Rudd Fawcett

Over the last several years, Ivy League athletics have gained prominence on the national scene. The Yale men’s lacrosse team triumphed in the NCAA championship last spring. In March’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament, Penn’s double-digit loss to Kansas marked the first time an Ancient Eight school had lost by 10 or more in the first round in nearly a decade. Half of the women’s basketball teams in the conference made a postseason tournament appearance, and Yale emerged victorious from the Women’s Basketball Invitational. The calls for the Ivy League football champion to join the FCS playoffs have never been louder. So the question is: What has been driving this recent period of increased national success?

A large component of Ivy success in the last few years has been an increase in the quality of athletes attending Ivy League universities. I obtained football recruiting data from 247Sports.com, a website that ranks college athletic recruiting classes. 247Sports gives each incoming recruiting class an overall composite score, as well as counts of the number of three-, four- and five-star recruits. The composite scores alone don’t have much meaning, but in the context of year-to-year comparisons, they allow insight into how incoming student-athletes stack up year after year.

In 2012, the Ancient Eight football teams had an average 247Sports recruiting score of 12.76. Incoming first years in the class of 2022 across the league register an average recruiting score of 55.35, a historic mark second only to the class of 2021’s 59.35. For some context, football superpower and defending national champion Alabama has averaged a composite recruiting score of 311.33 during that same time frame. While still a distance away from the upper echelons of college football, the Ivy League’s five-fold improvement in recruiting is nevertheless impressive.

Every Ivy squad, with the exception of Cornell, has a higher composite recruiting score this year than it did in 2012, and Princeton and Yale brought in 2018 recruiting classes that rank as the best and second best recruiting classes in Ivy League history, respectively. In 2012, the league had five incoming first years designated as three-star recruits. This season, 23 incoming first years carry three-star designations, and Princeton rookie quarterback Brevin White became the first four-star recruit in league history, choosing the Tigers over a bevy of top schools including Alabama. Since 2012, when head coach Tony Reno took control of the Bulldogs, Yale has recruited classes well above the league average and has boasted the best incoming class in the league on three separate occasions. The maturation of these highly touted recruiting classes could be a large factor behind the football team’s success last season, which included a victory over rival Harvard and the 2017 Ivy League Championship.

What factors have convinced better athletes, at least according to scouts, to matriculate to Ivy League institutions? The Ivy League doesn’t permit schools to offer athletic scholarships to student-athletes, but the increased availability of need-blind financial aid in recent years has opened the possibility of attending an Ivy to recruits for whom a full scholarship elsewhere may have once been too enticing to pass up. A second important factor has to do with increased exposure. The Ivy League has sought more media coverage for its athletics in recent years, an effort that has come to fruition in its recent TV deal with the ESPN family of networks. Increased coverage breeds increased exposure to scouts for potential student-athletes, an important consideration for athletes looking to play at the next level. Finally, there has likely been a shift in prioritizing academics over athletics by many student-athletes who have decided to commit to an Ivy League university. With a minimal chance of going pro, and the nagging danger of injury, particularly in football, why not fall back on an Ivy League degree? Whatever combination of factors have contributed, the growth of Ivy League football, and Ancient Eight athletics more generally, is undeniable. It’s time for fans to sit back, relax and enjoy the show.

Luke Benz  | luke.benz@yale.edu