Jonathan Bates | Associate Editor
The Northeast Conference announced today they will be sponsoring men’s volleyball as their 25th championship sport, effective 2023 season. The NEC will be the fourth NCAA multi-sport conference to sponsor men’s volleyball as a championship sport (ConfCarolinas, Big West, SIAC), and the second NCAA Division I conference to sponsor it.
With six conferences sponsoring men’s volleyball in 2023, there will inevitably be calls to expand the NCAA Championship. The NCAA Championship currently has seven participants, with five of those qualifying via conference automatic qualification (Big West, ConfCarolinas, EIVA, MIVA and MPSF) and two at-large selections. Once the NEC gets an automatic qualification bid, there will only be one at-large spot without tournament expansion. If the SIAC gets an automatic qualification bid, there will be no at-large spots without tournament expansion.
Two NEC schools are currently members of the EIVA (Saint Francis, Sacred Heart), while a third (St. Francis Brooklyn) will be joining the EIVA in 2022. Two schools will have their inaugural season in 2022 (Fairleigh Dickinson, Long Island), while Merrimack will start their program in 2023.
Merrimack is slated to become the 57th NCAA Division I/II member institution to sponsor’s men’s volleyball as a varsity sport, joining Missouri S&T as new programs in 2023. NCAA Division I/II men’s volleyball programs totaled just 45 in 2021.
A significant factor for the NEC to be able to sponsor men’s volleyball as a championship sport is the financial support from First Point Volleyball Foundation. First Point gave grants to both St. Francis Brooklyn and Fairleigh Dickinson to start their men’s volleyball programs, totaling $300,000.
Even with Saint Francis and Sacred Heart leaving the EIVA, the EIVA will still have the minimum six members to maintain their automatic qualification into the NCAA Championship. Saint Francis is a founding member of the EIVA, while Sacred Heart joined back in 1993.
The biggest question is when will the NEC be eligible for an automatic qualification of their own. The NCAA bylaws (126.96.36.199) state that a conference must meet the following requirements to be eligible:
(a) Have at least six active members that sponsor the applicable sport in any division (Note: A provisional member in the process of becoming an NCAA member may not be used to meet the requisite number.);
(b) The six active members must have conducted conference competition together for the preceding two years in the applicable sport;
(c) There shall be no waivers of the two-year waiting period; and
(d) Any new member added to a conference that is eligible for an automatic bid shall be immediately eligible to represent the conference as the automatic qualifier.
With Merrimack adding men’s volleyball, they will be at the minimum six members, but the NEC would need to wait until the 2025 NCAA Championship to be eligible based on minimum years of competition criteria.
Additionally, Merrimack is currently transitioning from Division II to Division I. The Warriors started the process during the 2019-20 season and expect to be a full Division I member by 2023-24. Transitioning in the NCAA is not a foregone conclusion as it took ConfCarolinas member, Emmanuel, took five years to transition from NAIA to NCAA Division II instead of the minimum three years.
One option for the NEC to satisfy automatic qualification requirements would be to add an affiliate member. UC San Diego was an affiliate member of the Big West for the 2018 and 2019 seasons, before becoming a full member in 2020. Daemen and American International are two schools that play in the NEC footprint that are already full members of NCAA Division II. Daemen started playing men’s volleyball in 2019, while American International will start their program in 2022.