Power Conference Breakaway: Can It Benefit Student-Athletes?

(Note: as conference realignment has slowed down, I’m going to shift back toward looking at some of the broader issues in the business of college sports, such as the impact of television rights, tensions between the power conferences and the NCAA, and the new playoff system. I’ll also likely get into some related pro sports angles with how the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball are dealing with domestic franchises along with looking internationally for new markets and fans. Obviously, if conference realignment heats up again, I’ll cover it thoroughly here. For those that still need a conference realignment fix, I had a Big Ten-focused realignment Q&A last week with Off Tackle Empire and will have a different Big 12/Texas-focused one with Burnt Orange Nation in the near future.)

The notion of the power conferences splitting away from the non-power leagues to form either a new association separate from the NCAA or a different division (hereinafter called the “Super FBS”) has been percolating over the past few years. For various reasons, the talk has been intensifying lately with the settling of the conference realignment landscape and increased calls for greater compensation for student athletes beyond their respective scholarships (with the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit against the NCAA as a backdrop)*. There is already a de facto split between the 5 power FBS conferences (Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC and ACC) and the rest of Division I schools in terms of TV and postseason football revenue, so it seems natural to many observers that a split along those lines would make sense.

(* In the interest of full disclosure, I’m personally a strong supporter of paying college athletes. While the cost of a college scholarship is substantial, the power conference athletic departments are still receiving outsized revenue gains off of the backs of football and men’s basketball players and they ought to be compensated accordingly. Now, I understand why colleges want to fight those types of payments to the death and there are major Title IX implications, as it’s likely that payments would have to be made across the board to all non-revenue sport athletes on top of the revenue generators. It’s easy to point to the quarterback whose jersey is getting sold nationwide and say that it isn’t fair that he hasn’t been compensated fully, yet should a water polo player at the same school be receiving the same type of payment? There’s no easy answer to this. From my vantage point, the inequity of the quarterback not getting fully compensated for the revenue that he’s bringing in for a school is much greater than the thought that non-revenue athletes would have to get paid, too, but I know others may disagree.)

Warren K. Zola had an excellent commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education that outlined several potential proposals that a Super FBS division could implement that would serve both the commercial reality of college sports and improving student-athlete welfare:

  • Have athletics scholarships cover the full cost of attendance and not be capped at tuition and fees, room and board, and required books. A stipend, in the neighborhood of $3,000 per student, according to a recent study, would help reduce the growing underground compensation system for elite athletes.

  • Embrace the Olympic amateur model by lifting the restriction on college athletes’ commercial opportunities. This shift would offer any student the opportunity to secure endorsement deals or receive payment for the use of his or her name and image.

  • Create an education fund that provides continuing financial assistance to college athletes, allowing them to complete their degrees even after their athletics eligibility, and corresponding scholarship, has expired.

  • Provide full health insurance for all athletes and cover all deductibles for injuries related to participation in an intercollegiate sport. Offer full disability insurance to elite athletes, protecting them against catastrophic injuries that could derail their professional careers.

  • Allow athletes to hire agents to protect their rights, including providing assistance in evaluating scholarship offers from institutions, negotiating commercial opportunities, and navigating the transition from college to professional sports.

I believe that all of these suggestions are on the mark. The reference to the “underground compensation system” is astute and one of the largest issues that I have with the current NCAA model of anachronistic recruiting regulations on the books with haphazard and inconsistent enforcement of those terrible rules on top of them. NCAA recruiting rules are sort of like campaign finance regulations in Washington – everyone publicly votes for them on one day and then privately tries to find loopholes around them the next day. I’m much more of a full disclosure-type of person as opposed to attempting to put the brakes on market-based transactions, where I believe colleges and universities would have better control over the “underground” market if they acknowledge that it exists and provide a viable alternative that allows for athletes to take advantage of their talent to get stipends directly from schools and commercial endorsements.

The last bullet about allowing athletes to hire agents is an interesting one. There have been many prominent power brokers over the years, such as Worldwide Wes for basketball*, that have effectively taken that role, so I believe that there’s some benefit to formalizing that type of relationship. The NCAA’s agent contact rules are just as backwards with spotty enforcement as the organizations recruiting rules, so having a reactionary stance of zero tolerance simply isn’t realistic in today’s world. It’s better to get those relationships out in the open and snuff out as much under-the-table action as possible.

(* If you haven’t read it already, this GQ piece on Worldwide Wes from a few years ago is one of the most fascinating profiles that you’ll ever see of a behind-the-scenes sports figure.)

So, I see a lot of potential benefits to separating the power conferences away from the non-power conferences simply from the student-athlete perspective. Of course, the increased control and, in turn, revenue that the power conferences would see from a breakaway would be the real reason why they’d want to do it. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but it also makes it difficult to draw up clear criteria as to why a school or conference would be in “regular” FBS while another one is in Super FBS. For instance, would it really benefit the 5 power conferences very much if, say, the AAC and Mountain West Conference are willing to pay student stipends, thereby qualifying for Super FBS? It would seem that the power conferences would only want to split off into a new division if they could ensure that they’re the only ones in it or else it would defeat the purpose of that split*.

(* Speaking of power conference revenue, one byproduct of the Ed O’Bannon case is that the specific terms and payment schedule of the Pac-12’s new contract with ESPN and Fox have been disclosed. Nothing is too surprising, although it’s interesting to see some of the items that we have speculated on confirmed, such as the rights fees escalating approximately 5% per year. The term sheet is here.)

Now, there’s the more nuclear option of the 5 power conferences simply breaking away completely from the NCAA that would serve as a clean revenue-based split, although I find that to be an option that guys such as Jim Delany and Mike Slive would prefer to keep in their back pockets than one that would ever be implemented. While I generally believe that many non-power conference fans overstate their influence with politicians (i.e. mistakenly thinking that they’ll step in to help them with the playoff system or taxing power school revenue), a full-scale break-off would be one of those events that could definitely spur an untenable political backlash. It might be a move that the power conferences would secretly like in the back of their respective heads, but there are too many political landmines (particularly at the state-by-state level) to realistically engage in that scenario.

The upshot is that nothing is really easy or clear here. Power conferences definitely want more autonomy, but the process of making sure that they’re truly their own group without perceived “interlopers” might be more difficult to achieve than any changes about compensating student-athletes. All of Zola’s suggestions could still be implemented in theory without creating a Super FBS Division – it’s just that the power schools and maybe a couple of the non-power conferences are probably the only ones that could afford to put them into place.

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111 and Facebook)

(Image from Real Clear Sports)

B1G East Coast Expansion: Big Ten Adds Johns Hopkins Lacrosse and the Pinstripe Bowl

The Big Ten continues the march to increase its presence on the East Coast by adding Johns Hopkins men’s lacrosse as the conference’s first-ever affiliate member and the Pinstripe Bowl based at Yankee Stadium in New York City as a bowl tie-in. These moves aren’t necessarily earth-shattering in the way that the expansion with Maryland and Rutgers was back in November, but they show how Jim Delany and the Big Ten’s university presidents are aiming to make the league as much of an East Coast conference as it is a Midwestern conference.

As far as men’s lacrosse programs go, Johns Hopkins is considered to be the gold standard with more national championships than any other school and clung onto independence in the same way that Notre Dame continues to do so for football.* At the same time, the Big Ten has long had the stance that schools with either “all in” or “all out” (hence the hardline resistance to ever offer schools like Notre Dame any non-football membership). So, it was a bit of a surprise when news broke a few months ago that the Big Ten and JHU were exploring an affiliate relationship. Johns Hopkins then formed a Blue Ribbon Committee that ultimately recommended that the men’s lacrosse team should join a conference last month in a fascinating report. Among the requirements that JHU deemed to be important were an initial membership period of 5 years and that the school could maintain its current TV contract with ESPNU. A number of Big Ten observers thought that the latter TV rights item would be an obstacle on paper (since increasing the inventory of desirable non-football/basketball programming has been a primary goal of the Big Ten Network), but that was assuaged by the fact that Johns Hopkins would not receive any conference revenue (which would make any potential complications as to how an affiliate member would partake in the BTN money trough moot).

(* For anyone that remembers the original version of The Official Preppy Handbook, I always recall that lacrosse was listed as a preppy sport simply because people from Baltimore loved it and that the city was “very prep”. That’s quite a jarring characterization these days for people that have seen The Wire.)

Looking back, this was a perfect storm for both parties to get to this position: the Big Ten needed 1 more school to create a men’s lacrosse league after it had added Maryland and Rutgers, Johns Hopkins had been concerned about how conference realignment was changing its ability to remain independent in men’s lacrosse even before it had failed to make it to the NCAA Lacrosse Tournament for the first time since it began in 1971, and JHU would provide the Big Ten an elite academic research powerhouse located in close proximity to the conference’s other Eastern members and the very best program in the history of the sport. Plus, the only sports that Johns Hopkins sponsors at the Division I level are men’s and women’s lacrosse*, while the rest of its athletic department operates under Division III. Finally, if JHU ends up joining the Committee of Institutional Cooperation (CIC), which is the academic research consortium that includes all 14 Big Ten members plus the University of Chicago, then it’s a coup in terms of prestige. (For whatever reason, Penn State’s official press release on the new Big Ten lacrosse league is the only place that I’ve seen that mentions Hopkins contacting the CIC.) All of those factors make this situation quite unique compared to thoughts of adding Notre Dame for various non-football sports or, say, Boston University for hockey. As a result, I don’t see the addition of Johns Hopkins for men’s lacrosse as any indication of a broader intent by the Big Ten to search for affiliate members in other sports. Johns Hopkins was the right program in the right sport with the right academic profile at the right time for the Big Ten.

(* Interestingly enough, the Johns Hopkins women’s lacrosse program is going in the opposite direction of choosing independence after having been a member of the American Lacrosse Conference. The ALC featured three Big Ten programs, including national powerhouse Northwestern. I’m personally not a fan of JHU going in this direction as the school would have technically been “all in” with the Big Ten for all of its Division I sports if women’s lacrosse had joined, but it’s less of an issue since men’s lacrosse is clearly the marquee program there. It’s akin to Notre Dame stating that it would join a conference football but go independent in its other sports, where pretty much any league would say, “That’s kind of weird, but HELL YES, we’ll take that deal!” Also note that Northwestern and Maryland have more women’s lacrosse national championships between them than all of the other schools that sponsor the sport *combined*, so the intense competition level may have also been a factor for JHU. That being said, there still seems to be somewhat of a door open for the women’s program to join the Big Ten down the road, as the powers that be have claimed that they “haven’t discussed it” yet.)

Meanwhile, a little further north, the Big Ten and New York Yankees announced that the conference will have a tie-in with the New Era Pinstripe Bowl for the next 8 years (with the opponent almost certainly coming from the ACC). From the standpoint of increasing the Big Ten’s mindshare on the East Coast, the tie-in makes perfect sense. The long-term goal of Jim Delany is to make the Big Ten into the de facto “home conference” for the New York City market in the same way that it is in Chicago already. To be sure, that’s a monumentally tough task (as the number of Big Ten grads in the Chicago market is massive by comparison), but the hope is that the cumulative effect of the presence of Rutgers, the Pinstripe Bowl tie-in, and the fans and alums from other Big Ten schools that have a large presence in the NYC area (particularly Penn State, Michigan, Ohio State and now Maryland) will gain traction there in a way that none of the other conferences would be able to (which is arguably a risk well worth taking considering the size and power of that market). In an interesting marketing wrinkle, the Big Ten will actually have a fixed sign in Yankee Stadium along the first base line along with being part of the rotating ads behind home plate during regular season Yankees games starting in 2014, which might end up being the best advertising that the conference could get in that market.

Whether the Pinstripe Bowl will actually be a great deal for traveling fans is a different matter. Believe me – I love New York City and enjoy the idea of playing a bowl game there, but most of the Big Ten territory prefers its winter destinations to be escapes from the cold weather of the North*. At the same time, Yankee Stadium isn’t in Manhattan or even in a neighborhood comparable to Wrigleyville in Chicago. (As a White Sox fan, it always amuses me when people complain about the “bad” neighborhood that surrounds U.S. Cellular Field as being a drag on attendance since it makes it clear that they’ve never visited the Bronx.) I could see how Rutgers, Penn State and Maryland could travel up to the Pinstripe Bowl fairly easily, but it remains to be seen how the rest of the conference would travel there.

(* If the speculation is true that the Big Ten bowl rotation will consist of the Rose, Orange, Capital One, Outback and Holiday at the top, a mix of the Kraft Fight Hunger, Pinstripe and Gator/Music City at the next level, and a new Detroit Lions bowl against the ACC and maybe the Heart of Dallas in the old Cotton Bowl at the bottom, then I’ll be pretty happy with that lineup. It would hurt to lose the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl since the Phoenix area is such a large home base for Big Ten transplants, but the Kraft Fight Hunger is going to turn into a top notch game when it moves to the new 49ers stadium in Santa Clara and I will always quickly find any excuse to head out to San Diego. I’ll have a more in-depth analysis of the entire Big Ten bowl lineup once it’s officially confirmed.)

The overall message from the Big Ten today is that it’s going full steam ahead in heading to the East Coast. I’ve long been confident that the strategy will work around leveraging Maryland to get into the Washington, DC and Baltimore markets (which will only be further aided by adding Johns Hopkins as an affiliate member), yet the New York City portion of this cycle of expansion and bowl contracts will determine whether Big Ten is going to end up being the second most powerful sports entity in America after the NFL in 10 years or we’ll be sitting around wondering why the conference had chased after cable network fool’s gold. There’s a better chance for the former to occur than what a lot of conference realignment skeptics believe, but the latter could certainly still happen.

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111 and Facebook)

(Image from Baltimore Sun)