Stonehill College is stepping up.
Since announcing its ascent to Division 1 athletics in the spring, the private Catholic school in Easton has already experienced a bump in enrollment based on the move, as well as a deeper recruitment pool of athletes.
With the brighter spotlight and stiffer competition comes the potential for more revenue. The change also arrives when the flux in college athletics is at an all-time high, with power conference grabs, power vacuums, and a new name-image-likeness landscape.
Stonehill’s move is neither coincidental nor a hindrance. It’s an opportunity. One that the Skyhawks could not pass up.
“The greatest risk is not doing anything,” said athletic director Dean O’Keefe. “Higher education is certainly a competitive industry, and to sit back and hope things work out is the biggest risk.
“We’ve been really proactive, trying to make decisions that put Stonehill in the best position for success. We’ve been fortunate at Stonehill to have the resources and the stability and the strength to do that.”
In April, Stonehill accepted an invitation to become the ninth member of the five-state Northeast Conference. Competition at the Division 1 level began this month, with 20 of Stonehill’s 23 varsity sports on the NEC schedule this season. Equestrian and men’s and women’s ice hockey are operating outside of the NEC for now.
The official reclassification will take four years, meaning Stonehill will become a full-fledged member able to partake in all the benefits of Division 1 membership in the fall of 2026.
The journey began six years ago, when a task force gathered to collect information and position the Northeast-10 Conference school to make an educated decision about what was best for it if an opportunity arose. Two years after that, in 2018, Merrimack College made the jump from the Northeast-10 Conference to the NEC.
Last fall, as Stonehill was internally forming a consensus that making the jump made sense, talks between the school and the NEC began. On April 5, one week after Bryant left the NEC to join America East, Stonehill and NEC announced their partnership.
“As much as it’s an athletic change to go from Division 2 to Division 1, the decision was rooted in our strategic plan as an institution to tell more people in new markets the story about Stonehill,” said O’Keefe.
“It wasn’t at all a question of what was wrong with Division 2, it was what best serves the vision of the college, and that opportunity to showcase Stonehill on a larger stage was really, really compelling.”
For the NEC, bringing in Stonehill made perfect sense.
“I just had a sense we might be losing Bryant at some point, and so with [Stonehill] being in the same geographic footprint, that helped in the ease of transition, scheduling and the like, and being up in that Boston market was also helpful,” said Noreen Morris, NEC commissioner.
“And when schools are looking to join, it’s, ‘Who do they want to partner with?’ They look at it in a way of, ‘How can this partnership also help us in our recruitment of students and for the exposure of our institution across the board?’
“So in that sense, I think it was a win-win for us that they fit our profile quite well, and a win-win for them in that it brought them in some markets they weren’t in before, and elevates them to Division 1 from an athletic standpoint, more from a branding and marketing perspective.”
A history of success
The announcement made an immediate impact. O’Keefe cited a survey in which 36 percent of Stonehill freshmen cited the Division 1 move as a factor in their enrolling — a decision that for some came less than a month after that announcement.
O’Keefe added that his department has already seen an “increased interest in Stonehill from a wider pool of athletically talented student-athletes.”
And while the school is not deemphasizing those student-athletes’ interest in academics when it comes to recruitment offers, he expressed confidence that the department will be able to build programs that can compete successfully in the NEC and at the Division 1 level.
“We expect the transition from Division 2 to Division 1 to provide some tough tests against many established Division 1 programs, and also know our student-athletes will experience wins and many accomplishments to celebrate during their inaugural year in Division 1,” said O’Keefe.
O’Keefe’s optimism is based in part on past success at the Division 2 level. Stonehill was a six-time winner of the NE-10 Presidents’ Cup — based on the overall athletic standings of all teams — most recently in 2019-20, and has earned 119 NCAA tournament bids through the years. That includes three national champions: women’s lacrosse in 2003 and 2005, and Corey Thomas in indoor high jump in 2011.
Basketball has been a strength as well. The women’s team appeared in 26 NCAA Division 2 tournaments, reaching the finals in 1995. And the men appeared in 15 tourneys, with three Elite Eight appearances and one semifinal.
This season, however, instead of facing Boston College or Providence in exhibitions, the men’s team faces them in the regular season. Plus, in Game 1, the Skyhawks will travel to Storrs, Conn., to square off against perennial powerhouse UConn.
“Division 1 is the highest competitive level of collegiate athletics, and as a result our teams will have the opportunity to measure themselves against the very best,” said O’Keefe.
One logistical advantage is better travel for Stonehill teams, which sometimes had to bus as far as West Virginia or western Pennsylvania for out-of-conference Division 2 games.
“We’re really fortunate in the Northeast,” said O’Keefe. “There are a lot of really good Division 1 institutions that we can play that are an hour’s bus ride away.”
Change is in the air
From a revenue perspective, the NEC will allow Stonehill to receive select conference money and grant distribution resources immediately. The opportunity to at least sip from the trough of big-time NCAA revenues comes once its four-year transition is complete.
Thanks mainly to the TV, marketing, and ticket revenue from the annual March Madness men’s basketball championship, approximately 60 percent ($540 million) of the $900 million generated by the tournament is distributed to Division 1 schools and conferences.
The other big-revenue college sport is football, but at the Football Bowl Subdivision level where the Power 5 and Group of 5 conferences play (and Stonehill does not), the NCAA finds itself on the outside looking in. Conference powers are growing at the same time players’ opportunities to monetize their name, image, and likeness are just beginning.
With NCAA president Mark Emmert leaving next year, the organization — with its 180,000 Division 1 student-athletes, 6,700 teams, 350 schools, and 32 conferences — is in its own transition period. Change is coming, and the next few years will likely be more tumultuous than stable.
O’Keefe wants to keep Stonehill’s changes feeling minimal, especially in the present.
“As much as we know this is a really good opportunity and will do great things for our institution in five years and 10 years, we want to make sure it’s good today for our student-athletes,” he said. “They’re not as concerned about what it does for our institution 10 years from now.
“We would be excited for our students to have a chance to turn their passion and their craft into a way to generate some revenue for themselves.”
O’Keefe said that between sponsorships, ticket sales, and an energized alumni base, the school should experience growth that can be shared schoolwide.
“All in all, we look at it more holistically than athletics being siloed from the rest of campus,” he said. “It’s the old [adage] ‘[The] rising tide floats all boats.’ We’re really excited that athletics is going to help academically and socially with the campus as much as it’s going to make our student-athletes compete at a higher level.”
What the Division 1 landscape will look like in a few more years, nobody knows. But Stonehill won’t have to look up to gain the view.
“Nobody can predict the future of where the NCAA is going,” said O’Keefe. “But we knew if we’re together with institutions that are like us and have the same aspirations and goals, we’ll figure it out together.”