The profitability of athletics can hinge on a small but important factor—the game schedule. While many Division I schools have begun to place more games on weekdays to ensure more viewership and thus greater revenue, the Ivy League has decided to extend its basketball season to primarily single-matchups on weekends to accommodate the academic needs of student-athletes. However, this move may mean a decline in the profitability of Columbia’s program, according to experts.
At schools with larger basketball cultures, student-athletes are often required to play on school nights and miss classes while traveling to games once or twice a week. These games are highly televised and generate massive profits for athletic departments due to their high viewership with some matchups generating more viewership than NBA games.
On average, Big 10 schools have 15 weekday matches out of 31 games, ACC schools have 16 out of 32, and SEC schools have 15 out of 31. At Columbia, that number is eight out of 30—a higher rate of weekend games that is comparable across the Ivy League.
“The answer will always be, ‘Look towards the money,’ unfortunately, which is not usually in the best interest of student-athletes, but it’s revenue-driving,” Kenneth Shropshire said. Shropshire is the CEO of the Global Sport Institute and Adidas distinguished professor of global sport at Arizona State University. “Look at the type of media deals the big conferences have—ESPN, regional networks, Fox all look for more content, more nights.”
And the revenue gap between these leagues is anything but small. The revenue for all Ivy League basketball programs in 2018 was $18.2 million. Duke, a single ACC program, generated $36.4 million from just its men’s basketball program that same year.
This is true for many major basketball conferences.
Beginning in the 2020-21 season, the Ivy League will shift its basketball program from its traditional eight weeks of Ivy play to 10, limiting the number of back-to-back weekends. Previously, the Ivy League would compete in two travel partner games and seven back-to-back contests. With these new regulations, that number will stretch to three; the season will complete with one game against the team’s respective travel partner. These changes, however, will not affect the yearly four-team Ivy League championship in March.
Before the changes, Ivy play had to begin in January due to Princeton’s late finals schedule. However, in April 2018, Princeton made the decision to match its finals schedule to that of the otherIvies, allowing Ivy play to begin earlier.
According to women’s basketball head coach Megan Griffith, this change will be instrumental in the success of the Ancient Eight.
In previous years, Ivy programs have struggled to find non-Ivy matches due to this cramped schedule. When Ivy play gets moved up, many of these pre-season matches might be eliminated.
“They’re always trying to look for games, which has been a struggle for a lot of coaching staffs,” Griffith said.
However, while the Ivy League has gotten significantly more competitive in basketball, many of the Lions’ early blowout wins might be cut for Ivy weekend games. But for Griffith, the opportunity for an earlier Ivy opener is one to be excited about.
“For the student-athletes, they’ll be able to get into it a little earlier,” she said. “The league as a whole has gotten a lot better, [the new schedule] allows us to feel less crammed.”
The idea of the “student-athlete” was completely manufactured from the start, according to Penn State professor emeritus Ronald Smith. Smith attributed the root of the term to former NCAA executive director Walter Byers, who didn’t want to pay workers’ compensation for those injured during the game.
“[Conferences] are driven by the finances,” Smith said. “Athletics departments are businesses.”
According to Engles, however, the changes in the Ivy League basketball schedule would better accommodate this dual concept, providing students to devote one more weekend day to academics, and now only reserving three back-to-back weekends for games.
“These guys run on a really high level academically, and now they’ll have some time during the week where they can manage the load better,” Engles said.
And the load for a Columbia student-athlete is heavy. Like any other student, they are required to take the same number of classes and complete the same Core requirements on top of a strict practice and workout schedule. On top of that, athletes have to miss class frequently and make up work due to away games. More than schools where basketball teams are marketed as top-ranked programs in the nation, Columbia has worked to prevent these students from missing classes by scheduling fewer weekday games, but the new regulations would take this one step further.
“As an athlete in the Ivy League, your academic demands are a little different. We’re still trying to not miss school, not having those midweek games where we’ll have to travel. We’ve been really adamant about not having the schedule extend into weekdays,” Griffith said.
Shropshire commended the Ivy League for these changes, explaining that the Ivy League functions differently from more competitive conferences as it attempts to weigh academics and athletics evenly to truly create the “student-athlete.”
“The Ivy League is different because it has made a schedule that is more student-friendly where athletes don’t need to go on a bus every weekend, be away two times a week,” he claimed.
However, according to Shropshire, these modifications could also be detrimental to the revenue and viewership Ivy League basketball receives. While Columbia basketball games are broadcasted on SNY, ESPN Plus, and occasionally regional ESPN channels, these games will become less frequent as the number of games per weekend will decrease.
“The concentration impressions reduce when you’re only playing one event. The more presence you have, the more popularity and the greater revenue you’ll be able to receive,” he added.