OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma’s Division 2 colleges and universities could save considerable money on transportation costs if forced by lawmakers to compete in an all-Oklahoma conference, but such a move could complicate student-athlete recruiting and football seasons, officials said.
House lawmakers on Thursday held a hearing to probe the idea of forcing the state’s 11 Division 2 schools to merge into a new conference — the Oklahoma Athletic Conference — in a bid to save taxpayers money on travel and to reignite intrastate rivalries that once existed when most universities competed in the same athletic districts.
The state’s 11 schools currently compete in three different athletic conferences that now require teams to travel up to 500 miles away, as far as Nebraska and south Texas.
Lawmakers heard from a parade of presidents and athletic directors who bluntly laid out the pros and cons of merging into a sole conference.
Most said that merging would save on travel expenses, keep students at their desks longer, potentially increase interstate rivalries and lead to increased ticket sales.
But athletic experts warned lawmakers that it’s not clear whether the NCAA, whose future is already uncertain, would grant permission to form a new conference, even if Oklahoma lawmakers passed legislation demanding one. They said schools would face at least $10,000 each in startup costs, would have to pay exit fees from their current conferences and be denied an automatic qualification for postseason play for five years.
And, such a move would hamper recruiting efforts, particularly for students who live in other states. Student-athletes enjoy traveling to other states, they said.
It would also make it difficult for the schools that play football to schedule games because there are just eight Division 2 football schools in Oklahoma. Schools must play at minimum 10 to have a chance at the football championship.
Those schools would be fighting for the same games and be at the mercy of other conferences. Many already prohibit nonconference play. Teams could have to travel long distances — outside the country — to play games.
“It’s not feasible for us to think we’re going to fly to British Columbia (to play),” said Brad Franz, athletic director at Northwestern State University.
Stan Wagnon, athletic director at the University of Central Oklahoma, said his school’s average trip is 283 miles. It would drop to 96 miles if placed in an Oklahoma-only conference.
But they’re the only Division 2 program in Oklahoma that has a wrestling program and a women’s rowing program. He’d also want to ensure that his school would have the same competitiveness in sports to set themselves up for success beyond the conference.
“There’s more to this than just being located next to each other,” he said.
State Rep. Mark Vancuren, R-Owasso, said back in the day, intrastate rivalries led to increased attendance at games and generated an “Oklahoma pride” that has seemingly vanished as schools have migrated to different conferences.
He said he understands that every school has a “comfort zone” where they are. And while he’s not sure if the conference realignment will ever come about, Vancuren said he wanted to consider the option.
“If it bothers you, I’m sorry, but I want to hear the information,” he said. “I want the facts. I don’t want the feels. I understand loyalty… but those loyalties don’t necessarily have to transcend time for all eternity.”
Katricia Pierson, president of East Central University, said when she was in college years ago, students either went to the movies or the game on Saturday nights. But now, students have many more options. Many work. They get their sports fix by playing video game sports, while others use streaming services instead of going to sporting events.
She said her school has 300 student-athletes. About 62% aren’t from Oklahoma. Pierson said a legislative shift to an all-Oklahoma conference would likely hurt her school’s ability to recruit those students.
John McArthur, president of Cameron University, said his school would face a $25,000 exit fee for a “graceful” exit and have to sit out a year. A “less graceful” exit would cost $125,000 and force them to sit out the time waiting for entry into a new conference.
He said travel to Lone Star conference games can cost students up to five days of in-class instruction per trip. That missed education time due to travel shows up in the student experience. It affects athletes’ likelihood of staying in school and graduating and the type of major they select.
“We don’t see STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) majors. We don’t see nursing majors,” McArthur said, noting that athletes tend to pick majors where they can miss class.
But he said traveling to other states provides advertising for the school. So does the television coverage that comes along with that. His school does not compete in football.
President Larry Rice, with Rogers State University, said Vancuren’s proposal will likely not make him popular, but it doesn’t hurt to have the conversation.
He said his school’s athletic trips average about 400 miles. Rogers State does not have a football program.
An Oklahoma-only conference would lead to less missed class for students.
“I do think it’s very forward thinking so we’ll see what happens,” he said.
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.