Louisville’s Bellarmine University made the step up to Division I official Tuesday when the school announced all 22 of its athletics programs would be making the move to D-I after decades competing on the Division II level.
The Knights accepted an invitation from the Atlantic Sun Conference and Bellarmine’s Board of Trustees approved the reclassification of its athletics programs within the last week. Bellarmine will officially become a member of the ASUN on June 1, 2020.
Bellarmine President Susan Donovan said she thinks the move will expand Bellarmine’s reach and aligns with Bellarmine’s new strategic plan.
“As a Division-I school, we will be able to share all that Bellarmine has to offer with a larger audience than ever before, through increased media coverage and event attendance,” Donovan said. “This will allow us to recruit excellent students from a much wider geographic area. Exposure to new markets will allow us to increase the diversity of our student body.”
Bellarmine will compete at the D-II level for one more season in the Great Lakes Valley Conference which the school helped start in 1978. Donovan said the price to move up to D-I for the 2020-2021 academic year includes a $1.7 million application fee to be paid to the NCAA and structured payment of fees to the ASUN over the first five years of the school’s membership in the conference.
“In a sense, you’re paying for advertising dollars,” Donovan said. “There will be investment, but we will be relying on friends and donors as well. We intend to do sort of a mini campaign around the facilities here, and will continue to work on the revenue streams.”
Donovan said Bellarmine is “going all in on the sports we have,” saying there was no immediate interest to add a football program. Donovan also said she does not foresee an increase in student fees as a result of the costs to join D-I, and that there are no plans to establish a separate athletic foundation for funding purposes.
“We have an advancement committee of our Board of Trustees and work on this will all be within our general budget and operating [budget],” Donovan said.
Donovan said the move to D-I was not made lightly and that the academic programs will remain a top priority for the school.
“In our study of comparable schools that move from D-II to D-I, we saw that they experienced notable enrollment growth in the years following the switch, and the majority of that growth was in non-student athletes,” Donovan said.
Plans For Growth
Bellarmine currently has 21 athletic programs that compete at the Division II level in the Great Lakes Valley Conference. The Knights men’s lacrosse team is the only program that already competes at the Division I level, and the team will continue to play in the Southern Conference where it has competed since 2005.
The re-classification to D-I is a four-year process during which none of Bellarmine’s athletics programs will be able to compete in the NCAA tournaments. They can compete in postseason conference tournaments, and basketball teams can compete in the National Invitational Tournament or the 16-team College Basketball Invitational.
Bellarmine will be the only private D-I school in the state and one of few D-I Catholic universities in the South.
Donovan said with the move to D-I she hopes to see enrollment rise to between 2,750 and 3,000 in the near future. Bellarmine currently has an undergraduate enrollment of 2,544.
“Certainly student athletes look at athletic conferences, but you might note that other students do as well,” Donovan said. “So many students want to go to a Division-I school. Today’s student is sort of a sports conscious student, many of them and so they want to see athletics, they want to see their name on TV. So our name will become better known. We have great majors great academic disciplines that are well known in the in the state and in the city, but they’re not as well known elsewhere.”
Victor Matheson, a sports economist at College of the Holy Cross, said making the case for the move up to D-I for a private liberal arts school like Bellarmine can be hard to justify, financially speaking.
“Just on pure profit loss, it’s hard to make an argument that this is a good move,” Matheson said. “The only possible way you can really make that argument is by saying, ‘Yeah, it gives us an opportunity to basically advertise our school.’ You get that advertising through those occasional games, you know, against the real powerhouses in college sports.”
Bellarmine will join Florida Gulf Coast, Jacksonville, Kennesaw State, Liberty, Lipscomb, New Jersey Institute of Technology, North Alabama, North Florida and Stetson as the 10th member of the ASUN.
On Tuesday, Knights Athletic Director Scott Wiegandt listed the conference championships Bellarmine’s programs have won in the past year and said the move up to D-I made sense for the school.
“We’re going to the big leagues,” he said. “Bellarmine is going to the show in every way. This transition is the next natural step.”
Wiegandt said the school is working on facilities upgrades to the baseball and softball fields as well as to the basketball team’s arena, Knights Hall.