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The WAC Changes the Realignment Game

While it’s not getting as much media attention as the upper-level musical chairs games being played among the Big 10, ACC, and Big East, this week the WAC might’ve shaken things up more than any of its bigger neighbors by bringing Grand Canyon University into the fold.  Pending final NCAA approval, in 2013-14 the GCU Antelopes will be the first for-profit school to join a Division I conference.

While not exactly clean (they’ve been sued by the Feds for illegal admissions practices), GCU has a better reputation than many for-profit schools, and it has boosted its campus-centered income by leveraging the barely-tapped resources of online classes better than any school this side of the University of Phoenix.  Investors have so far liked the move enough to add a few dollars to the stock’s value (currently at $24.24 per share) since the announcement.

In terms of the general quality and dollar-value of a GCU education, though, any statements are at best damning the school with faint praise:  horror stories of its failures are easy to find, and GCU’s 24% four-year graduation rate (which is their publicly stated rate, mind you) is abysmal by any standard.

But this isn’t about academics.  It’s about a struggling conference and a cash-flush school with athletic aspirations teaming up, which is the same situation we’ve seen repeated across the country, though perhaps not as vividly as here.

The WAC has eroded members over the years.  Including GCU, it’ll have six members at the start of the 2013 school year, and will soon be the first big conference since the imploded Southwest Conference in ’95 to drop football. While the WAC is dropping football, it still is home to the usual retinue of less-expensive collegiate sports; keeping in mind television revenues for sports like basketball, there’s still a reason for the conference to exist as a point of contact for media deals.  GCU, meanwhile, boasts 20 varsity squads, including a men’s volleyball team that already competes in D-I; success in any of them on this bigger stage will only raise the school’s profile.

There is the obvious correlation: in the free-market world of collegiate athletics, it makes sense for conferences (which are money-making enterprises) to take on for-profit partners, particularly if they have revenues like the Antelopes do.  It’s also another sign that notions of unified geography and academic pursuits within conferences are, for better or worse, becoming as quaint as the idea of attending classes in suit and tie.

What’s most interesting to SLF readers, though, might be the school’s past ambitions to start a football program.  As recently as 2009 the school’s CEO (now Chairman of the Board) was making public comments about adding football to their list of D-II sports.  Provided the current model of for-profit online education doesn’t crash and burn (and it’s got some trademarks of a bubble), GCU is actually in a good position to improve its financial position.  If the school finds itself competitive in the WAC and still thinking about the gridiron, there’s a chance it makes another go at football at the D-11 level.  If GCU has any measure of success, it could change conferences again, only this time for a mid-major with a pigskin presence.

Who knows how this ends up?  Maybe we’re seeing the future of collegiate sport, or of the university model itself.

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