By David Arkow
When one thinks of power ranking collegiate athletic programs, SEC football or ACC basketball likely comes to mind first. Media and press coverage is fixated on the Power 5 schools with countless articles and new power rankings after every week of competition. After all, these schools do have the most talented players and get the most viewership. But rarely is any attention paid to other conferences which might be deserving in their own right. Such is the case for the conference with the longest-standing institutions and therefore athletic programs in the country: The Ivy League. Much attention is paid to these elite universities from the academic front but not from the athletic front. A Google search for “Ivy League Rankings” yields results from US News or Niche while a search for “SEC Rankings” yields football results from ESPN. While there are many academic rankings for the Ivies out there based on admission rates, SAT scores, post-college earnings, and more, there are few when it comes to sports. Nevertheless, there is a large group of people who care about the athletic success of these programs. And many of them are underrated on a national scale when expanding the picture outside of the big two (football and basketball). Earlier this year, HSAC released an ultimate power rankings of all-around collegiate athletic programs but included only the Power 5 conferences (SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12). But as members of the Ivy League, we set out to create our own power rankings looking at the success of the eight member colleges across a variety of sports. Just after the Ivy game with the most press coverage all year in Harvard-Yale football, HSAC releases our Ivy League power rankings.
Similar to our previous article looking at Power 5 schools, we apply the same approach to creating our Ivy League rankings. Despite not selling out their football stadiums or having large athletic merchandise sales, Ivy League schools actually field some of the most athletic teams in terms of sheer number due to their large endowments (all eight are within the Top 20). Harvard has the most Division 1 teams in the entire country with 42. For our analysis, we looked at 13 sports in each of men’s and women’s (football, basketball, baseball, softball, soccer, tennis, golf, ice hockey, field hockey, track and field, cross country, volleyball, swimming and diving, squash, and lacrosse) to give a complete picture of the all-around success of each athletic program. We restricted our analysis to the past five years due to lack of data from prior years and to paint a more accurate picture of the current state of the programs. Only including one year would be too small of a sample size while looking at all of history would favor certain schools over others. Certain Ivies do offer other programs but not all eight had them so they were excluded from the analysis. For example, Harvard, Princeton, and Brown all have men’s water polo programs but they compete in the Northeast Water Polo Conference.
To determine the best all-around program, we start with a microanalysis of the 26 different teams in the sample looking at a variety of factors from Ivy League standings, NCAA tournament berths, or national championships in the case of very few. Each school received an average finishing placement in each of the 26 sports over the past five years. For example, Yale Men’s Basketball finished 1st, 3rd, 3rd, 1st, and 1st, in the past five seasons giving it an average placement of 1.8 over the past five years. After getting the college’s average placement in each sport, the average of all 26 averages was taken to get an overall ranking of where they placed among all sports in the sample. In our analysis, each sport was weighted equally but one could argue that football is the most “important” when it comes to athletic programs. Weights could be easily adjusted to emphasize certain sports over others but we kept every team on a level playing field to avoid any arbitrary bias and get the clearest overall picture. Nevertheless, from our microanalysis we are still able to see which universities dominated which sports and what contributed to their ranking. And thus, we have arrived at our ultimate Ivy League *Athletic* All-Around Power Rankings.
No. 1 Princeton
Princeton tops the list for the best athletic Ivy of the past five years. In order to land themselves at the top, the Tigers both dominate certain sports and are consistently solid across all others. They ranked at least fifth or higher out of the eight Ivies in all but one sport (baseball) as they will rarely be found at the bottom of the conference standing list. Princeton has been the absolute leader of the Ivies in men’s indoor track each of the last five years and women’s tennis, lacrosse, and volleyball for four of the last five years. When it comes to the big two, Princeton has also been solid winning the Ivies twice in football (2016 and 2018) and once in basketball (2016) where they missed a last second go-ahead three in the first round of the NCAA tournament to Notre Dame. This year’s football team was co-Ivy champions with Dartmouth. Women’s lacrosse had three NCAA quarterfinal appearances and soccer had one. The 2019 field hockey squad were the NCAA runner-ups to current three-time reigning champion University of North Carolina. Over the past five years, Princeton has won 42 total Ivy championships out of the possible 130 (5 years for 26 sports). That is about 2.5 times as much as we would expect an Ivy to win if all were equal (about 16 per school). Princeton also has the biggest discrepancy between its men’s and women’s program with 15 Ivy men’s titles and 27 for women’s and more than a point separating their average standing placement. In addition, over the history of the Ivy League Princeton leads the pack with 476 league championships and 24 national NCAA championships. It is not much of a debate that the Princeton Tigers are the powerhouse athletic program of the Ivy League and can contend on a national level.
No. 2 Harvard
The oldest university in America (est. 1636) comes in at No. 2 in the Ivy League aggregate standings. Harvard has won over 149 national team championships but only ten of them are considered “NCAA team championships”. This is due to Harvard dominating more obscure sports with a limited number of collegiate programs that aren’t NCAA approved (such as squash or rowing) or racking up many championships before the inception of the NCAA. For example, the Crimson football team won seven national football championships from 1890 to 1920 but none are considered “NCAA championships”. Nevertheless, the Crimson are perennial contenders in the Ivies in most sports and also national contenders in a few. Both the men’s and women’s golf and swim and dive teams have been the best in the Ivies the past five years. Women’s squash has only lost the national championship once in the last decade. On the ice, the men’s hockey team led the Ivy League with nine starting players on NHL rosters in 2021. On the turf, the football team has had some middling finishes ranking fourth for the past five years. They did just beat Yale in a thrilling victory on a last-minute touchdown. On the court, the basketball team made the NCAA tournament for four consecutive years from 2012-2015 but has failed to make it back despite consistently finishing second in the Ivies (who usually only get one NCAA bid for the conference winner). Harvard’s 415 Ivy championships over time and 27 over the past five comes in a close second to Princeton (476 and 42). This gap may close over time but for now the Harvard Sports Analytics Collective ranks Harvard second in the Ivy League.
No. 3 University of Pennsylvania
Penn comes in at No. 3 so it is no surprise that they consistently finish in the middle of the pack for most Ivy sports. The Quakers don’t dominate any Ivy polls but are never at the bottom. They don’t rank last in any of the sports over the past five years and only seventh in men’s golf and women’s volleyball. But on the same token, they only have two first place rankings in men’s cross country and women’s basketball. The success of their women’s basketball team has only started this decade as they had just three Ivy titles before and have won four since 2010. This year’s preseason poll has them at No. 2 behind their Ivy rivals in Princeton. Their male counterparts have also been solid, winning the Ivies in 2018 where they would lose in the first round of March Madness to No. 1 seed powerhouse Kansas. They have the second most NCAA tournament bids all-time at 24, just one shy of Princeton. Quaker football has also finished in the top half of the standings for the past five years and were co-Ivy champions in 2015 and 2016. Penn ranks fourth in both all-time Ivy championships (210) and over the last five years (13). The reason they finish third in our standings overall is their consistency across a range of sports for an average finish of 3.87. Yale has just slightly more overall titles over the past five years (16) but has a lower average standing at 4.31. The Quakers also have the most minimal discrepancy between their men’s and women’s teams with only a .03 difference between average finishing place. Penn’s perfected the model of consistency which has landed them third in our rankings.
No. 4 Yale
Yale’s placement in the Ivies is a tale of two extremes when it comes to different sports. They finished in the top three for 11 of the 26 represented, but also in the bottom three for eight sports. Thus, according to the law of averages, they land smack in the middle of our rankings at No. 4 overall. When it comes to the big three college sports, Yale takes the top prize. The Bulldogs have ranked first in basketball over the past five years (three Ivy titles), and second in football and baseball (two Ivy titles each). But none of these have even been their best program as they have dominated men’s lacrosse winning four out of the last five seasons. They are also the only team to have won an official NCAA championship in the last five years defeating Duke in 2018 before running it back to the finals the next year where they were runners-up to Virginia. Unlike other universities on this list like Harvard or Princeton which see their women’s program’s outpace their men’s, Yale sees the opposite effect. Men’s sports have 14 Ivy titles compared to two for the women and they finish about one position higher on average for all respective sports. Keeping with the tale of two extremes, the women’s lacrosse team has been the weakest of the Ivies the past five years. One would think that the success of men’s and women’s programs are correlated but this provides an interesting area for further exploration. Yale actually has the most NCAA recognized championships (29) in the Ivies but are heavily reliant on men’s golf which account for 27 of them. Yale and Harvard sport the fiercest rivalry of the Ivies (that stands on a national scale). After their loss to the Crimson in their last game of the season, Yale still leads the all-time series (68-61-8) and might be considered the best football Ivy of all-time, but has only won four times in the last 20 years.
No. 5 Columbia
Columbia might have the most “volatility” throughout their polls as they can jump from the bottom to the top of the standings in any given year and also fall down. Similar to Yale, the majority of their program success has leaned towards the men’s side with nine Ivy titles and an average finish of fourth compared to three titles and an average finish of fifth for the women. The Lions have carved out a niche in some select sports ranking first in baseball, men’s tennis, and women’s cross country. The tennis program has not dropped an Ivy title since 2013 and only lost two conference matches out of the last 42. Their dominance might fly under the radar but Columbia has consistently been ranked Top 20 nationally for the past five years. Tennis is also one of the strongest sports for the Ivy League on a national level with at least three Ivies being ranked in the Top 20 recruiting classes the past five years. Columbia ranks last in Ivy League championships (105) but third in official NCAA championships (16). The Lions could be a potential predator to jump the list in future years with several programs on the upswing.
No. 6 Dartmouth
Dartmouth has the smallest undergraduate population (4,500) out of all the Ivies but comes in at No. 6 in the rankings. The Big Green should not be underestimated when it comes to sports given their small school size and population town size (Hanover has around 8,000 people). The smallest school actually places first when it comes to the biggest sport in terms of dollars, attention, and physical size. Their football team (which accounts for about 2.5% of the total student population) has finished either first or second in the Ivies in four out of the last five years and were co-champions in 2021 with Princeton. Men’s soccer has been their best sport with an average finishing placement of 2.2. Their football stadium and basketball arenas have the smallest capacity, but they boast the largest ice hockey rink. In the “rash of cuts” during the summer of the COVID-pandemic when colleges were trimming their athletic budgets, Dartmouth cut five of their sports which were then reinstated six months later after the threat of a Title IX lawsuit. For being the smallest school in the Ivies, Dartmouth can hold its own in sports.
No. 7 Cornell
Despite being from the second smallest town population wise (Ithaca has around 30,000 residents), Cornell has the largest undergraduate population of all Ivies at 15,000 (5,000 more than second most populated Penn). Cornell is also the newest member of the Ivies founded in 1865. They are known for ice hockey more than any other Ivy is recognized for any of their respective programs. The men’s team has won the Ivies the past three years and had 22 all-time NCAA tournament appearances. The women have also won the Ivies three out of the last five years including a trip to the “Frozen Four” in 2019. Out of the seven Ivy championships Cornell has won in the past five years, only one (men’s tennis) has come outside of hockey. Cornell-Harvard hockey (Cornell leads series 79-66-12) is also one of the fiercest rivalries as Harvard ranks second in men’s and third in women’s compared to the Big Red which rank first in both. For other sports, Cornell hasn’t had as much luck ranking outside the top half of the Ivies in 15 out of 26 sports. They come in seventh in both football and basketball. Nevertheless, no other program can boast the dominance that Cornell’s hockey program has had on the ice.
No. 8 Brown
Topping out the Ivy power rankings is Brown. Across all 26 sports, they finished with an average ranking of sixth and only have one Ivy title in the past five years courtesy of women’s soccer in 2019. That 2019 team went 6-0-1 in Ivy League play and finished the season ranked No. 23 nationally. This year’s team improved on that going undefeated in conference play to win back-to-back Ivy League titles and finished ranked No. 16 in the country. Outside of that, the Bears only finished in the top half of the standings in three of the total 26 sports. Joining Dartmouth in summer 2020, Brown announced that they would be cutting 11 Varsity sports (of which three were reinstated) in the name of “streamlining resources to make their programs more competitive”. Prior to the announcement, Brown fielded the third most collegiate teams (behind Harvard and Stanford) and claimed a “data-driven” approach led them to cut some programs. Brown has 7 all-time NCAA championships (all women’s rowing) and 123 Ivy League championships (seventh).
HSAC’s Ivy League athletic power ranking is not definitive and there is plenty of room for debate. It is also by no means a judgement on the quality of these schools academically and merely reflects the historical standings of the Ivy League in 26 different sports. While much of the spotlight is on their academic prowess, they also have hundreds of elite student athletes who both excel on the field and in the classroom who are worthy of attention.
David Arkow '24 is studying economics and statistics and serves on the board of HSAC. If you have any questions about this article, you can reach out to him firstname.lastname@example.org. You can check also out his original all-around NCAA Athletic Power Rankings.