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Beyond the News

Grand Canyon University Joins Western Athletic Conference

‘For-profit’ just a business model when it comes to college sports
University Business, January 2013
Driving toward Div. I: A GCU basketball player makes his way down the court during a November 5 exhibition game against The Master’s College, soon before GCU was invited to join the NCAA Div. I.

Could the admission of Grand Canyon University (Ariz.) into the Western Athletic Conference help change the perception of for-profits among the higher education community?

Officially invited into the WAC November 26, Grand Canyon is the first for-profit institution to be granted Div. I NCAA status, an invitation decision makers say was made based on the school’s merits alone, which they say are not muddied by its for-profit status despite the business model coming under fire recently.

And there are no special considerations or clearances that a for-profit needs to receive from the NCAA to become a member or maintain its membership, explains Emily Potter, associate director of public and media relations at the NCAA. “Our member institutions are required to abide by our bylaws regardless of their financial structures.”

The decision to admit Grand Canyon came after major conference realignment, which is affecting conferences coast to coast and lost the WAC its FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) status, leaving it with only three of its 10 members from the 2012-2013 year, shares Interim Commissioner Jeff Hurd. The realignment has generally been related to football revenue and television revenue, he says.

“You’d be hard pressed to find any football playing, Div. I conference in the country that hasn’t been impacted in one way or another in the last one to four years,” says Hurd. “The WAC has been impacted dramatically and probably more so than any other conference.”

The WAC board of directors, comprised of presidents of the remaining institutions—Seattle University (Wash.), University of Idaho, and New Mexico State University—are tasked with admitting new members.

Located in Phoenix, Grand Canyon has seen “impressive growth” over the past four years, according to Manuel T. Pacheco, interim president of New Mexico State University and Phoenix native. With a full campus, including residence halls and a full range of athletic facilities, Grand Canyon resembles a traditional residential university, albeit with a different business model that the board deemed a moot point.

“As responsible members of the board, we discussed whether that was a plus or a minus,” says Pacheco. “At least in my mind I came up with a conclusion that that really didn’t matter, and I don’t think anybody felt otherwise. What really matters is whether in our judgement they have the financial and intellectual and competitive motivation to be successful.”

The board also considers how an institution's athletics, academics, and values fit in with the existing conference members, as well as its ability to bring in revenue.

“The fact that [Grand Canyon] is in a large metropolitan area makes a difference because it means there would be a possibility of television revenues and broad dissemination of programming in the area, so I think that’s one consideration,” says Pacheco. “But the other consideration I think is looking at the academic performance and the academic standing of the institution. You want to have institutions that are moving forward, that have a broad and broadening base of academic programs. You want to have a school that will not be a hindrance to the conference, and in fact be viewed as a positive addition.”

Grand Canyon has triumphed at the Div. II level, taking home the NACDA (National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics) Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup for the most success among various NCAA Div. II championships for the 2011-2012 season.