In many ways, attending a game at the lower levels of men's Division I college basketball is indistinguishable from attending a high school game. The gym often resembles a middle school gym, with retractable bleachers and folding tables shuttered off to the sides, ready to be brought back out to turn the place back into a cafeteria the next day. Fan concessions usually consist of popcorn and cans of soda, often served to you by a multitasking cheerleader. The television camera is a student manager in the rafters with an iPhone. We think of college basketball as this massive enterprise with electric, packed arenas, but that's only the big schools. There are 351 schools in Division I, and many of them look like Hickory High.
You have St. Francis (NY) of the Northeast Conference, whose Generoso Pope Athletic Complex shares a bathroom with the classrooms down the hall. You have NJIT's Fleischer Center, where they have to roll the volleyball nets off to the side before tipoff. You have Alabama A&M's Elmore Gymnasium, where you can legitimately jog around the arena on a track while the game is going on. Much of college basketball is played in glorified YMCAs.
And then you have GCU Arena, home of the Grand Canyon Antelopes. Grand Canyon plays in the Western Athletic Conference, one of the worst conferences in college basketball. (Ken Pomeroy has it ranked 31st out of 33.) It features schools like Chicago State, Utah Valley and Texas-Pan American.
GCU Arena is one of the nicest basketball venues I've ever been to. It seats only 7,000 people, but it seats them all comfortably, with massive oversized seats, cup holders and cushions. It has a massive LED screen that shows high-quality replays from multiple camera angles. It has an active student section right on the floor that dances to a blasting, pulsating, brain-pounding sound system over the loudspeakers.
It has high-quality corporate sponsorships everywhere, with ads for cable shows from Cox Communications, Peet's Coffee freshly brewed on site and Papa John's Pizza baked in massive ovens just beyond the concessions. (There is actually a whole staff of people grilling grass-fed burgers, rather than the microwaved monstrosities found at even major university arenas.) Grand Canyon even has a professionally produced and edited pregame hype video that culminates in "Let's go!" screamed by its new head coach … former Phoenix Suns star Dan Majerle, Thunder Dan, who also owns a series of successful sports bars in the Phoenix area and whose face can been seen here advertising nearly anything.
This is all to say: This place has money. This tiny school, in the tiny WAC, with its tiny campus and small on-campus enrollment (it has only 21 current full-time graduate students, but tens of thousands of online students) and non-existent history … how does this place have all this cash? How can it, in an age of athletic austerity (particularly for schools outside the Power Five conferences), be so flush?
The answer is the reason Grand Canyon might be the most controversial school in the NCAA right now. Grand Canyon is a for-profit school.
* * *
If you don't already know, I could give you a long complicated explanation of what a for-profit school is, and why they're incredibly controversial, and how critics believe that they prey on the poor and desperate (and, in many cases, our military veterans), but instead I'll direct you to this CNN Money piece and, even better, just do what everyone else does and embed a John Oliver segment.
Grand Canyon was founded in 1949 as a Baptist college, and it has remained a Christian college since. (Its most notable alumni are actually baseball players: Tim Salmon and the reprehensible Chad Curtis.) In 2004, though, it suffered several financial difficulties and, in desperation, was sold to a company called Significant Education, a leading for-profit education conglomerate. Grand Canyon turned out to be a terrific investment for Significant Education -- and controversial for-profit college "entrepreneur" Michael Clifford -- because it was both accredited and a Christian university. The company was able to sell the school as a legitimate university, one that could be marketed to faith-based organizations and individuals, and still bring in massive online education profits.
(Here's a fun video of "Dr." Gifford saying some buzzwords on his official site, to get a sense of the sort of character we're dealing with here.)
Shortly after Significant Education bought Grand Canyon, it began a massive $150 million campus makeover, and, later, once the university went public on the NASDAQ, starting work on GCU Arena. Part of the goal was to expand the athletic program … and eventually have a chance to make an NCAA tournament. "They're doing something no one has done," says Kevin Kinser, associate professor of education at SUNY-Albany who has done extensive academic studies on for-profit colleges. "Most for-profits have worked almost exclusively with their online business. But they're essentially subsidizing their campus with that business, which, along with their Christian marketing angle, allows them to have this campus and make their online money as well. There really isn't another for-profit school like it."
The world of for-profit schools has shrunk in recent years, as government regulation -- much of it in response to the outcry from students who have been bilked by aggressive student loans -- has tightened. But Grand Canyon seems to have danced between the raindrops, partly because of timing (Significant Education got in at exactly the point in which the school was most desperate) and largely because of its Christian affiliation and its vibrant campus -- centered, in large part, around its athletic teams.
In fact, when you visit the campus, you wouldn't know it was a for-profit school at all. (Other than the fact that all the buildings are new.) There are dorms, and a student union, and campus maps, and organized undergrad fan groups pulling wacky stunts. The athletic program's slogan, PLAYING WITH PURPOSE, is everywhere you look. You get inside GCU Arena, and you're overwhelmed by how much fun everyone is having, and how nice the place is, and how the whole arena stops to bow for prayer before tipoff. There are kids with families, and students painting their faces, and the band playing "Master of Puppets" on the trombone, and Dan Majerle is pumping up the crowd and it's terrific.
And then you stop for a second in the front foyer and someone stops you and asks if you'd like some more information about the school … and even if you'd like to enroll. You look around and realize that the most prominent, unique feature inside the arena isn't the court, or the fans, or jumbotron. It's the kiosks. There are kiosks that look just like this:
And you realize that this whole thing, the game, the band, Thunder Dan … it's all here to drive unsuspecting fans into a nasty for-profit student loan scheme. That's the point of all of this. That's why this arena is so nice. That's why you're supposed to be having so much fun.
* * *
Grand Canyon is still a Christian university, and the faculty and religious staff, who have long been wary of their uneasy marriage of convenience with the for-profit industry, are fully aware of the discomfit of the current situation. They know how despised the for-profit university world has become, and how, in many ways, with the tightened regulation, they are sort of a relic: Bailed out by the for-profit money but now beholden to it.
Like anyone who needed blood money to save them, and now is back on their feet, Grand Canyon wants out. Last October, GCU president Brian Mueller announced that he intended to bring Grand Canyon back to the world of the non-profit. "There are significant people in the Christian community who would like to get behind this," he said. "There is a stigma involved [with for-profit schools]."
Mueller didn't give any details as to how Grand Canyon would get out from under the for-profit thumb, and there was a reason for that: It's going to be incredibly difficult. The current stock market value of Grand Canyon University -- which, as mentioned, is publicly traded -- is roughly $2 billion. To go non-profit, you would need to entirely buy out the investors in the company. Investors tend to be more interested in, you know, profit. "They're going to have to find some sort of religious organization willing to donate enough money to satisfy those investors," Kinser says. "It's not the easiest thing to find $2 billion just lying around."
That's to say: Mueller might want out of the for-profit game -- "I think Brian wants to be the president of a university without an asterisk," a Wells Fargo analyst told The Chronicle of Higher Education -- but his bosses, the investors who own the company, absolutely do not. Which means even though Grand Canyon administrators might want to leave the for-profit world, they're unlikely to do so anytime soon. Not when there is this much money to be made.
And when it comes to athletics, there is a timeline on this.
* * *
In 2013, when Grand Canyon announced it was transitioning to Division I, the commissioners of the Pac-12 schools, led by neighboring Arizona State, sent a furious letter to the NCAA. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott explained the anger. "It's gotten on the radar of our schools and are trying to raise it as a policy issue as to whether for-profit schools ought to be playing Division I athletics, or not, before there are any," Scott said. "It's always hard to put the genie back in the bottle … It's not about Grand Canyon. It's about institutions whether they should be granted membership to Division I."
The NCAA, which has its own problems, did not act on the Pac-12 schools' request for action, which means that Grand Canyon is well on its way. The Antelopes are currently second in the WAC -- thanks largely to an athletic budget that dwarfs anyone else's in the conference -- and have played without question the most difficult schedule. (They've lost to Indiana, Harvard and, in the first game of the season, Kentucky. They actually beat New Mexico in December.)
This isn't going to do them any good this season. Because they are "transitioning" into Division I, they aren't eligible for any postseason play, not even the WAC tournament. This is Year Two of the transition; like fellow Division I newcomers UMass-Lowell, Northern Kentucky, Abilene Christian, Omaha and Incarnate Word, they're in the four-year probationary period before they're allowed to join the postseason scramble.
But come 2017-18, they will be in that mix. By then, they will be better funded, with a better coach, better facilities and a better fan base than any other team in their conference. Majerle -- whose nephew, not coincidentally, is on the Antelopes' roster -- says he's in this long term. "I want to stay at GCU and I want to build a program and I want to be the next Gonzaga or Wichita State or Butler," Majerle has said. "I want that to happen at GCU, and I want to be the man who does it."
Every team that made the NCAA tournament last season earned $1.6 million for their conference. That number will surely be higher in 2018, and if Grand Canyon makes it -- and Mueller is unable to get the school back to its non-profit roots by then -- that's money that will just go straight to stockholders.
Then: We will have a for-profit school in the NCAA tournament. Mueller's fight aside, for the investors, this was always part of the plan. Every time Greg Gumbel says Grand Canyon's name on CBS, it will direct more people to those kiosks.
"This probably isn't repeatable, but it sure could work out for them," Kinser says. "It's certainly not what the NCAA had in mind, I'd bet."
Meanwhile, I stare at those LED lights, and the raucous student section, and the Raising Cane's, THE OFFICIAL CHICKEN FINGERS OF ANTELOPE BASKETBALL. It feels like a real college game. It is a real college game. But it's different. It feels like something different. At the game I attend, Chicago State's Trayvon Palmer scores 30 points to lead the Cougars to a last-second comeback victory over the Antelopes. As the fans shuttle out of the arena, the man on the loudspeaker thanks them for coming, tells them to drive home safely and to feel free to pick up any of the literature in the front lobby.
Grand Canyon is indeed playing with purpose. I'm just not sure to what end.