowed to participate in 2021.
With the departure of both UMKC and CSU-Bakersfield, the WAC only has six non-transitioning teams at the start of the 2020-21 season, as along with Cal Baptist this year, Dixie State and Tarleton State will join next year.
With only six members eligible for the NCAA Tournament, conference title races in the WAC, especially basketball, would be largely uneventful and potentially controversial.
The addition of just one team to their tournament does a lot for WAC. The most obvious reason is it extends their tournament. While one game may not seem like a lot, this aids a conference as turbulent as the WAC greatly.
The WAC tournament was already small due to their membership, but under a six-team format, it would have been only five games long (and only four meaningful games). The extra game provides a chance for not only extra ticket revenue but TV exposure as well, which the WAC could use in any quantity.
What About Other Conferences?
The WAC’s release notes that the Atlantic Sun is the only other conference to allow transitioning teams to participate in their basketball tournament, so perhaps it’s a trend that’s building momentum.
On top of that, this year shined a light on the transitional group as Merrimack went 20-11 with a win over Northwestern on their way to the NEC’s regular-season title. The WAC even had their own transitioning Cinderella as Cal Baptist went 21-10 with a 10-6 mark in the league.
While I mentioned that conferences try to avoid awkward situations by disallowing transitioning schools into their tournaments, this very rule creates awkward situations of their own. It’s hard to imagine a regular-season champion not being allowed to play in their conference’s tournament due to a technicality.
Conferences like the NEC and WAC are missing out on good publicity for their conferences by having their new schools wait. A first-year school winning the conference tournament would only add to the many reasons why March is a sacred time in American sports, and the WAC now joins the Atlantic Sun with a chance to cash in on this.
Another effect is more in the big picture. By making this move, it would have more leverage to pursue more schools. Allowing schools to participate sooner incentivizes expansion, although the WAC had no reason to halt expansion. The WAC could pursue more schools in the future to make for more depth during conference and postseason play.
In the end, the WAC moved an unnecessary obstacle in the way of their new schools which, though small, brings stability to the conference and its flagship sport. This move is a smart one and might be the catalyst for other conferences to make similar moves.