Following the announcement last summer that Butler University would depart the Horizon League for the Atlantic 10, many college basketball insiders predicted the Horizon League’s remaining members would be ripe for poaching and the end could be near for the Indianapolis-based college conference.
ESPN basketball analyst Andy Katz called Butler’s defection a “crushing blow,” in terms of both finances and exposure.
“The main issue for the league is replacing its signature brand institution, and that’s a daunting challenge,” said Bob Lovell, host of “Indiana Sports Talk” radio show and an associate commissioner of the Horizon League from 1999-2006.
Horizon League officials are discussing adding Oakland University in Michigan and/or Belmont University in Tennessee to replace Butler, said sources close to the conference.
But Mark Lazerus, who covers the conference for the Gary Post Tribune, thinks that does little to address the problem.
“The league doesn’t need one-year Cinderellas,” Lazerus said. “It needs a perennial player on the national stage. And it needs it quickly, or the concern is the league will slip into … oblivion.”
Horizon League Commissioner Jonathan LeCrone scoffs at naysayers.
“Our league is energized about the future,” he said.
This is not the first membership shakeup LeCrone has seen in his 21 years as conference commissioner. In the early and mid 1990s, the conference endured a string of defections, including Evansville, St. Louis, Xavier, Dayton and Marquette.
But he admits this defection is different, not only due to the long-term and deeply woven relationship the conference has enjoyed with Butler, but also because of increasing membership volatility among NCAA Division I conferences. Twenty-six NCAA conferences have experienced membership changes in the last two years.
“The movements are happening at a quicker pace and more frequently now, and we have to move faster these days to adjust than we did 10 years ago,” LeCrone said.
The Bulldogs’ quick departure from the conference triggered a tricky transition for the Horizon League. Butler announced in May it would bounce to the A10, and in June the Horizon League and its former member decided they would part ways immediately.
The now nine-team Horizon League, which usually schedules events 12 to 24 months in advance, had to quickly rework its basketball schedules, deal with arena conflicts, and adjust broadcast deals.
“It was certainly a significant logistical challenge,” LeCrone said. “But we thought it was better for [Butler and the Horizon League] to move on quickly and let everybody get out of the lame duck position.”
The Horizon League is taking immediate steps to ease the sting of Butler’s departure, including contributing to its member schools’ travel budgets to make up for lost game revenue.
Keeping HQ in Indy
Though the Horizon League now has no teams here, LeCrone said its headquarters will remain in Indianapolis, where it has been since 1985. Some college basketball analysts had said it would make sense for the league to move its operations to Chicago, a bigger media market closer to a number of its northern members.
“Our staff is here, we have good relationships here, and we certainly see value in being located in the same city as the NCAA,” LeCrone said.
LeCrone expects to have directives on three fronts—internal growth, collaborative initiatives with like-minded conferences, and consideration of membership issues—in the next week.
“This is not a math problem for us—one that can be solved by simply adding members,” LeCrone said. “It’s a strategic issue.”
Those discussions, LeCrone said, are being led by the conference’s board and the presidents of its member schools.
LeCrone declined to detail any of the conference’s growth initiatives.
Despite calls by many college basketball pundits—including ESPN’s Katz and Jay Bilas—for the Horizon League to immediately add a member or members, the conference “is wisely taking a cautious approach,” Lovell said.
“I’d call our plan strategic, measured and thoughtful,” LeCrone said.
Horizon League officials have been in discussions with officials for the Summit League, a nine-school conference that has several Midwestern members, including IUPUI and IPFW in Fort Wayne. LeCrone said those talks have focused on conference realignment in general, not a possible merger.
Basketball benefits gone
Butler was arguably the league’s most important member. In 2010 and 2011, its men’s basketball program brought the Horizon League national attention with back-to-back appearances in the NCAA championship game.
“No question, with the history of this program and its recent run of [men’s] basketball success, Butler has been a huge draw,” said David Morton, president of Sunrise Sports Group, an Indianapolis-based sports marketing firm.
Morton thinks Butler’s departure could hurt the Horizon League more than its arrival helps its new conference, the Atlantic 10.
“In the Atlantic 10, Butler is one of several strong brands. Butler was the foremost iconic brand in the Horizon League,” said Morton, a Butler alum. “The Horizon League is losing the tradition of Hinkle Fieldhouse and the rising star of [Butler men’s basketball coach] Brad Stevens. And each Horizon League team loses a marquee home game. Those [Butler games] were a big draw for those schools, important financially and from an exposure standpoint.”
Butler led the Horizon League each of the last three seasons in attendance. Last season, conference games in which Butler was the visitor drew an average of 1,300 more fans than other teams in the league.
Challenges in other sports
Beyond men’s basketball, there are other challenges. For instance, the Horizon League now has only five schools with baseball teams. The NCAA requires Division I conferences to have six schools to merit automatic inclusion in post-season play. Per NCAA rules, the Horizon League has two years to remedy the situation.
Despite the immediate concerns, Lovell, who formerly served as IUPUI men’s head basketball coach and athletic director, said Horizon League officials should remain methodical in charting the conference’s future.
“Before they do anything, the Horizon League has to answer, ‘What are we and what are we about?’” Lovell said.
LeCrone thinks there are good reasons to keep the Horizon League together.
“Geographically and from the standpoint of having common values, [keeping the league intact] makes sense,” LeCrone said. “It’s a way to run athletics in a very sensible way. I don’t think I’ve been around nine schools that have been more committed to the things we believe in and in being together.”•