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Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015: The nuts and bolts of football's proposed expansion

   Leading off today: As I started sifting through the agenda for the NYSPHSAA's Executive Committee meeting scheduled for Thursday, one of my first thoughts was that this is going to be a big meeting on several levels.

   There are big issues that are heading to a vote -- with last week's revelation about the boys basketball tournament bidding process adding to the pile -- and there's a big list of other business to wade through. And part of that list concerns sports that want to get bigger in the postseason: The lacrosse and football committees are pushing to grow by one class apiece in their postseason tournaments and hockey wants to add two games to the regular season.

   The football proposal, though, is the most interesting. As much as anything else, the people responsible for running the sport are seeking a solution that will allow them to grow their way out of some legitimate safety concerns that also have competitive implications. To that end, state chairman Gary VanDerzee and his committee have proposed adding a sixth division -- Class AAA -- to the New York State Public High School Athletic Association tournament.

   Make no mistake: What football has put forward is no copy-and-paste job, but rather a thoughtful proposal. I'm not sure it can gain approval in its first full trip through the process, but it's better than I expected when I first heard talk a couple of years ago about expanding to six classes.

   For starters, the football committee is shunning uniformity. The classic formula for New York's multi-class state championships has been to divide schools roughly equally among its playoff classes. And for the most part, football has stuck close to maintaining a formula of roughly 20 percent of its teams per class since the tournament expanded to five classes in 1996.

   Here's how the teams break down by section and class in the 2015 season:

Section AA A B C D
One 19 26 15 5 2
Two 12 12 13 18 7
Three 13 10 16 16 10
Four 5 4 7 9 16
Five 15 12 10 14 17
Six 10 17 18 13 7
Seven 0 0 3 3 2
Nine 10 8 10 6 2
Ten 0 1 1 5 1
   (The two Long Island sections are not included here since they are not part of the NYSPHSAA tournament that culminates each year with two days of title games in the Carrier Dome.)

   If you throw out the smaller Class D and its 64 teams, the other classes balance rather nicely at between 84 and 93 teams -- not bad for a sport that's gone awhile without a tweak of its classification cutoffs, as well as one in which a lot of Class D teams have merged their way out of existence in the past five years.

   What's being put forward now is a proposal that strives to maintain balance in the middle four classes. However, Class D would remain a bit smaller than the others -- and the new Class AAA is intended to be substantially smaller than any of the others.

   The overwhelming reason behind the unbalanced distribution is to avoid monstrous differences in school sizes in the playoffs. The proposal calls for the minimum enrollment in Class AAA to be 1,100 students according to annual BEDS numbers and the maximum enrollment in Class D to be 224.

   Had the committee taken the lazy route and just strived for roughly 16-17 percent of teams to land in each class, Class AAA's floor would have dropped and Class D's ceiling would have risen. And that's a problem. With safety concerns arguably at an all-time high -- the lawsuit filed by the family in the aftermath of Damon Janes' 2013 death broaches the notion that a disparity in school sizes could have been a contributing factor -- the last thing the NYSPHSAA wants is a Class D school with 100 students repeatedly going up against ones with 250.

   At the other end of the spectrum, New Rochelle (2,590), Newburgh (2,521), Shenendehowa (2,407) and Monroe-Woodbury (1,728) are examples of schools that dwarf most of the opposition in a current Class AA with an enrollment football site

floor of 930. Lowering the proposed AAA floor of 1,100 to 1,025 or so for the sake of evenly distributing the classes simply isn't a good idea with the safety issue so dominant.

   This, then, is an approximation of how the six-class structure would look:

Section AAA AA A B C D
One 11 20 16 15 3 2
Two 10 9 8 9 17 9
Three 8 10 16 8 11 12
Four 3 4 3 9 7 15
Five 6 16 10 8 14 14
Six 6 14 15 14 9 7
Seven 0 0 1 2 3 2
Nine 6 7 8 7 6 2
Ten 0 0 2 1 4 1
   (My numbers -- pulled together quick and dirty this week -- don't quite sync with the data referenced in the football committee's proposal and are based upon 2015 BEDS info. With the trend of declining enrollments, it's safe to say a couple of schools per class will slide down a notch if/when this proposal is adopted for 2016.)

   The way I look at the changes in how schools are distributed, the move to six classes is either an improvement or essentially a wash for eight of the nine sections. The exception in my mind is in the Southern Tier, where Section 4 goes from two implausibly small large-school classes to three implausibly small large-school classes for its sectionals. That's not to say there aren't some work-arounds that could be applied, however.

   The relatively small Class AAA footprint in several sections and the dilution of some other classes raises the possibility that individual sections will want to cut some sectional fields to four teams. That means eight-game regular seasons in some classes instead of seven, adding a level of complexity to scheduling.

   Speaking of adding, one thing that a sixth class would be certain to do is to add to the bottom line of the NYSPHSAA and most of the respective sections. Though there will be minor increases in costs based on playing an extra tripleheader instead of a doubleheader, that would be dwarfed by the extra income. The combined net haul for sections and the state organization has been estimated at more than $83,000.

   Present vs. proposal: The current football classes and their enrollment cutoffs are Class AA with 930 or more students, A with 570-929, B with 365-569, C with 240-364 and D with up to 239.

   Under the current proposal, Class AAA would be 1,100 and up, AA at 740-1,099, A at 455-739, B at 340-454, C at 225-339 and D at 224 or under.

   Other growth proposals: Football's six-class plan is officially up for a vote by the Executive Committee on Thursday. Other sports are also putting forth plans to grow, but those will be discussion items rather than something to be voted on.

   Both boys and girls lacrosse want to move to four postseason tournament classes in 2017 and seemingly meet all the criteria for expansion developed by the NYSPHSAA over the years. One hurdle to be overcome is that quadrupleheaders at a single venue might not work for sectional finals and state tournament play. The boys committee proposes splitting its state semifinals between two venues, which wouldn't be great news for media but would be somewhat fan-friendly -- doubleheaders starting at 6 p.m. instead of tripleheaders starting in mid-afternoon.

   The Executive Committee will also hear baseball's proposal for a two-day final four rather than contesting state semifinals and finals in a single day. It's an idea that's been floated before and seems more valid than ever on the basis of equality with other sports while also addressing what appears to be an advantage in the final for teams playing their semifinal early in the day.

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