Phil Esten, vice president and director of athletics at the University of St. Thomas, told Sports Headliners Monday the NCAA will vote next week whether to approve the Tommies’ request to participate in Division I sports starting with the 2021-2022 school year.
That vote was to have happened in April but got postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Tommies are requesting a transition from Division III status to Division I after involuntarily being removed from the D-3 MIAC starting in 2021-2022.
Historically, the NCAA does not allow immediate transition from D-3 to D-1 but for various reasons it’s believed the Tommies are a likely exception. “I remain optimistic (about approval),” Esten said.
Playing at the D-1 level would allow St. Thomas athletes to test themselves against far better competition. After the MIAC’s decision to ask the Tommies to find another home (conference presidents thought UST was too dominant in athletics), school leadership contemplated whether to remain at D-3, or transition to a higher level. The D-1 alternative became more realistic when the Summit League extended an invitation to the Tommies last fall.
The Summit not only provides a home for 19 of the Tommies’ 22 sports (football and men’s and women’s hockey excluded) but the NCAA can also look at other favorable factors encouraging a vote of approval for D-1 status. While the private school has a small undergraduate enrollment of about 6,000, it has a prominent history of academic and athletic success, with generous funding including alumni support. Unlike many states Minnesota only has one D-1 program with the University of Minnesota, so the big time college sports platform here is not crowded.
The Twin Cities media market has to be attractive to the NCAA and Summit League whose full participation schools (all sports offered) in 2019-2020 were Denver, North Dakota, North Dakota State, Omaha, Oral Roberts, South Dakota, South Dakota State and Western Illinois. St. Thomas’ presence in the revenue producing sport of men’s basketball is a plus for future Summit League TV and corporate sponsorship deals. The recruiting base of Twin Cities athletes is also a major asset for Summit League schools.
The COVID-19 epidemic has made the major college athletics landscape uncertain in regard to future revenues. There is plenty of speculation about drastically reducing athletic department budgets including travel. More regional (less national) travel seems all but certain, and that is another reason why Esten believes a D-1 program in the Upper Midwest could benefit not just the Tommies but other schools looking for shorter travel distances with their schedules.
With the Summit League not an option, Esten said he is still “sorting” through where his hockey programs will find new conference homes, but the plan is for the Tommies to be part of the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League whose 10-members last fall consisted of Butler, Davidson, Dayton, Drake, Jacksonville, Marist, Morehead State, San Diego, Stetson, and Valparaiso.
Some of those schools are not exactly located just around the corner from the St. Thomas campus, and travel along with the usual expenses associated with the sport of football will certainly contribute to an overall UST athletics budget expected to jump from about $5 million annually to perhaps $10 million.
Esten declined to offer specifics on budgets but the foreseeable future will have St. Thomas subsidizing its athletics budget as in the past, with revenues not matching expenses. On the fields and courts the Tommies will face more difficult opposition and there could be one-sided results for awhile, with Esten saying the school goes into D-1 territory with “eyes wide open.”
St. Thomas coaches already have and are recruiting D-1 caliber athletes. The Tommies are accustomed to winning championships, and even on the national stage coaches like John Tauer from men’s basketball and football’s Glenn Caruso have had their teams in the news as NCAA D-3 championship contenders.
St. Thomas president Julie Sullivan wrote about the Division I process in an October, 2019 article on the school’s website last fall. In that article she expressed what the school sees as the value of transitioning to D-1 status. “This decision is about more than athletics – it’s about advancing our vision to be a leading Catholic university recognized at the national level. An important outcome of increasing St. Thomas’ visibility, for example, is an ability to attract a more geographically diverse cross section of students who are accomplished in and out of the classroom.
“This additional representation would add value to classroom discussions, campus life, co-curricular activities and virtually every aspect of St. Thomas while providing St. Thomas with the opportunity to extend the reach of our mission and impact. The presence of Division I sports teams will also build on the strong Tommie fan loyalty and provide the campus and alumni with more engaging fan experiences.”
St. Thomas has the internal commitment to become D-1, and now all it needs is NCAA approval next week.