In North American sports, realignment refers to a major change in the competitive structure of one or more existing leagues. The mechanics differ somewhat between amateur and professional sports.
In professional sports, this occurs when a league decides to change which teams are in which divisions, usually by creating new divisions. In all of the four major North American sports leagues, all of the teams are grouped into one of two conferences (or leagues in baseball) while each conference/league is further subdivided into divisions. Teams in the same division play each other more regularly than teams in the same conference, and much more often than teams in the other conference. Teams from the same division can form intense rivalries. The top team from a division is always guaranteed a playoff spot and guaranteed a higher seeding in the playoffs. Divisions are usually based on geography, both to minimise travel costs and to encourage regional rivalries.
Divisions are not always static. Sometimes a team may relocate to a new city, and as a result the division may become geographically skewed. For instance, when the Atlanta Thrashers of the NHL became the Winnipeg Jets in 2011, they would have been a team from a northwestern city playing in the Southeast Division, but the NHL chose not to realign at this time, leading to lengthy road trips for the Jets and the other teams in their division.
Also, divisions need to be roughly equal in size to ensure that each team has an equal chance of becoming division champion. When a league introduces new teams in new markets, placing them in the division best suited to their geography may result in more teams in that division, so realignment is necessary. The 1969 baseball realignment coincided with the addition of four teams, whereas its 1994 realignment creating extra divisions in both the American League and the National League came a year after the league added the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins. The National Football League realigned to its current eight-division format after a series of team relocations had created geographically skewed divisions.
Sometimes a sport will favor old division rivalries over geographical consistency. The rivalries the Dallas Cowboys of the NFL maintain with the teams of the eastern seaboard, especially the Washington Commanders, meant they were kept in an eastern division after realignment, even though they are geographically dissimilar to their division rivals.
In college sports, the term "realignment" is used to refer to a situation in which large numbers of schools switch their conference affiliation in a short period of time. Especially in the top level of college sports, NCAA Division I, several schools change their affiliations in one or more sports every year. However, the term is usually reserved for situations which affect large numbers of conferences—most notably in 1996, 2005, 2010–2014, and most recently 2021–22.
Each of the four realignment periods below was driven mainly by one or a few conferences:
The Big Ten Conference is the oldest Division I collegiate athletic conference in the United States. Founded as the Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives in 1896, it predates the founding of its regulating organization, the NCAA. It is based in Rosemont, Illinois. For many decades the conference consisted of ten universities, and presently has 14 members and two affiliate institutions. The conference competes in the NCAA Division I and its football teams compete in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), formerly known as Division I-A, the highest level of NCAA competition in that sport.
The Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) is a college athletic conference that participates in the NCAA's Division I as a hockey-only conference. The current CCHA began play in the 2021–22 season; a previous incarnation, which the current CCHA recognizes as part of its history, existed from 1971 to 2013. Half of its members are located in the state of Michigan, with additional members in Minnesota and Ohio. It has also had teams located in Alaska, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Nebraska over the course of its existence.
The Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) is a college athletic conference which operates in the Midwestern United States. It participates in the NCAA's Division I as a women's ice hockey-only conference. From 1951 to 1999, it operated as a men-only league, adding women's competition in the 1999–2000 season. It operated men's and women's leagues through the 2020–21 season; during this period, the men's WCHA expanded to include teams far removed from its traditional Midwestern base, with members in Alabama, Alaska, and Colorado at different times. The men's side of the league officially disbanded after seven members left to form the revived Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA); the WCHA remains in operation as a women-only league.
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 large 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.
The Power Five conferences are five athletic conferences which are considered to be the elite in college football in the United States. They are part of the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) of NCAA Division I, the highest level of collegiate football in the nation. The conferences are the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Big Ten Conference, Big 12 Conference, Pac-12 Conference, and Southeastern Conference (SEC). As of the conclusion of the 2020–21 school year, only two of the soon-to-be sixty-nine power five conference schools have never won a National Championship in any sport, Kansas State of the Big 12 and Virginia Tech of the ACC. The term Power Five is not defined by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), and the origin of the term is unknown. It has been used in its current meaning since at least 2006. The term is also occasionally used in other college sports, although in many non-football sports, most notably basketball, anywhere from six to eight conferences may be considered "high-major".
College ice hockey is played principally in the United States and Canada, though leagues exist outside North America.
Don Lucia is an American former ice hockey head coach, who was named as inaugural commissioner of the second Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) on June 17, 2020. The CCHA, which is set to start play in the 2021–22 season, is a revival of an NCAA Division I men's hockey conference whose original version operated from 1971 to 2013 before folding in the wake of massive conference realignment in the sport.
The Alaska Nanooks men's ice hockey team is a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I college ice hockey program that represents the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The Nanooks are an Independent. They play at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks, Alaska.
The Bemidji State Beavers are the athletic teams that represent Bemidji State University, located in Bemidji, Minnesota, in NCAA Division II intercollegiate sports. The Beavers compete as members of the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference for all 14 varsity sports with the exceptions of men's and women's ice hockey, which respectively compete as members of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) and Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA).
The Northern Michigan Wildcats men's ice hockey team is a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I college ice hockey program that represents Northern Michigan University (NMU). The Wildcats are a member of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA). NMU has won one national title and has made three Frozen Four appearances. They play at the Berry Events Center in Marquette, Michigan.
The Omaha Mavericks Men's Ice Hockey team, also called the Nebraska Omaha Mavericks and UNO Mavericks, is a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I college ice hockey program that represents the University of Nebraska Omaha. The Mavericks are a member of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC). They play home games at Baxter Arena, an on-campus facility that opened in 2015. The Mavericks hockey program was started in 1997; the team has qualified for the NCAA tournament on four occasions, in 2006, 2011, 2015, and 2021. During the 2015 tournament, the team made their first appearance in the tournament semifinals, branded by the NCAA as the Frozen Four. The Mavericks competed in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) between 1999 and 2010 before joining the WCHA for the 2010–11 season. The Mavericks joined the National Collegiate Hockey Conference starting in the 2013–14 season along with fellow charter members Colorado College, the University of Denver, Miami University, the University of Minnesota Duluth, and the University of North Dakota, plus invited founding members St. Cloud State University and Western Michigan University.
The 2010–2014 NCAA conference realignment refers to extensive changes in conference membership at all three levels of NCAA competition—Division I, Division II, and Division III— beginning in the 2010–11 academic year.
A superconference is an athletic conference noted for its large number of members, significant revenue generation, and substantial power that it wields in comparison to at least some of its counterpart conferences. The term is typically used in reference to college athletics in the United States. Because superconferences are emergent and not clearly defined, the term is often used in a hypothetical and speculative way, although one definition of American college superconferences posits that they must form from leagues that were Automatic Qualifying (AQ) conferences during the era of the now-defunct Bowl Championship Series, possess a significant multi-network television deal, and at least consider expanding to the "magic number" of 16 members. The term, though used infrequently before 2010, has historical roots in the proposed "Airplane Conference" of 1959, the Metro Conference's 1990 plan to expand to 16 members, the expansion of the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) to 16 members in 1996, and the creation of 12-team, two-division conferences with football championship games by the Southeastern Conference (SEC), Big 12 Conference, and Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) in the 1990s and 2000s. Since major conference realignment began in 2010, the term has been used to describe the expanding ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, and SEC conferences.
The National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) is an NCAA men's Division I hockey conference formed on July 9, 2011. The league began playing for the 2013–14 season, the same season that the Big Ten Conference began competition, as a combination of six previous members of the WCHA and two of the CCHA. The league is headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Josh Fenton has served as conference commissioner since July 1, 2013.
The Michigan–Michigan State men's ice hockey rivalry is a college ice hockey rivalry between Michigan Wolverines men's ice hockey and Michigan State Spartans men's ice hockey that is part of the larger intrastate rivalry between the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. It constitutes the most-played rivalry in college hockey. The rivalry between the Spartans and Wolverines notably includes football and basketball rivalries, although it extends to almost all sports and many other forms of achievement. The most notable examples of the hockey rivalry are two outdoor games, the October 6, 2001 Cold War in East Lansing and the December 11, 2010 Big Chill at the Big House in Ann Arbor, which set the world record for attendance at a hockey game. This record however was broken four years later at the 2014 NHL Winter Classic on January 1, 2014. As of 2013, both teams are members of the Big Ten Conference, although they have previously competed together in both the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) and the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA).
The 2013–14 NCAA Division I men's ice hockey season began in October 2013 and ended with the 2014 NCAA Division I Men's Ice Hockey Tournament's championship game in April 2014. This was the 67th season in which an NCAA ice hockey championship was held, and the 120th year overall in which an NCAA school fielded a team.
The 2021–2022 NCAA conference realignment refers to extensive changes in NCAA conference membership, primarily at the Division I level, beginning in the 2021–22 academic year.