Defining a Mid-Major

Every February and March college sports pundits begin throwing out the term “mid-major” to describe the “little guy” of college basketball.  First, we focus on the “mid-major” conference tourneys where only the winner of event gets to advance to the NCAA Tournament.  Then, we get inspired by mid-major Cinderella stories as they emerge in the Big Dance.  However, it always seemed to me that college basketball analysts throw out the term “mid-major” without defining exactly what it is.  Obviously, it refers to smaller conference teams, but what exactly does that entail?  Below, I will discuss several different perspectives, including my own, on this issue.  I have also included the benefits and drawbacks of each viewpoint.  There may never be a consensus opinion on what exactly a mid-major is, but I’ve always felt this issue needs to be analyzed in greater detail, and here is my attempt to do so.

Viewpoint # 1: The Big 6– This is probably the most popular viewpoint, but in my opinion, it is also the most flawed.

  • Definition: A “mid-major” is any team outside of the Big 6 power conferences.
  • Benefits to the theory: Very simple and easy to figure out.
  • Drawbacks to the theory:  My criticisms of this overly simplistic mid-major classification system are numerous.  First of all, under this theory, the 2007 Memphis team, 1998 Utah squad, and UNLV dynasty of the early 1990s would all be considered mid-majors.  That means that we’ve had two mid-major runners-up in the past 2 decades and one mid-major national champion.  However, none of these runs were the least bit surprising or even intriguing.  Those teams were stacked with future NBA superstars, which is definitely not a typical characteristic of mid-major programs.  By applying this theory, we also make the George Mason Final Four run of 2006 somewhat insignificant since mid-major Memphis made it even farther than them in the tourney two years later.  And yes, all those trivia answers that said George Mason was the first mid-major to make the Final Four since Indiana State would be entirely inaccurate. Finally, if we are to only draw one line separating the high-majors and the mid-majors, then any second grader can notice that something is missing.  In any type of hierarchy there can’t just be a high-level and a mid-level.  There also has to be a low-level.  Thus, this theory also fails to define what a low-major is.  In general, that is a huge problem I have with how college basketball analysts typically use this term.  They throw out the phrase “mid-major” when referring to any small conference team, as to imply that there is no such thing as a low-major.

Viewpoint # 2: The FBS/FCS divide

  • Definition: Any team outside the 11 Division 1-A football conferences is a mid-major. 
  • Benefits to the theory: Also, very simple and easy to figure out.  It is superior to viewpoint # 1 because it removes the mid-major classifications from the Memphis, UNLV, and Utah powerhouses I mentioned earlier.
  • Drawbacks to the theory: Almost every year Mid-American and Sun Belt conferences rank half of college basketball conferences, yet under this theory, they are lumped in as “high-majors”.  That just doesn’t work.  Also, this viewpoint once again fails to differentiate between mid-majors and low-majors.

Viewpoint # 3: The Red-Line (from

  • Definition: Any team in a conference that is below the red line drawn on (the premier small conference basketball site on the web) is a mid-major.  The red line is the dividing line between conferences whose members have an average annual athletic budget of $20 million or more and those conferences who don’t.  Thus, there are 8 conferences that are considered high-majors, the big 6 conferences, the Mountain West, and C-USA.
  • Benefits to the theory: Also, very simple and easy to figure out.  This viewpoint seems to really follow the modern perception of which teams are mid-majors and which aren’t.  Kyle Whelliston, the author of the mid-majority blog, even admits that this is exactly what he is going for, as he says that the mid-major classification is one that changes over time.  Also, the aforementioned “misstated mid-majors” (Memphis, Utah, and UNLV) would be high-majors based on their current conference affiliation.
  • Drawbacks to the theory: It seems cynical to use money (or lack thereof) as the only factor in making the mid-major determination.  Also, Whelliston is taking into account each school’s total athletic budget for this analysis, not just what the amount they spent on men’s basketball.  Obviously, such numbers will be greatly affected by a university’s football team, or lack thereof.  Furthermore, this viewpoint once again fails to differentiate between mid-majors and low-majors.  In addition, Atlantic 10 basketball is typically superior to both the C-USA and MWC, but most seasons it possesses a lower classification according to this theory. 

Viewpoint # 4: Numbers Games

  • Definition: Mid-major conferences can be determined quantitatively in many different ways.  Example # 1: If your conference has averages less than 2 tourney bids per year, then it is a mid-major.   Example # 2: If your conference averages less than 1 tourney win per year, then it is also a mid-major.
  • Benefits to theory: This theory can be modified to include a low-major classification by simply adding another dimension (ex: teams that receive less than 1.5 bids per year are mid-majors).  Also, this theory’s results change over time, so the Numbers Game theory can evolve to fit the current landscape of college basketball.
  • Drawbacks of theory: The major drawback is its complexity.  No one wants to sit down with a calculator and determine what a mid-major is.  We want our mid-majors to be evident and obvious. 

Viewpoint # 5: The Rule of Thirds (My personal view)

  • Definition: There are 31 conferences in Division 1, and there are 3 categories we much create.  Therefore, it makes perfect sense to me to divide the conferences in thirds.  The top 10 RPI conferences are the high-majors, the next 10 are the mid-majors, and the final 11 are the low-majors.
  • Benefits to theory: They are quite numerous in my opinion.  First, it is not nearly as complex as the numerical calculations I mentioned previously.  Secondly, the parameters are very exact leaving no room for ambiguity.  Third, the theory allows for the classifications to adapt to the changes in college hoops.  Fourth, it accurately differentiates between the George Mason run of 3 years ago and the UNLV, Memphis, and Utah runs I spoke about earlier.   The Colonial was not a top 10 conference in 2006, but C-USA was in 2008, the WAC was in 1998, and the Big West was in 1990.  Fifth, this system clearly differentiates between mid-majors and low-majors.  
  • Drawbacks of theory: One drawback is that it requires a little bit of research to go out and find the conference RPI rankings.  But let me help you out:  The other drawback is that there are multiple RPI formulas in existence (ex: Ken Pomeroy, CBS, Real-time RPI, etc.) so it is possible that one site could have a different classification than another.

Viewpoint # 6: Theory of Mid-Major Relativity– Here is the sentimentalist viewpoint on this issue. 

  • Definition: Quite simply, a “mid-major” is any underdog that we fall in love with in March.  There are no exact specifications or parameters.  We just know it when we see it. 
  • Benefits to theory: It sure makes it easy for everyone to pick out who is a mid-major and who is not.
  • Drawbacks of theory: This theory obviously leaves the door wide open for disagreement and ambiguity.

The bottom line is that no matter how you personally define a mid-major make sure you do it in a way that allows you to be inspired by their success.  Because that’s what March is all about.  It’s about the miracles.  It’s about the upsets.   And it’s about the mid-majors… whatever those are.


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