One of the world’s best and most-watched tournaments is just wrapping up. Millions of people come together, make brackets, and watch an unhealthy amount of basketball. March Madness offers the best of the best in Division I Men’s and Women’s basketball. But what about Division II? Why does Division I have so much more national viewership than Division II?
Since the start of the 2022-23 school year, I have had the opportunity to cover Division II athletics, specifically the RMAC. Seeing how awesome Division II athletics are and how little attention they receive has been eye-opening.
The most-watched sport in college athletics is by far football. Division II football is one of the most exciting levels of sports in the US but is not widely viewed. For example, the Division I FBS football playoffs only have four teams, and even with the upcoming expansion, there are still plenty of complaints. D2 football playoffs, however, have 28 teams competing, and they narrow it down to two over the course of six weeks. No, that was not a typo. How could you not watch a 28-team football tournament?
If you have no relation to a Division II team, you may have never even watched a Division II football game. That is largely because during the past season, the only games nationally televised were the semifinals, which were on ESPN+, and the championship, which was on ESPNU. The rest of the 24 matchups in the tournament could only be watched on local television or the school’s website. It’s not that people don’t want to watch it, but rather that it’s not right in front of their faces.
“If Division I is not on TV but Division II is, then people are going to watch Division II. I think it’s just about consistency and about what people are actually able to click easily,” said the Assistant Athletic Director of Communications and Operations at Colorado Christian University, Cassidy Burke.
Out of the 37 Division II athletics, only football and men’s and women’s basketball championships were broadcasted on national television last year. In contrast, Division I had 23 out of 37 national championships nationally televised. I understand why there are more championships nationally televised in Division I sports, but I don’t understand why more Division II football and men’s and women’s basketball tournaments were not.
“I think it’s kind of ridiculous that we can’t watch the Division II Golf National Championship. I mean, they’re playing for a national title, and you have to just look at a little stat thing,” said Sports Information Director at Colorado Christian University, Joel Ashor.
So, what can the NCAA do to help increase viewership and popularity in Division II sports? First, the NCAA is doing an excellent job promoting all collegiate divisions. Currently, the Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament has all the divisions in one location, and the NCAA is heavily promoting all three of them. However, to increase regular viewership across Division II sports, I would love to see the NCAA make some sort of deal with ESPN+ or a similar large media group. This would not only broadcast more Division II sports and major sport playoffs, but also showcase some of the best regular season and conference tournament matchups, not just the most well-known events.
“I think the NCAA has done a tremendous job of promoting these Division II Championship events. I’ve noticed an incredible leap in their promotion on social media and that’s not limited to just the Division II level,” said the Assistant Commissioner of Strategic Communications at the RMAC, Zack Chavez. “The postseason championships for all sports are free for viewing, so I think that that’s huge too because you’re allowing people to be familiarized with these sports and with these Division II Championships and student-athletes at no cost and building that desire and brand for fans and followers.”
What do you think the skill gap between Division I and Division II sports is? Well, it’s not as big as you might think. For instance, Dillon Powell of Colorado School of Mines finished first in the Cross-Country National Championships with a time of 29:28.0. If you put that time into the Division I leaderboard, Powell would be tied for 28th place out of 255 runners. Even in the NFL, there are currently around 50 Division II players.
“Look at Austin Ekeler. He went to Western Colorado and crushed it. Was he undersized? Maybe, I don’t know. But a lot of people think that until you show out. Just because you play at a Division II institution doesn’t mean you can’t play at the highest level of the sport,” said Zack Chavez.
Division I certainly has some of the best atmosphere, energy, and raw emotion in all of sports. However, the same is true for Division II. It’s still a collegiate sport, and at times there’s even more raw emotion and energy precisely because there’s no pressure from an abundance of large media watching.
“The biggest difference I see from college sports versus professional sports is you watch March Madness, and they’re gritty. Some of them are playing their last games they will ever play as a college athlete,” said Cassidy Burke.
If someone were to ask me why they should watch Division II sports, I would say that there are so many amazing stories, not just about the athletes, but about the schools as well. There’s something truly special about the level of grit and determination that these athletes bring to the game. And personally, I find the journey from Division II to the professional level to be even more inspiring than the stories we hear about well-known Division I athletes.
“Their performance speaks for themselves and the excitement, the performance, the coaching, and the desire is there, and I think that’s why people need to tune into Division II,” said Zack Chavez.
Division II sports may not receive as much attention as Division I sports, but they still offer plenty of excitement, passion, and skill. Watching these athletes compete can be just as thrilling as watching any high-level athlete. It’s important to give Division II sports a chance and appreciate the amazing stories, talent, and passion they offer.