Additional contributions by Sean Collins and Garrett Zatlin
According to documentation from an April committee proceedings meeting, the NCAA Division I Men's and Women's Track & Field and Cross Country Committee is exploring potential changes to the NCAA cross country regional system. Details can be found here.
The report suggests that the NCAA could move to a five-region model which would also result in teams having to qualify for their respective regional meet. The changes would be implemented in the fall of 2022 (at the earliest) according to the report. It should be noted that these potential changes are only in the preliminary stages and are not yet official.
Naturally, we had a few questions about these potential adjustments and explored what these changes could (and should) look like...
How many teams will qualify for each regional meet?
We're starting off with this question because the answer (or assumption) determines how we approach our other questions and suggestions. If you're not a numbers person, don't worry. We added a "Too Long; Didn't Read" blurb at the end of this section.
The committee proceedings report states that the committee wants to provide "a percentage of access to NCAA postseason opportunities similar to other NCAA sports". This is an extremely important detail to keep in mind.
In the NCAA March Madness tournament for Division One basketball, 64 teams out of an eligible 350 teams (351 for men, 349 for women) qualify for the postseason tourney. That equates to roughly 18% of teams.
In the NCAA postseason tournament for Division One soccer, 48 men's teams out of an eligible 206 teams qualify for a postseason tournament. That equates to roughly 23%. On the women's side, 48 women's team out of an eligible 335 teams qualify for the postseason tournament (roughly 14%).
According to the NCAA's sport sponsorship page, there were 318 men's cross country teams and 348 women's cross country teams competing at the Division One level in 2019. Let's meet in the middle and say that the number we're going to use for cross country qualifying purposes is 333 teams.
If we follow the same postseason percentages that college basketball employs, then we're looking at a total of 60 teams (per gender) qualifying for the regional championships. In a five-region model, that is roughly 12 teams per region.
If we follow the same postseason percentages for men's soccer, then that number grows to 77 teams per gender and roughly 15 teams per region.
Truthfully, it would be surprising to see only 12 teams qualify for each regional meet. Even 15 teams seems a little thin. The number may be closer to 20 teams per region (or 100 teams overall) which would equate to approximately 30% of NCAA D1 cross country teams earning a regional meet opportunity. That, however, is just an estimate.
TL;DR - The NCAA wants cross country to mimic how other D1 sports handle postseason qualifications. That could mean seeing anywhere from 12 to 20 teams qualifying for each regional meet in cross country, although there are no concrete numbers.
What will the new regions look like?
The most pressing question we have is, "What will these five new regions look like?"
If we assume that the NCAA wants to correct the imbalance of regional power in our current nine-region system, then creating a five-region model will not be as easy as pairing up one region with another to cut the total number of regions in half.
Why? Well, let's take a look at the chart below...
As you can see, certain regions have dominated the NCAA when it comes to producing national qualifying teams. The West and Mountain regions have easily been the two best regions throughout the last eight years and they sit next to each other geographically.
That fact alone creates a problem.
Simply lumping together the West and Mountain regions would create an overwhelming consolidation of power, making it far more difficult to qualify for the National Championships out of this new "super region".
Some suggested changes, such as combining the South and South Central regions -- the two worst regions over the past eight years -- are easy, but determining how to combine the western regions will be more difficult.
To evenly divide the regions, the number of schools competing in each region needs to be considered, as well as the history of performance. Below is a chart of the number of schools that competed in each region in 2019.
This is another reason why determining new regions will be difficult. While the Mountain region has historically been one of the best regions in the NCAA, that region also had the fewest number of teams competing at their regional meet this past fall.
If other regions were to be combined and the Mountain region was kept as it is, then those new regions would have a much larger pool of teams who could qualify for their regional meet than the Mountain region does.
This leaves us with a few dilemmas. Should the Mountain region be put in a position where they have significantly fewer teams available to qualify for the regional meet just because it's a stronger region? If so, wouldn't that essentially make it a region that teams automatically qualify for since there are so few teams available? How would that be fair?
On the flip-side, wouldn't combining the Mountain region with another region just make the Mountain region way stronger/deeper than it already is?
Ultimately, this leaves us with just one conclusion. To create a fair and balanced regional system, it seems like the NCAA will need to draw completely new geographic lines.
How will teams qualify for their respective regional meet?
The answer to this question will likely be the most controversial. Will the NCAA utilize a Kolas-like system? Or will they use the USTFCCCA's newly created CCRI ranking system to determine who earns a spot at each regional meet?
No matter what process they decide on, there will be those who will protest it.
Of course, this is all assuming that every team does not automatically qualify for their respective regional meet in the new system like they do currently.
Allowing every team to qualify for their respective regional meet would obviously present problems as most regional meets would be far too large to host. However, it would prevent controversies about who deserves a regional qualifier.
It is hard to imagine the NCAA creating a system that the entire cross country community believes is a fair way of determining regional qualifiers. Whether it is objective (by formulas and metrics) or subjective (coaches and media polls), there will be those who believe the system does not benefit them.
On paper, the Kolas point system works well and is something that more and more people have grown to appreciate. Of course, there are times where even that system has come under scrutiny. This past fall was a great example as the Gonzaga men and Princeton men did not qualify for the national meet after debate arose concerning a vague interpretation of how DNF's are counted in the Kolas system. More so, the idea that Gonzaga could have qualified for Nationals if they had performed worse (and if UCLA had beat them) feels like flawed logic.
If a good process creates such a stir, then one can only imagine the controversy caused by a less-adequate system of choosing teams.
One suggestion that the committee proceedings report offers is that conference champions would earn an automatic spot to their regional meet. This is a fine idea, although it would likely create debate when those conference champions are compared to other teams in stronger conferences.
For instance, is a 7th place team in a strong conference more deserving or less deserving of a regional qualifying spot than a team that won a title in a far weaker conference? That is likely one major question that could stem from this proposal.
Regardless, putting more weight on conference championships would certainly make them more interesting and (depending on the conference) more competitive.
How would conference alignment work?
In the proceedings report, the NCAA committee also states, "The five-region model aligned by conference affiliation would allow teams that win their conference championships to qualify automatically as a team to the regional championships".
The concept of teams winning their conference championship -- and therefore automatically qualifying themselves for their regional meet -- isn't the confusing part. What is difficult to understand is how the NCAA would assign an entire conference to a specific region.
For instance, the ACC currently holds teams located in Indiana (Notre Dame), Massachusetts (Boston College), Florida (Florida State) and North Carolina (too many to list). In total, the ACC is represented in five regions in the NCAA's current regional system.
Is the NCAA suggesting that they want every team in a single conference to fall under one region? How would that work if a conference has numerous teams scattered over half the country? Would geographic lines even matter at that point?
Or is the committee proceedings report simply saying that teams that win their conference title will automatically qualify for the region that they specifically fall under? That would make much more sense, but if that is the case, then wouldn't that impact how many at-large regional bids are available to teams each year?
Truthfully, this is still a point of uncertainty for The Stride Report.
How will qualifying for the National Championships be impacted, if at all?
In a five-region model with roughly 20 teams in each region, it makes sense for at least four teams to automatically qualify for NCAA’s out of each region. This would give us 20 teams (nationwide) who receive an automatic bid to Nationals, leaving 11 spots open for at-large bids.
Perhaps there will be five teams that earn automatic bids out of each region, leaving only six at-large spots to be distributed throughout the country. However, if that were to happen, then wouldn't that dilute the importance of the regular season and place an even greater emphasis on solely performing well at the regional meets?
When we do get to the at-large selection process, how will that work? Will we continue to use the Kolas qualifying system that we use today? Or will some new process emerge?
It should be noted that the committee proceedings report did not directly mention any changes to how automatic bids or at-large bids would be distributed for the National Championships. It is, however, fair to ask if any changes will take place given the significant alterations to the regional system that are being proposed.
In theory, we could completely eliminate the need for the Kolas system and simply give the top six teams in each region an automatic bid to the National Championships. This would give us a field of 30 teams (on both the men's and women's sides) and take out the headache that comes with Kolas calculations.
That, however, makes the regular season inconsequential. Sure, teams would still need to perform well enough to qualify for their regional meet, but the value of a good regular season performance would be very little.
How will individuals qualify for the regional meets?
This is when the proposal starts to get more difficult. If teams must qualify for their regional championship, then how will individuals who are on teams that do not qualify make it to the postseason?
Will there need to be a new metric created to value each runner? Or will each conference be allowed to send a certain number of top runners to a regional meet? Regardless of the process used to determine which individuals should qualify, it will be interesting to see if a runner will be judged on their season as a whole, or based on a single race.
Currently, an individual is judged on their performance at the regional meet to determine if he or she has done enough to qualify for the National Championships. Will this same system be used in the future, but with conference performances determining qualification for regionals?
Lastly, how many individuals on non-qualifying teams will be allowed to run in each region? If 20 or so teams can run at each regional meet (and that is just a number that we're suggesting), then it wouldn't be too much trouble to allow at least 30 or 40 individuals to qualify. As a result, this would add the equivalent of five or six extra teams to each regional field. This would make the size of the new regional meet on par with the size of most of our current regional meets.