VALPARAISO — When Bryce Drew left for Vanderbilt in 2016, the rumors already started circulating.
Supposedly, Valparaiso had included a stipulation in Drew's contract that he must schedule a home-and-home series with the Crusaders if he were to move to a new school. Fans' excitement for a home game against a Power Five team coached by a local hero built up over three seasons, only for Vanderbilt to oust Drew in March, putting the game in doubt.
Valparaiso officially confirmed such last week when it announced Vanderbilt exercised its option to buy out its trip to Northwest Indiana for an undisclosed but “meaningful” amount. Atlantic 10 foe George Washington did the same after the Crusaders won 82-79 in DC last December.
“Everybody's got their own priorities, I guess," Valparaiso athletic director Mark LaBarbera said. "Scheduling has changed a lot in the last two years."
LaBarbera said more teams buy out the road game of a home-and-home series than in the past. Vanderbilt's decision to buy out the game did not surprise him, whereas George Washington's did.
While the Commodores and their SEC brethren each received about $43.1 million in shared revenue from the league for the 2017-17 fiscal year, the Atlantic 10 doesn't have such a large television contract — and the Colonials averaged just 2,382 fans per game this past season.
LaBarbera said Valparaiso will play Saint Louis on the road in a one-way game, and the program already announced a home-and-home with Toledo.
"What was gearing up to be a heck of a home schedule just took a turn," coach Matt Lottich said. "Right now, we just got thrown a curveball that we weren't expecting."
LaBarbera said that the advent of the NET rating – which replaced the RPI as the NCAA Tournament committee's metric of choice starting last season – has changed scheduling.
The NET accounts for margin of victory over the course of the season, which the RPI did not. Thus, while teams often preferred to avoid games against the dregs of Division I in the past to keep their strength of schedule high, now they schedule more such games to win by 30 or 40 points and improve their scoring margin.
LaBarbera said that has made it more difficult for Valparaiso – and other teams that are between 50 and 200 — to get games against good teams. Valparaiso will not look into scheduling fellow Missouri Valley Conference teams in the nonconference, LaBarbera said, and the MVC hasn't had conversations about adding a member to get two extra league games.
It doesn't help that the Big Ten, ACC and Pac 12 have moved or are moving to 20-game conference schedules, leaving fewer potential shots for mid-majors to collect resume-boosting wins.
"They don't want to be in the position where they could possibly be in the NCAA Tournament against somebody like Valparaiso and lose," LaBarbera said. "They're figuring, 'The more mid-majors we keep out, the less that's an issue for us.'"
Valparaiso will use the money from Vanderbilt and George Washington to improve its nutritional program and recruiting, among other basketball-focused initiatives. One of those: The Crusaders will pay opponents to come to the ARC for one-off games for the first time in program history.
Still, those buy games are pricier than ever. With Power Five teams more willing to bring in Delaware State or UMass-Lowell, higher demand means low-majors can ask for more.
In some ways, that helps Valparaiso — the Crusaders typically play two buy games per season and could increase that number in future seasons. But much of that extra cash will get soaked up when Valparaiso buys its own home games.
LaBarbera said buy games against low-majors used to cost around $60,000 but now hover around the $85,000-$90,000 range and that home-and-home buyouts "are big, six-figure numbers now." That puts Valparaiso's buyout money from Vanderbilt and George Washington at no less than $200,000 — and LaBarbera said Vanderbilt's figure was bigger than normal due to two renegotiations.
Valparaiso will still travel to Vanderbilt in 2020, unless that game is bought out, too. The Crusaders' 2019 nonconference schedule is almost set, as LaBarbera said solidifying the buy games at the ARC is the last remaining task.
ARC renovations coming... eventually
Valparaiso opted to use its buyout money to improve the basketball product, but LaBarbera said the university secured a donation to have the ARC assessed for renovation purposes. It's unclear how long it will take to raise the necessary money.
"There's some specificity to it," LaBarbera said. "Now we at least know what the conversation is and what we can talk to people about."
The renovations likely would not require Valparaiso to play a season elsewhere.
LaBarbera mentioned a new sound system, video board, seats, lights and air conditioning as possible improvements. Valparaiso wants to complete the project all at once rather than in separate steps, so it will need to round up all the funding before getting started.
The economic climate adds a new complication. As of Tuesday evening, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had dropped 5.07% since its all-time high of 27,359 on July 15. Nearly three-quarters of economists surveyed by the National Association for Business Economics in August predict a recession by the end of 2021.
“Anything that makes the economy worse is gonna impact potential donors' ability to be part of a project," LaBarbera said. "I think there is a sense of urgency."