||This article contains weasel words: vague phrasing that often accompanies biased or unverifiable information. (November 2010)|
Mid-major is a term used in American Division I college sports, especially men's basketball, to refer to athletic conferences that are not among the major six conferences (the ACC, SEC, Big East, Big 10, Big 12, and Pac-12, the programs of which are sometimes referred to as "high majors" by comparison). While many believe the term "mid-major" was originally coined by the sports media in order to distinguish between BCS and non-BCS conference teams, it was actually coined in 1977 (more than two decades before the development of the BCS) by Jack Kvancz, head coach of Catholic University's men's basketball team. Indeed, such a distinction is not officially acknowledged by the National Collegiate Athletics Association, nor does the NCAA use the terms "major" and "mid-major" to differentiate between Division I athletics conferences.
Because of the development of the Bowl Championship Series, and the continuing lack of a playoff format for the Football Bowl Subdivision, the demarcation line between major and mid-major conferences is much clearer in college football than in other sports. The six conferences of the BCS each have guaranteed appearances in one of the four major bowl games (Rose Bowl Game, Fiesta Bowl, Orange Bowl, and Sugar Bowl), whereas mid-majors, i.e. the teams that are not in one of those six conferences, must rely on an at-large bid to qualify for a major bowl. (The Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team, an independent, is an exception.) It was extremely rare for any mid-major program to receive an at-large bid (of which there were only two, one if Notre Dame qualified) to one of the four major bowls, even if a mid-major completed a perfect season; the establishment of the BCS National Championship Game has opened two additional at-large positions, which has led to an increase in mid-major appearances in the four major bowls. As of 2012, no mid-major has ever qualified for the BCS National Championship Game.
The term "mid-major" was also in use, for a time, at the Football Championship Subdivision level. From 2001 to 2007, various media outlets developed a NCAA Division I FCS Consensus Mid-Major Football National Championship for three football conferences that did not have automatic bids to the NCAA Division I Football tournament. It was dissolved after one of the two conferences ended its football sponsorship and another received an automatic bid to the tournament.
There has been much debate, especially in the last decade, as to the true definition of "mid-major," particularly as it relates to college basketball. Some still believe the term uses an arbitrary litmus test of sorts, such as how many teams from a given conference qualify for the NCAA tournament in a "good" year, or how much success a given conference has in the NCAA tournament, or even conference revenue and attendance. The Missouri Valley Conference, which is widely considered a "mid-major" conference, has received two, three, or even four NCAA tournament bids every single year from the 1990s through the 2007 tournament, while the Horizon League has had a higher NCAA tournament winning percentage than most "Major" conferences over the last seven years (17-9). The Horizon League has also advanced three different teams (Butler, Milwaukee, Cleveland State) to at least the 2nd round of the NCAA Tournament every year for the last seven years, and 11 of the last 14 years with four teams (Detroit). Moreover, the Missouri Valley Conference had an average attendance of nearly 2,000 more people per game than the Atlantic 10, and outdrew Conference USA by over 2,000 per game during recent seasons.
Given the sustained success of many so-called "mid-major" conferences, "higher profile" conferences are finding it more difficult to distinguish themselves with any clarity when it comes to the "mid-major" and "major" labels, unless one is using the sole distinction of being a BCS football playing conference.
So-called major (BCS) basketball programs generally belong to one of the following six conferences:
- Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC)
- Big 12 Conference
- Big East Conference
- Big Ten Conference
- Pacific-12 Conference (Pac-12)
- Southeastern Conference (SEC)
The term mid-major is sometimes used to describe all of the other 25 conferences not participating in the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) automatic tie-in, hence why they are often called "non-BCS" conferences. Most of the time, though, the term is specifically applied to only the non-BCS conferences that consistently produce quality teams (separating them from the "low-major" conferences). Often the definition of a mid-major will be a conference that can garner at least one at-large bid in the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, or have a team or teams advance fairly regularly, while not garnering the attention and television dollars of a major conference.
Until the last decade, the Atlantic 10, Conference USA, the Mountain West Conference, and the Western Athletic Conference were widely considered to be above the level of the other mid-major (non-BCS) conferences, but still generally below the level of the six major conferences. However, due to recent changes in membership in some conferences, as well as the sustained success of some of these "mid-major" conferences, most no longer consider two of those four conferences (the Atlantic 10 and Mountain West) to be below the level of the BCS conferences in college basketball. One example of why is the 2012-1013 RPI (a rating metric used by the NCAA's Selection Committee), which currently ranks the Mountain West as the third best conference in Division I (ahead of the ACC, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC) and the Atlantic 10 seventh (ahead of the SEC). The strength of these two non-BCS conferences in men's college basketball in 2012-2013 is not a fluke, as shown when the 2011-2012 the Mountain West finished the year ranked fifth, and the Atlantic 10 ranked seventh, both ahead of the Pac-12. Given the current results of these two leagues, as well as their prestige, performance, recent post-season results, national perception, exposure, attendance, and many other factors, most observers have trouble considering certain non-BCS conferences as "mid-majors".
When not being used to refer to all of the Division I non-BCS teams (aka "low-majors"), so-called mid-major (non-BCS) basketball programs generally belong to one of the following nine conferences. Note that some of these conferences, including the Mountain West, Conference USA, and the Atlantic 10, may be considered a high-major as opposed to a mid-major depending on whom one asks.:
- Atlantic 10 Conference (A-10)
- Colonial Athletic Association (CAA)
- Conference USA (C-USA)
- Horizon League
- Mid-American Conference (MAC)
- Missouri Valley Conference (MVC)
- Mountain West Conference (MWC)
- West Coast Conference (WCC)
- Western Athletic Conference (WAC)
This list is not static from year to year, as many fail to agree which conferences are truly the majors and which are the mid-majors and/or low-majors during any given season. (The Big West and Ohio Valley Conference was previously included on this list; they finished the 2011-2012 season ranked as the 21st and 25th best conferences in the RPI respectively) Some still refuse to consider the Mountain West to be a major conference, for example, despite outperforming several other "major" (BCS) conferences for the last several years in a row. In any case, there are many conferences (besides the six BCS conferences) that have regularly had teams advance to the NCAA Tournament regional semifinals (Sweet Sixteen) or beyond, regularly challenge for multiple NCAA Tournament bids, have multiple teams "buy" games from lower-ranked conferences, and have all finished in the top 10 in conference attendance every year for the last decade.
The basketball website Collegeinsider.com created its own definition of "mid-major" in the first part of the 21st century when it introduced a pair of end-of-season awards for outstanding mid-major individuals in college basketball—the Lou Henson Award for players (first presented in 2010) and Hugh Durham Award for coaches (first presented in 2005). As of the 2011–12 season, players and coaches from the following conferences are ineligible for these awards:
- The six BCS automatic qualifying conferences
- Atlantic 10
- Conference USA
- Mountain West
Issues mid-major programs face
Mid-major teams often have a difficult time scheduling major conference opponents, especially at home. Major conference teams usually will not schedule a high quality mid-major team, knowing that there is an uncomfortably high chance that they will lose (especially if the game is at the mid-major team's home court) and if the major team does win, there is often little benefit in media exposure for beating a non-major school. Some major conference teams also believe that scheduling games with additional competitive teams isn't necessary for their current team's development, as they believe there will be enough "tough games" during conference play. This phenomenon often manifests itself in major squads playing mostly lower ranked mid-major conference teams (while refusing schedule requests from better mid-major squads) in their out-of-conference schedules, thereby establishing very impressive records against lesser foes and bypassing higher quality mid-major teams in the process.
In recent years, the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee has stressed the importance of a team's strength of schedule (SOS) in the nonconference portion of their schedule. Teams with a low-ranked nonconference SOS have often been penalized in their seeding and in some cases not selected for the tournament at all. In 2006, Florida State was left out of the tournament field in large part because its out-of-conference schedule was rated #316 out of 333 Division I teams .
The difficulty most mid-majors have in scheduling BCS conference opponents has a large effect on their ability to qualify for the NCAA basketball championship tournament and for the National Invitation Tournament. Often, mid-major teams with outstanding records are passed over for at-large berths in the NCAA Tournament in favor of teams from BCS conferences with mediocre records, based partly on the fact that the mid-major teams often have a lower strength of schedule. Without the ability to play more "major" opponents, most mid-majors have to stake their Tournament hopes on winning their conference's season-ending tournament (which promises an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament) since the possibility of an at-large bid is often remote.
The Gonzaga Bulldogs team faces a slightly different set of challenges. Since its Elite Eight appearance in 1999, it has successfully established itself as the closest thing to a major program in a mid-major conference, making the tournament field in every year since, even in years it failed to win the West Coast Conference tournament. Its position in a mid-major conference is no longer a primary issue with regard to making the tournament field, but is often perceived to adversely affect its tournament seeding. The Bulldogs typically play a nationally competitive nonconference schedule, frequently going on the road, and have proven themselves capable of defeating nationally prominent opponents. However, the relative weakness of the West Coast Conference (WCC) hurts Gonzaga's strength of schedule, which in turn lowers the Bulldogs' Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) (an important numerical criterion in tournament selection). Xavier University is another program that must overcome the mid-major label. On January 9, 2008, PG Drew Lavender was named the "Mid-Major Player of the Week" by Rivals.com but Lavender refused to accept the award making the case that Xavier was no longer a mid-major. This act caused many prominent journalists to debate if the Atlantic 10 is a mid-major conference or not. Other nationally prominent mid-majors, such as the Memphis Tigers and Butler Bulldogs, are also likely to face these challenges.
Mid-major teams as a rule have to play these BCS conference teams as road games, but many BCS conference teams are scared of such. Some mid-major teams are now preferring to play "home" games in larger nearby arenas. Gonzaga uses the Spokane Arena in its home city or KeyArena in Seattle for these larger-audience games. Some mid-major and major conference teams have made the use of non-campus arenas permanent; Milwaukee, DePaul, Memphis, Georgetown, and Marquette all moved men's games off-campus in order to gain more exposure, with the latter three sharing professional arenas.
The NCAA tournament selection for the 2006 men's tournament was surrounded by controversy related to mid-major programs. A number of teams from mid-major conferences had unprecedented success in the non-conference portions of their schedule, and were therefore ranked highly in the RPI throughout the season. A change in the NCAA's RPI rating process, prior to the 2005 season, also improved many of these teams' chances by changing from a formula that treated home and road wins and losses equally, to a formula that gave higher weight to road games. Because many BCS conference teams played no more than one or two non-conference games away from home, there was a de facto bolstering of RPI ratings for many mid-major teams, leading to speculation about how this "new" version of the RPI would be used in the selection process by the NCAA tournament selection committee. In spite of a new precedent being set by the committee by leaving the highest ranked RPI team ever, #21 Missouri State of the Missouri Valley Conference out of the tournament field, some mid-majors with strong RPI's received at-large bids over lower-ranked BCS conference teams. This prompted harsh criticism from sports writers and coaches of BCS conference teams that did not receive bids. This criticism flew in the face of the fact that the six BCS conferences still received more bids (32) from the committee than in most past years. The mid-major conference teams that were selected went on to silence those critics when a record number (five) advanced to the "Sweet 16". Even more significantly, one of those teams, George Mason of the Colonial Athletic Association, made it to the Final Four. In both the 2008 and 2009 NCAA tournaments, mid-major Siena had a strong showing, advancing to the second round with wins over Vanderbilt and Ohio State respectively. In 2008 the Memphis Tigers, led by Derrick Rose, out of Conference USA, reached the national championship game before being defeated by the Kansas Jayhawks in overtime. And in the 2010 NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Tournament, the Butler University Bulldogs reached the Final Four, becoming the 3rd mid-major to make the Final Four in the modern (1985–present) era. On April 3, they beat Michigan State of the Big Ten Conference to become the second mid-major to reach the national championship game since 1998.
The 2011 NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Tournament was the first time since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 that two mid-majors met in the Final Four. The Butler University Bulldogs returned for their second consecutive appearance after winning the Southeast Regional in New Orleans as a #8 seed. The Virginia Commonwealth University Rams of the Colonial Athletic Association advanced to their first Final Four appearance after winning the Southwest Regional in San Antonio as a #11 seed. VCU became the first team in history to win five games to reach the Final Four, winning the First Four round in its inaugural year. VCU tied LSU in 1986 and fellow CAA team, George Mason, in 2006 as the highest seed to reach the Final Four (#11). The previous time two mid-majors advanced to the same Final Four was the 1979 NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Tournament.
Mid-major basketball teams also face significant disadvantages when it comes to resources to spend on recruiting, marketing and operations, including coaches' salaries. Mid-major basketball blogger Kyle Whellison, who describes as mid-major any team from a conference where average total spending on men's basketball programs is less than $2 million and average total spending on all athletic programs is less than $20 million, notes that teams from major conferences win games against teams from mid-major conferences roughly 84 percent of the time.
Since 2002, CollegeSwimming.com has produced an objective ranking system for Mid-Major, Division I swimming programs. Initiated by Clark Campbell, the poll has been used to provide attention to teams that were often targeted for elimination ostensibly for Title IX or budgetary reasons. Swimming, along with most other NCAA sports, is fundamentally different in its financial model from the so-called "revenue sports" of basketball and Division I FBS football. The NCAA classifies the latter two sports as "head-count" sports, which means that the total number of players that can receive any athletically-related financial aid from the school is limited. Because a partial scholarship counts fully against the head count, it means that in practice, scholarships are almost always awarded as full grants-in-aid. On the other hand, the NCAA classifies swimming as an "equivalency" sport, meaning that scholarships can be divided among a number of student-athletes. CollegeSwimming.com's definition of a mid-major institution takes this into account. Though the lineup has changed, institutions eligible for the CollegeSwimming.com poll are those institutions that a) are not members of a BCS conference, Mountain West Conference, or Western Athletic Conference; or b) provide fewer than one-half of the allowable scholarships under the NCAA rules.
- The Mid Majority
- NCAA D-1 attendance figures, 2005-2006, NCAA, May 31, 2006.
- "Nothing mid-major about MVC attendance", Andrew Skwara, Rivals.com, August 11, 2006.
- "Attendance Peaking in Valley", Bryan Armen Graham, CBS College Sports Network, October 5, 2006.
- "Mid-major redux", Mike Jarvis, Yahoo! Sports, February 14, 2007.
- "A lot to like in mid-major coaching ranks", Andrew Skwara, Rivals.com, October 15, 2007.
- "Atlantic 10 steps into national spotlight", Andrew Skwara, Rivals.com, January 3, 2008.
- http://www.midmajority.com/redline.php The Mid Majority: What's a Mid-Major?
- "Men's Basketball Attendance", NCAA.
- "Schedule Problem for VCU", Tim Pearrell, Richmond Times-Dispatch, March 18, 2008.
- "Schedule is getting tougher for Valley", Steven Pivovar, Omaha World-Herald, July 18, 2006.
- "SI.com - R-E-S-P-E-C-T - Jan 30, 2008". CNN. January 30, 2008. Retrieved May 12, 2010.
- "SI.com - Let the debate begin - Jan 24, 2008". CNN. January 24, 2008. Retrieved May 12, 2010.
- "Packer: Too Many MVC, CAA Teams", Mark Schlabach, Washington Post, March 13, 2006.
- "VCU, Butler Make 2011 Final Four First With Two Mid-Majors Since 1979", SBNation.com.
- "The Red Line :: The Mid-Majority", MidMajority.com.
- "Division 1 Mid-Major", CollegeSwimming.com.