Here's why everybody should care about what's happening at Hartford

It's clear Hartford's administration doesn't want to be in D-I anymore. Whether they actually reclassify, and how they justify that decision, isn't just about the Hartford Hawks.

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Okay, let’s talk about Hartford for a second. We’ll get to the other announcements at the end.

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Last month, the Hartford Hawks of the America East conference made history, earning a trip to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament for the first time since jumping up to D-I. The Hawks weren’t the best team in the conference this year. KenPom had them third, and the Hawks finished fourth in the standings, behind UMBC, Vermont and New Hampshire, but Hartford got hot at the right time, won the conference tournament, and grabbed a 16 seed. Sure, they got demolished by eventual national champion Baylor in the first round, but that’s not the point.

The point is, they’re in the record books. They got to play on national TV. And now they have some positive momentum to build on, a commodity often in precious short supply for Hartford men’s basketball…right?

Well, not everybody apparently sees things that way. Hartford’s administration secretly engaged with Carr Sports, a consulting company, to study whether the school should even remain in D-I. On February 12, just as the Hawks were wrapping up their regular season, they published it.

That study says that “Athletics’ current Division-I funding model is not viable” and that “UHart should explore viable membership options in NCAA Division III.”

The existence of the study remained a secret until WTNH in CT reported it. The Day then published a copy of the entire thing, which you can read for yourselves here.

Hartford’s administration has taken a beating from local sportswriters, but local sportswriters are seldom in the business of applauding the reclassification of local programs.

I read the entire document, hoping to get a better idea as to why Hartford would consider such a drastic move. Here are some of my takeaways.

Based on the assumptions built into this study, I don’t see how Carr could have reached any other conclusion

You can have the smartest quants and the best researchers on your team, but they can only crunch numbers with the parameters you give them. If you put garbage in, well, chances are, you’ll have garbage come out.

Carr’s report was asked to model what would happen if UHart stayed in the America East, if they moved to another D-I conference, or if they reclassified to D-III. Before any scenario was considered, Carr was asked to presume that UHart would reduce institutional funding for athletics over the next four years, and that the school is seeking a “more financially self-sustainable athletics model.” Additionally, the current university budget calls for “10% annual subsidy reductions to athletics'' from FY 2022-2025.

If your athletic budget is only around $14.5 million a year, and you plan on cutting that budget even more, and your goal is to achieve an additional level of financial self-sufficiency despite operating in a high cost market and with a basketball arena that only sits about 4,000…you almost don’t even need the rest of the study. Anybody with a cursory understanding of college athletic finances would know that there’s no way to make that math add up.

If a low-major school is going to judge their athletic department primarily on their ability to be financially self-sufficient, they’re in the wrong division.

But Matt, who cares if Hartford can’t sell any tickets or earn big TV money? Surely the school makes plenty of money in tuition, right?

Often, I’ve written that schools are making a mistake when they decide to drop Olympic sports programs in the name of saving money. After all, if you’re carrying say, 30 athletes on your swim team, and only four are on full-scholarship, then everybody else is bringing in tuition money that you might not have been able to earn otherwise. Depending on your average discount-rate for the athletes and the size of the roster, it’s entirely possible for a program to be financially self-sufficient, or close to it, without selling a single ticket.

But that’s only true if you can recruit non-scholarship athletes to pay close to sticker price…or at least, closer to sticker price than a typical student. According to this study, that isn’t the case at Hartford. The paper claims:

“Athletics is not viewed as a major contributor to UHart’s branding and enrollment goals. Net tuition revenues from student-athlete enrollment are negligible”, likely because current athletes have a “94% discount rate”, compared to a 53% discount rate for other students.

The paper also says that:

FY 2018-19 data shows that Athletics consumed over 9.15% of total University resources16, while its student-athletes represent only approximately 6.77% of undergraduate enrollment.

If all of that math is correct, it really is reasonable to conclude that Hartford’s enrollment and tuition revenue goals would be better met outside of athletics investments. That’s not going to be the case for plenty of other D-I schools, but it appears to be the case at Hartford.

Hartford probably isn’t a great long-term fit in the America East

There are ten teams in the America East, and Hartford is the only private school. It has the smallest enrollment in the league, one of the smallest total budgets (8th out of ten), and has the smallest number of total college athletes participating. UHart’s facilities are among the worst in the league, and their athletic programs are generally not very successful (average all-sports Commissioner’s Cup ranking? 8th). It’s hard to imagine a world where any of that improves after the school cuts the department budget.

Based on UHart’s enrollment, budget, athletic offerings and institutional profile, the school looks much more like the rest of the MAAC, a league of 11 private schools in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York. If the institution actually wanted to remain in D-I, but offer a more competitive experience for their athletes and fans, I’d argue the MAAC would be a better option than the AE (or the NEC or any other D-I league).

It is a little curious that Carr didn’t model UHart in any D-II leagues, like the NE-10, but if Hartford isn’t seeing many advantages in tuition revenue from athletes, perhaps they’re unlikely to see enough revenue from cutting oh, 40% of their scholarships, to justify a halfway measure.

The most interesting thing about this story, to me, isn’t the final result. It’s the process.

I can understand the frustration from Hartford athletes, fans and local media, but honestly, I think the hypothetical decision to reclassify probably has some merit. They’re not in a great position to be competitive athletically in their current conference, the athletic department doesn’t appear to be an important partner in their student recruitment and retention strategy, and costs are only going to go up. Moving down to a different classification could undoubtedly alienate some donors, and between enrollment declines and the million-dollar America East exit fee, any financial savings might not be realized in the short term. But that decision would be defensible.

What’s less defensible, I think, is the process. I can’t understand why on earth a school would begin a reclassification study while the men’s and women’s basketball season was in progress, knowing the potential political risks of that information becoming public. The timing now looks almost like a college basketball version of Major League, which is embarrassing for everybody.

There’s also important questions about communication strategy. If you’re a university president hoping to gently apply some public relations pressure to help drum up support for a reclassification, you don’t want to have a private conversation with a professor pop up in the middle of a student Zoom.

If you want the general public to believe that you actually haven’t made a decision, you should probably give a more convincing defense of the department, or at least the process, once the news of the study actually leaks.

Now you have a messaging nightmare. Anybody who reads this report and reads the WTNH story is going to assume that Hartford is either going to reclassify or make significant leadership changes. If you’re an athlete, a coach, or anyone tied to this athletic department, what reason do you have to stick around? Shouldn’t you start trying to transfer or find a new job right now?

If external political pressures somehow keep Hartford from reclassifying, best case scenario, they have completely nuked any goodwill from the men’s basketball team’s run into March. The longer they wait to actually cut the cord, the more they’re hurting their students, employees, and external community members.

I promise plenty of other schools are going to watch to see how the greater Hartford community reacts

Hartford isn’t the only private, low-major school wondering how they’re going to pay for D-I athletics in the near future. I know they’re not the only D-I school in the northeast that has reached out to consultants for “strategic reviews” that might include recommendations about classification levels. But reclassifying is rare, in part because administrators tend to pay a heavy political price for scaling down.

If Hartford, after bungling the messaging on multiple levels, goes through with this decision without the world catching on fire, I feel confident that it will embolden other similar institutions to seriously consider going down a similar path.

And this decision bleeds into the summer, with more angry TV spots and editorials muddying the waters, I’m sure you’re going to see emails from administrators wondering how they can prevent their school from a Hartford situation.

At the end of the day, this isn’t just a story about a perennial basement-dwelling D-I school deciding if they should pack it in and move to a different (and cheaper) level.

It’s about how schools define success of an athletic department that will never sell out an arena or be an ESPN flagship regular. It’s about how that definition of success evolves in a post-COVID and resource scarce environment. And it’s about to what extent university presidents will be allowed to make sweeping athletic changes, even if they’re unpopular.

That’s not just a Hartford story. That’s a big college sports story.

Because Hartford isn’t the only Hartford in D-I. And all the Hartfords are watching to see how this particular story ends.

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