Horizon League expansion

Will the Horizon League go past eleven members?

Following the announcement that Purdue Fort Wayne will be joining the Horizon League effective July 1, 2020, the obvious question became whether the conference will stand pat at eleven teams and play a 20-game double round robin schedule or add an additional team to get to an even twelve.

As recently as August of 2017, the Horizon League’s strategic plan included a goal stating “expand membership to 12 members if supported by Council, beginning with the 2018-19 season.”

Obviously that did not happen, but was the expansion goal scrapped or simply delayed?

Glenn Marini of WANE-TV in Fort Wayne asked Horizon League boss Jon LeCrone on Tuesday if there were any more moves planned, with the commissioner neither confirming nor denying that there were any more future changes in the works.

“We’ve never made it about a number,” LeCrone said. “We’ve always made it about fit and alignment and values and does it work.”

“I’ve been in this for 40 years. I’ve been in leagues with 13 members, 11, 6, 7, 8, 9. It really doesn’t make a difference because what people don’t quite realize is all the sport numbers are different. In some sports this made us an even number, some sports it made us an odd number. It’s not eleven for everything, it’s eleven for basketball but seven for baseball. So it’s different numbers.”

LeCrone HL

Commissioner Jon LeCrone / Photo via Horizon League on Facebook

An odd number of teams could mean the end of the popular Thursday / Saturday or Friday / Sunday schedule of conference games which feature travel partners to help cut down on costs.  Last season, for example, Green Bay could fly to Detroit for a Thursday game against Detroit Mercy and a Saturday game against Oakland and then return home meaning they could get two games out of a trip instead of one. Same for flights to Wright State and Northern Kentucky as well as Cleveland State and Youngstown State.

An uneven number of teams could hamper that, though the commissioner didn’t sound too concerned.

“It’s really about scheduling,” LeCrone said. “Our staff in our league office is so good, they can figure out all the scheduling nuances. I’m not worried about eleven.”

As for who a potential twelfth team could be, the options seem limited. Far-fetched dreams of adding New Mexico State, Grand Canyon, Belmont, or Murray State have faded away leaving a more realistic list of a few candidates, none of which move the needle much.

LeCrone gave an insight into what the league’s administrators look for when considering candidates, saying Purdue Fort Wayne checked all the boxes.

“When we evaluate a new member, specifically from an athletics context, we look at three things,” he said. “We look at their academic pro forma, we look at their location, and we look at either ‘past history competitively’ or ‘potential’.”

So with those three criteria in mind, Robert Morris seems to be the most logical addition if they are interested in moving up.  The Colonials currently play in the Northeastern Conference which finished last season as the 30th ranked league out of 32 conferences according to KenPom.com. The Horizon League finished 18th and the Summit League, which Purdue Fort Wayne is leaving, finished 23.

Robert Morris is located just outside of Pittsburgh, only 59 miles from current member Youngstown State, and is basically already within the league’s footprint. They have made the NCAA Tournament eight times in their history, including as recently as 2015, but haven’t finished within the top 250 teams in the country over the past four seasons according to KenPom.

However, the Colonials could also check the ‘potential’ box as they are set to open a brand new 4,000 seat on-campus arena, the UPMC Events Center, this season with the opening game on November 12th being against cross-town rival Pittsburgh.

It would give the league another private school – Detroit Mercy is currently the only one – and the university seems committed to basketball. Robert Morris spent $2.2 million on its men’s basketball program in 2017 which would rank 6th out of 12 Horizon League teams.

Men’s basketball budgets (2017) (Source: US Dept of Education):

School Budget
Wright State $3,050,810
Detroit Mercy $2,673,249
Oakland $2,336,615
UIC $2,335,671
Milwaukee $2,321,139
Robert Morris $2,206,245
Cleveland State $2,073,834
Northern Kentucky $1,965,242
Green Bay $1,758,211
IUPUI $1,614,116
Purdue Fort Wayne $1,545,947
Youngstown State $1,517,679

There would be several hurdles to overcome, however, including where the Colonials would put their football team.  Robert Morris also plays ice hockey and lacrosse, two sports the Horizon League doesn’t sponsor, which eat up a large chunk of their athletic department’s $19 million overall budget.

A 2017 article from Alan Saunders weighed the pros and cons of a move to the Horizon League for Robert Morris and still remains relevant today, though the program’s new arena is finished and should help the program get back on solid footing.

There doesn’t seem to be any other glaringly obvious candidates beyond that at this point. Southern Illinois-Edwardsville in suburban St. Louis could potentially be an option, though not a good one as they have never had a winning season in their short Division I history.  Southern Indiana in Evansville could also be an option if the school is in fact seriously considering a move up to Division I. Lipscomb has had some recent basketball success and could be interested in moving up from the Atlantic Sun Conference, though they’d be joining a Midwest-centric league and leaving what has become a more Florida / southeastern based league. Same with Division I newcomer Bellarmine, located in Louisville.

So there’s not a lot of good options at this point unless you’re somehow convincing another Midwest mid-major to leave their current home in a better league (like Evansville) or going for a moonshot like Grand Canyon, New Mexico State, Belmont, or Murray State, which all seem highly unrealistic.

It will be interesting to see if the conference decides to stand pat at eleven for the 2020/2021 season or if the league’s expansion plans are back in action.

There is still a long way to go before July 1 so any changes between now and then could take effect in time for the 2020/2021 season.


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