NCAA Division I

Highest level of intercollegiate athletics sanctioned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association

NCAA Division I (D-I) is the highest level of intercollegiate athletics sanctioned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in the United States, which accepts players globally. D-I schools include the major collegiate athletic powers, with larger budgets, more elaborate facilities and more athletic scholarships than Divisions II and III as well as many smaller schools committed to the highest level of intercollegiate competition.

This level was once called the University Division of the NCAA, in contrast to the lower-level College Division; these terms were replaced with numeric divisions in 1973. The University Division was renamed Division I, while the College Division was split in two; the College Division members that offered scholarships or wanted to compete against those who did became Division II, while those who did not want to offer scholarships became Division III.[1]

For college football only, D-I schools are further divided into the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), and those institutions that do not have any football program. FBS teams have higher game attendance requirements and more players receiving athletic scholarships than FCS teams. The FBS is named for its series of postseason bowl games, with various polls ranking teams after the conclusion of these games, while the FCS national champion is determined by a multi-team bracket tournament.

For the 2020–21 school year, Division I contained 357 of the NCAA's 1,066 member institutions, with 130 in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), 127 in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), and 100 non-football schools, with six additional schools in the transition from Division II to Division I.[2][3] There was a moratorium on any additional movement up to D-I until 2012, after which any school that wants to move to D-I must be accepted for membership by a conference and show the NCAA it has the financial ability to support a D-I program.

Schools must field teams in at least seven sports for men and seven for women or six for men and eight for women, with at least two team sports for each gender.[4][5] Teams that include both men and women are counted as men's sports for the purposes of sponsorship counting.[4] Division I schools must meet minimum financial aid awards for their athletics program, and there are maximum financial aid awards for each sport that a Division I school cannot exceed.[6] Several other NCAA sanctioned minimums and differences distinguish Division I from Divisions II and III.[5] Members must sponsor at least one sport (not necessarily a team sport) for each sex in each playing season (fall, winter, spring), again with coeducational teams counted as men's teams for this purpose.[7] There are contest and participant minimums for each sport, as well as scheduling criteria. For sports other than football and basketball, Division I schools must play 100 percent of the minimum number of contests against Division I opponents—anything over the minimum number of games has to be 50 percent Division I. Men's and women's basketball teams have to play all but two games against Division I teams; for men, they must play one-third of all their contests in the home arena.[8]

In addition to the schools that compete fully as D-I institutions, the NCAA allows D-II and D-III schools to classify one men's and one women's sport (other than football or basketball) as a D-I sport, as long as they sponsored those sports before the latest rules change in 2011.[9] Also, Division II schools are eligible to compete for Division I national championships in sports that do not have a Division II national championship, and in those sports may also operate under D-I rules and scholarship limits.[10]

For football only, Division I was further subdivided in 1978 into Division I-A (the principal football schools), Division I-AA (the other schools with football teams), and Division I (those schools not sponsoring football).[11][12] In 2006, Division I-A and I-AA were renamed "Football Bowl Subdivision" (FBS) and "Football Championship Subdivision" (FCS), respectively.

FBS teams are allowed a maximum of 85 players receiving athletically based aid per year, with each player on scholarship receiving a full scholarship. FCS teams have the same 85-player limit as FBS teams, but are allowed to give aid equivalent to only 63 full scholarships. FCS teams are allowed to award partial scholarships, a practice technically allowed but essentially never used at the FBS level. FBS teams also have to meet minimum game attendance requirements (average 15,000 people in actual or paid attendance per home game), while FCS teams do not need to meet minimum attendance requirements.

Another difference is postseason play. Since 1978, FCS teams have played in an NCAA-sanctioned bracket tournament culminating in a title game, the NCAA Division I Football Championship, to determine a national champion. Meanwhile, FBS teams play in bowl games, with various polls ranking teams after the conclusion of these games, yielding a Consensus National Champion annually since 1950. Starting with the 2014 postseason, a four-team College Football Playoff has been contested, replacing a one-game championship format that had started during the 1992 postseason with the Bowl Coalition. Even so, Division I FBS football remains the only NCAA sport in which a yearly champion is not determined by an NCAA-sanctioned championship event.

Division I athletic programs generated $8.7 billion in revenue in the 2009–2010 academic year. Men's teams provided 55%, women's teams 15%, and 30% was not categorized by sex or sport. Football and men's basketball are usually a university's only profitable sports,[13] and are called "revenue sports".[14] From 2008 to 2012, 205 varsity teams were dropped in NCAA Division I – 72 for women and 133 for men, with men's tennis, gymnastics and wrestling hit particularly hard.[15]

In the Football Bowl Subdivision (130 schools in 2017), between 50 and 60 percent of football and men's basketball programs generated positive revenues (above program expenses).[16] However, in the Football Championship Subdivision (124 schools in 2017), only four percent of football and five percent of men's basketball programs generated positive revenues.[17]

In 2012, 2% of athletic budgets were spent on equipment, uniforms and supplies for male athletes at NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision school, with the median spending per-school at $742,000.[18]

In 2014, the NCAA and the student athletes debated whether student athletes should be paid. In April, the NCAA approved students-athletes getting free unlimited meals and snacks. The NCAA stated "The adoption of the meals legislation finished a conversation that began in the Awards, Benefits, Expenses and Financial Aid Cabinet. Members have worked to find appropriate ways to ensure student-athletes get the nutrition they need without jeopardizing Pell Grants or other federal aid received by the neediest student-athletes. With their vote, members of the council said they believe loosening NCAA rules on what and when food can be provided from athletics departments is the best way to address the issue."[19]

Under NCAA regulations, all Division I conferences defined as "multisport conferences" must meet the following criteria:[20]

FBS conferences must meet a more stringent set of requirements for NCAA recognition than other conferences:[21]

(** "Power Five" conferences with guaranteed berths in the "access bowls" associated with the College Football Playoff)

Sports are ranked according to total possible scholarships (number of teams x number of scholarships per team). Scholarship numbers for head-count sports are indicated without a decimal point. Numbers for equivalency sports are indicated with a decimal point, with a trailing zero if needed.
The NCAA officially classifies the men's championships in volleyball and water polo as "National Collegiate" championships, that being the designation for championships that are open to members of more than one NCAA division. The ice hockey championship, however, is styled as a "Division I" championship because of the previous existence of a separate Division II championship in that sport.

The following table lists the men's individual DI sports with at least 1,000 participating athletes. Sports are ranked by number of athletes.

DI college wrestling has lost almost half of its programs since 1982.[25]

The following table lists the women's individual DI sports with at least 1,000 participating athletes. Sports are ranked by number of athletes.

NCAA Division I schools have broadcasting contracts that showcase their more popular sports — typically football and men's basketball — on network television and in basic cable channels. These contracts can be quite lucrative, particularly for DI schools from the biggest conferences. For example, the Big Ten conference in 2016 entered into contracts with Fox and ESPN that pay the conference $2.64 billion over six years.

The NCAA also holds certain TV contracts. For example, the NCAA's contract to show the men's basketball championship tournament (widely known as March Madness) is currently under a 14-year deal with CBS and Turner that runs from 2010 to 2024 and pays $11 billion.

For the 2014–15 fiscal year, the conferences that earned the most revenues (and that distributed the most revenues to each of their member schools) were:

The NCAA has limits on the total financial aid each Division I member may award in each sport that the school sponsors. It divides sports that are sponsored into two types for purposes of scholarship limitations:

The term "counter" is also key to this concept. The NCAA defines a "counter" as "an individual who is receiving institutional financial aid that is countable against the aid limitations in a sport."[33]

The number of scholarships that Division I members may award in each sport is listed below. In this table, scholarship numbers for head-count sports are indicated without a decimal point; for equivalency sports, they are listed with a decimal point, with a trailing zero if required.

The NCAA also has rules specifying the sport in which multi-sport athletes are to be counted, with the basic rules being:[54]

Subdivisions in Division I exist only in football.[56][57] In all other sports, all Division I conferences are equivalent. The subdivisions were recently given names to reflect the differing levels of football play in them.

The method by which the NCAA determines whether a school is Bowl or Championship subdivision is first by attendance numbers and then by scholarships.[58] For attendance reporting methods, the NCAA allows schools to report either total tickets sold or the number of persons in attendance at the games. They require a minimum average of 15,000 people in attendance every other year.[58] These numbers get posted to the NCAA statistics website for football each year. With the new rules starting in the 2006 season, the number of Bowl Subdivision schools could drop in the future if those schools are not able to pull in enough fans into the games. Additionally, 14 FCS schools had enough attendance to be moved up in 2012.[59] Under current NCAA rules, these schools must have an invitation from an FBS conference in order to move to FBS. Three of them—Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, and Old Dominion—began FBS transitions in 2013. All had the required FBS conference invitations, with Old Dominion joining Conference USA in 2013, and Appalachian State and Georgia Southern joining the Sun Belt Conference in 2014. The difference in the postseasons in each of the subdivisions grant the FCS an advantage to have the best record in college football history, 17–0, while the FBS only allows a 15–0 record.

Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), formerly known as Division I-A, is the top level of college football. Schools in Division I FBS compete in post-season bowl games, with the champions of five conferences, along with the highest-ranked champion of the other five conferences, receiving automatic bids to the access bowls.

FBS schools are limited to a total of 85 football players receiving financial assistance.[60] For competitive reasons, a student receiving partial scholarship counts fully against the total of 85. Nearly all FBS schools that are not on NCAA probation give 85 full scholarships.

As of the 2019 college football season, there will be 130 full members of Division I FBS. The most recent school to become a full FBS member is Liberty University, which made the transition from FCS in 2017 and 2018.

Since the 2016 season, all FBS conferences have been allowed to conduct a championship game that does not count against the limit of 12 regular-season contests. Under the current rules, such a game can be held either (1) between the winners of each of two divisions, with each team having played a full round-robin schedule within its division, or (2) between the conference's top two teams after a full round-robin conference schedule.[61] Previously, "exempt" championship games could only be held between the divisional winners of conferences that had at least 12 football teams and split into divisions.[62][63] The prize is normally a specific bowl game bid for which the conference has a tie-in.

Some conferences have numbers in their names but this often has no relation to the number of member institutions in the conference. The Big Ten Conference did not formally adopt the "Big Ten" name until 1987, but unofficially used that name when it had 10 members from 1917 to 1946, and again from 1949 forward. However, it has continued to use the name even after it expanded to 11 members with the addition of Penn State in 1990, 12 with the addition of Nebraska in 2011, and 14 with the arrival of Maryland and Rutgers in 2014. The Big 12 Conference was established in 1996 with 12 members, but continues to use that name even after a number of departures and a few replacements left the conference with 10 members. On the other hand, the Pac-12 Conference has used names (official or unofficial) that have reflected the number of members since its current charter was established in 1959. The conference unofficially used "Big Five" (1959–62), "Big Six" (1962–64), and "Pacific-8" (1964–68) before officially adopting the "Pacific-8" name. The name duly changed to "Pacific-10" in 1978 with the addition of Arizona and Arizona State, and "Pac-12" (instead of "Pacific-12") in 2011 when Colorado and Utah joined. Conferences also tend to ignore their regional names when adding new schools. For example, the Pac-8/10/12 retained its "Pacific" moniker even though its four newest members (Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, Utah) are located in the inland West, and the original Big East kept its name even after adding schools (either in all sports or for football only) located in areas traditionally considered to be in the Midwest (Cincinnati, DePaul, Marquette, Notre Dame), Upper South (Louisville, Memphis) and Southwest (Houston, SMU). The non-football conference that assumed the Big East name when the original Big East split in 2013 is another example of this phenomenon, as half of its 10 inaugural schools (Butler, Creighton, DePaul, Marquette, Xavier) are traditionally regarded as being Midwestern.

(** "Big Five" or "Power Five" conferences with guaranteed berths in the "access bowls" associated with the College Football Playoff)

The Division I Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), formerly known as Division I-AA, consists of 124 teams as of the 2018 season; three programs are independent, while the remaining 121 teams are structured into 13 conferences.[64] The "I-AA" designation was dropped by the NCAA in 2006, although it is still informally and commonly used. FCS teams are limited to 63 players on scholarship (compared to 85 for FBS teams) and usually play an 11-game schedule (compared to 12 games for FBS teams).[65] The FCS determines its national champion through an NCAA-sanctioned single-elimination bracket tournament, culminating in a title game, the NCAA Division I Football Championship.[66] As of the 2018 season, the tournament begins with 24 teams; 10 conference champions that received automatic bids, and 14 teams selected at-large by a selection committee.[67]

The postseason tournament traditionally begins on Thanksgiving weekend in late November. When I-AA was formed 43 years ago in 1978,[11] the playoffs included just four teams for its first three seasons, doubling to eight teams for one season in 1981.[68] From 1982 to 1985, there was a 12-team tournament; this expanded to 16 teams in 1986. The playoffs expanded to 20 teams starting in 2010, then grew to 24 teams in 2013. Since the 2010 season, the title game is held in early January at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas. From 1997 through 2009, the title game was played in December in Chattanooga, Tennessee, preceded by five seasons in Huntington, West Virginia.[69]

The Football Championship Subdivision includes several conferences which do not participate in the eponymous post-season championship tournament.

The Ivy League was reclassified to I-AA (FCS) following the 1981 season,[70] and plays a strict ten-game schedule. Although it qualifies for an automatic bid, the Ivy League has not played any postseason games at all since becoming a conference for the 1956 NCAA University Division football season, citing academic concerns. (The last college which is now an Ivy League member to play in a bowl game was Columbia in the 1934 Rose Bowl.)

The Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) has its own championship game in mid-December between the champions of its East and West divisions. Also, three of its member schools traditionally do not finish their regular seasons until Thanksgiving weekend. Grambling State and Southern play each other in the Bayou Classic, and Alabama State plays Tuskegee (of Division II) in the Turkey Day Classic. SWAC teams are eligible to accept at-large bids if their schedule is not in conflict. The last SWAC team to participate in the I-AA playoffs was Jackson State in 1997; the SWAC never achieved success in the tournament, going winless in 19 games in twenty years (1978–97). It had greater success outside the conference while in Division II and the preceding College Division.

From 2006 through 2009, the Pioneer Football League and Northeast Conference champions played in the Gridiron Classic. If a league champion was invited to the national championship playoff as an at-large bid (something the Pioneer league, at least, never received), the second-place team would play in the Gridiron Classic. That game was scrapped after the 2009 season when its four-year contract ran out; this coincided with the NCAA's announcement that the Northeast Conference would get an automatic bid to the tournament starting in 2010. The Big South Conference also received an automatic bid in the same season. The Pioneer Football League earned an automatic bid beginning in 2013.

The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) began abstaining from the playoffs with the 2015 season. Like the SWAC, its members are eligible for at-large bids, and the two conferences have faced off in the Celebration Bowl as an alternative postseason game since the 2015 season.

Schools in a transition period after joining the FCS from a lower division (or from the NAIA) are also ineligible for the playoffs.

Division I FCS schools are currently restricted to giving financial assistance amounting to 63 full scholarships. As FCS football is an "equivalency" sport (as opposed to the "head-count" status of FBS football), Championship Subdivision schools may divide their allotment into partial scholarships. However, FCS schools may only have 85 players receiving any sort of athletic financial aid for football—the same numeric limit as FBS schools. Because of competitive forces, however, a substantial number of players in Championship Subdivision programs are on full scholarships. Another difference is that FCS schools no longer have a limit on the number of new players that can be provided with financial aid in a given season, while FBS schools are limited to 25 such additions per season. Finally, FCS schools are limited to 95 individuals participating in preseason practices, as opposed to 105 at FBS schools (the three service academies that play FBS football are exempt from preseason practice player limits by NCAA rule).

A few Championship Subdivision conferences are composed of schools that offer no athletic scholarships at all, most notably the Ivy League and the Pioneer Football League (PFL), a football-only conference. The Ivy League allows no athletic scholarships at all, while the PFL consists of schools that offer scholarships in other sports but choose not to take on the expense of a scholarship football program. The Northeast Conference also sponsored non-scholarship football, but began offering a maximum of 30 full scholarship equivalents in 2006, which grew to 40 in 2011 after a later vote of the league's school presidents and athletic directors and has since increased to 45.[71] The Patriot League only began awarding football scholarships in the 2013 season, with the first scholarships awarded only to incoming freshmen. Before the conference began its transition to scholarship football, athletes receiving scholarships in other sports were ineligible to play football for member schools. Since the completion of the transition with the 2016 season, member schools have been allowed up to 60 full scholarship equivalents.[72]

Several Bowl Subdivision and Championship Subdivision conferences have member institutions that do not compete in football. Such schools are sometimes unofficially referred to as I-AAA.[73]

The following non-football conferences have full members that sponsor football:

The following Division I conferences do not sponsor football. These conferences still compete in Division I for all sports that they sponsor.

Of these, the three that most recently sponsored football were the Atlantic 10, MAAC, and WAC. The A-10 football league dissolved in 2006 with its members going to the Colonial Athletic Association. In addition, four A-10 schools (Dayton, Fordham, Duquesne, and Massachusetts) play football in a conference other than the new CAA, which still includes two full-time A-10 members (Rhode Island and Richmond). The MAAC stopped sponsoring football in 2007, after most of its members gradually stopped fielding teams. The only pre-2007 MAAC member that still sponsors football is Marist; Monmouth became the second full MAAC member with football upon its arrival in 2013. Marist plays in the Pioneer Football League, while Monmouth spent the 2013 season as an FCS independent before moving its football program into the Big South. The WAC dropped football at the end of the 2012 season, after a near-complete membership turnover that saw the conference stripped of all but two of its football-sponsoring members. The two remaining football-sponsoring schools, Idaho and New Mexico State, played the 2013 season as FBS independents before becoming football-only members of the Sun Belt Conference in 2014. Both left Sun Belt football in 2018, with Idaho downgrading to FCS status and adding football to its all-sports Big Sky Conference membership and New Mexico State becoming an FBS independent. The WAC added two more football-sponsoring schools with the 2020 arrival of Dixie State and Tarleton State from Division II; both schools planned to be FCS independents for the foreseeable future. In January 2021, the WAC announced it would reinstate football at the FCS level in July of that year, coinciding with the arrival of four new full members with FCS football.

Some sports, most notably ice hockey[81] and men's volleyball, have completely different conference structures that operate outside of the normal NCAA sports conference structure.

As ice hockey is limited to a much smaller number of almost exclusively Northern schools, there is a completely different conference structure for teams.[81] These conferences feature a mix of teams that play their other sports in various Division I conferences, and even Division II and Division III schools. For most of the early 21st century, there was no correlation between a team's ice hockey affiliation and its affiliation for other sports, with the exception of the Ivy League's hockey-playing schools all being members of the ECAC. For example, before 2013, the Hockey East men's conference consisted of one ACC school, one Big East school, four schools from the America East, one from the A-10, one CAA school, and two schools from the D-II Northeast Ten Conference, while the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) and Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) both had some Big Ten representation, plus Division II and III schools. Also, the divisional structure is truncated, with the Division II championship abolished in 1999.

The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference ceased its sponsorship of the sport in 2003,[82] with the remaining members forming Atlantic Hockey. For the next decade, no regular all-sport conferences sponsored ice hockey.

Starting with the 2013–14 season, Division I men's hockey experienced a major realignment. The Big Ten Conference began to sponsor ice hockey, and their institutions withdrew their membership from the WCHA and CCHA.[83] Additionally, six other schools from those conferences withdrew to form the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference at the same time.[84] The fallout from these moves led to the demise of the original CCHA, two more teams entering the NCHC, and further membership turnover in the men's side of the WCHA.

Women's hockey was largely unaffected by this realignment. The Big Ten still has only four members with varsity women's hockey (full members Michigan and Michigan State only ice men's teams, as does hockey-only member Notre Dame), with six teams required under conference bylaws for official sponsorship. As a result, the only changes in women's hockey affiliations in the 2010–14 period occurred in College Hockey America, which saw two schools drop the sport and three new members join.

The next significant realignment will take place after the 2020–21 season, when seven of the 10 current men's members of the WCHA will leave to form a revived CCHA.[85]

In the early 21st century, a controversy arose in the NCAA over whether schools will continue to be allowed to have one showcased program in Division I with the remainder of the athletic program in a lower division, as is the case of, notably, Johns Hopkins University lacrosse as well as Colorado College and University of Alabama in Huntsville in ice hockey. This is an especially important issue in hockey, which has no Division II national championship and has several schools whose other athletic programs compete in Division II and Division III.

This controversy was resolved at the 2004 NCAA Convention in Nashville, Tennessee when the members supported Proposal 65–1, the amended legislation co-sponsored by Colorado College, Clarkson University, Hartwick College, the Johns Hopkins University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Rutgers University–Newark, St. Lawrence University, and SUNY Oneonta.[86][87] Each school affected by this debate is allowed to grant financial aid to student-athletes who compete in Division I programs in one men's sport and one women's sport. It is still permitted for other schools to place one men's and one women's sport in Division I going forward, but they cannot offer scholarships without bringing the whole program into compliance with Division I rules. In addition, schools in Divisions II and III are allowed to "play up" in any sport that does not have a championship for the school's own division, but only Division II programs and any Division III programs covered by the exemption can offer scholarships in those sports.

The Division I programs at each of the eight "waiver schools" which were grandfathered with the passing of Proposal 65-1 were: