January 25, 2024 at 10:55 a.m.
WIAA competitive balance plan off balance
The WIAA is in the process of implementing a new competitive balance plan that would force successful teams to move up a division if they win too much or make too many state appearances. We would like to assume that this started because their intentions were good, and the goal was to level the playing field so that schools who have a competitive advantage were faced with more competition. Unfortunately, this plan is being rolled out as one size fits all, without taking into consideration some simple and obvious factors.
If a sport has multiple divisions (football has 7, basketball and softball have 5, baseball and volleyball have 4, etc.), moving up one division is not a huge change. They would be competing with somewhat larger schools, but not significantly larger. If a sport only has a few divisions (cross country has 3), getting bumped up a division could mean competing against schools that have triple or even quadruple the size of the student body.
Cross country is a unique sport that is basically co-ed, other than running the actual meets themselves. Boys and girls teams share a coach, practice together, have team meals together, and travel together to participate in the same meets. Sharing all of these things not only offers financial savings to the school, but also creates a unique environment that is the backbone of a cross country program. Moving a girls team up to Division 1 would mean they compete at different meets than the boys from their school. Cross country meets are held once a week on
Saturday mornings. One coach cannot be in two places at once. Each team would also need a bus and a tent, minimum. Doubling up on all of these things doesn’t make good financial sense for any school, especially smaller rural schools who struggle to find funds.
Also setting it apart from other sports, cross country does not have a seeded or bracketed playoff system. All teams go to sectionals and the top two teams move on to state. By using the same point system as seeded and bracketed teams, cross country accumulates points more quickly, simply by winning at sectionals even though there was no playoff to get there.
If the WIAA makes cross country part of the competitive balance initiative, successful teams will quickly be forced into higher divisions, and athletes in small public school programs will be punished for demonstrating the characteristics that sports are supposed to instill. There are several girls cross country teams in southwest WI that are successful because they work hard, year round, following the advice of their coaches in regard to training, proper nutrition, rest, sleep, and digging deep when needed to persevere in a grueling sport. They do what their coaches ask because they love what they are doing and who they are doing it for. They are disciplined and have achieved their success organically, with no help from students outside of their district, and they are being punished for it.
If a cross country team does well, they quickly accumulate the 6 points that bumps them into the next division. The runners that are on future teams will be punished for the success of their predecessors, before they even get to compete themselves. The consequences of success are handed to the next group of athletes, not always the ones that scored the points.
Also frustrating is the fact that Division 1 teams not only voted for this plan, but they experience no repercussions at all for any success that their teams have. Teams that are currently in
Division 1 can go to state and repeatedly do well year after year and nothing changes for them.
They have no consequence. These schools that had the majority of the vote for this system are not at all affected by their decision, nor do they experience any of the negative impact that small schools do. Division 1 teams are actually rewarded, as they will be competing against schools that have a much smaller population.
Cross country coaches want their sport exempted from the competitive balance plan. At the Wisconsin Cross Country Coaches Association meeting, the cross country coaches voted over 200-1 to reject this competitive balance plan for cross country. These coaches, who know the nuances of the sport and how it will be impacted, are overwhelmingly against the competitive balance plan. They are the real stakeholders for this sport, yet decisions on cross country's future are being taken out of their hands.
The WIAA is also showing inconsistency with this plan by not considering the factors it says determines success when forcing teams into a higher division: They state that factors other than enrollment should be considered to create more competitive balance. Their studies have determined that higher incomes positively impact performance, as does density of population. If money and access to student athletes are two main points that contribute to competitive imbalance, then those factors should be considered when forcing a team into a higher division.
They are not. An appeals process was offered, so schools could dispute the change of divisions with the classification committee. Of the 24 schools that filed an appeal, 23 were denied. It appears the appeal process is a rubber stamp “no”, and no reasons were given as to why teams were denied. The appeals criteria listed on the WIAA website imply that factors that contribute to competitive imbalance (access to athletes, having a school in a more densely populated area, a significant number of open enroll students or students from outside the school’s location, socioeconomic factors such as the percentage of students on free and reduced lunch) are taken into consideration when granting an appeal. There are several local schools that appear to have a slam dunk case for appeal. However, all of these local schools were denied. It appears that the committee is not truly applying their own factors to consider appeals and are only using past success as the determining factor for moving a school up a division. The safeguards that were put in place to avoid punishing schools that have no competitive advantage have been ignored.
The WIAA did make a few exceptions. Track and field, swimming and diving, and sports with only one division (girls wrestling, 8-player football, boys volleyball, and girls hockey) are exempted from the competitive balance plan.
Cross country should be exempt from the competitive balance plan as well. While something needs to be done to create competitive equality between schools, this plan demonstrates a general lack of knowledge about the sport. Cross country only has three divisions, resulting in much larger differences in enrollment size between the schools in those divisions. It does not have a bracketed or seeded tournament system. There are no playoffs. While individual placings do contribute to the overall team score, it is also an individual sport. Boys and girls teams participate in the same meets. They share a coach, all bus travel, tents, practices, and supplies. Teams that practice together, travel together, and share a coach should not be split into different divisions. We applaud the WIAA’s efforts to strive to maintain competitive equality between schools, but we ask that they reconsider the decision to include cross country in the competitive balance initiative, due to the differences between it and other sports.
Mike & Amy Robinson
Mineral Point, WI
Craig & Paula Schuette
Nate & Jodi Christopher
Mineral Point, WI