(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.
(Image from Real Clear Sports)