football's most powerful entities will assemble in Pasadena, Calif.,
this week for meetings that will determine several aspects of the new
playoff system that begins in 2014. It will be a celebration of progress
and riches for the schools involved and a validation of the bowl
industry, which kept its seat at the table despite heavy criticism in
One group, though, will surely dominate the cocktail
party and golf course conversations, even while its influence in the
future of college football further weakens: the NCAA.
college athletics sifts through an avalanche of foundational issues,
the credibility and viability of its governing body has never been more
in question. Among realignment that has deepened separation of the haves
and have-nots, the legal challenges to the NCAA's amateurism model, an
explosion in football and television money and embarrassing misconduct
in the NCAA's enforcement arm, the calls to start over are louder than
Although the notion that big football schools
might eventually break away from the NCAA is not new, the overwhelming
sense within the industry is that some sort of major change is on the
horizon. Whether that change includes the NCAA completely, in part or
not at all is now talked about openly and frequently among
administrators, according to conversations with more than two dozen
high-ranking college athletics officials across a spectrum of Division I
The topic has reached such a boil in recent years,
it was even broached directly to NCAA president Mark Emmert at an
athletics directors convention in September 2011, when realignment had
gripped the entire industry following the ACC's raid of the Big East for
Syracuse and Pittsburgh.
According to a person in the
room, whose version of events was confirmed by two others, one athletics
director asked Emmert directly whether it was time for the top football
conferences to split from the lower-tier conferences of the Football
Bowl Subdivision, and perhaps even away from the NCAA altogether.
think he responded in a way that, it was a little political," said the
person, who spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity
because the meeting was supposed to be private. "It was more along the
lines of, we're going through a lot of changes now and he had heard
about those kind of backroom-type conversations, and he basically said
it might be time to put everything out on the table and talk through all
these issues that we see in the future. He didn't back away from it."
form that evolution takes, and when it will happen, is a hot topic in
the industry but also a murky one. Even if a group of schools or
conferences decided to break away from the NCAA and form a completely
new organization, there is no consensus on what schools and sports it
would include, how it would operate and whether it would alleviate the
fundamental problems in college athletics or become a parallel
bureaucracy with a different acronym.
"I think we're still in a
position to try to make this model we have work as best it can,"
Oklahoma athletics director Joe Castiglione said. "For every minute one
thinks something like that would make life easier, they have to stop and
take a breath and step back and look at how many other moving parts
there are to that type of a decision. I can't begin to list all the
issues that we would have to face in looking at something like that. It
doesn't mean we wouldn't, it just means we'd have to be very mindful of
what we're going to be up against."
Because of those issues, a
breakaway from the NCAA would likely be a long way off, if it happened
at all. But with the NCAA's governance structure at a functional nadir
and its enforcement capabilities under fire, those casual conversations
are happening more frequently and a picture begins to emerge of what a
post-NCAA world might look like.
WHAT THE TOP 25 SHOULD LOOK LIKE NEXT SEASON
most logical jumping-off point for any discussion of a post-NCAA world
revolves around football because, in many ways, the NCAA already has
minimal involvement in the sport at the highest level. Although the NCAA
is responsible for making and enforcing the rules that govern football,
it has nothing to do with the postseason or the revenue that the sport
produces in the Football Bowl Subdivision. It only sanctions
championships in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA),
Division II and non-scholarship Division III, where budgets are much
smaller than in the FBS.
The first historic blow to the NCAA's
involvement in big-time football occurred in 1984 when the U.S. Supreme
Court ruled that schools and conferences could negotiate television
contracts on their own in defiance of the NCAA's television plans. And
perhaps the final verdict came last year when college presidents
approved the transition from the Bowl Championship Series to a playoff,
which is expected to announce a new name this week.
playoff structure includes seven total games -- four "contract bowls,"
two semifinals and a national championship game -- and will be run by an
organization that essentially mimics the BCS. The playoff group, which
doesn't have a name yet, already struck a 12-year, $5.64 billion deal
with ESPN for television rights. The NCAA won't see a penny of that
The financial disparity between the 125 FBS football
schools and the other 1,100-plus NCAA members, already huge, will only
get larger. And at some point, meeting the needs of those divergent
groups becomes difficult for the NCAA, which is essentially trying to
write a rulebook that applies to everyone.
Most of the talk about a
major shift in college sports has centered on the idea of creating a
"super division," only for football, that would essentially operate
under a different set of rules, and perhaps even outside of the NCAA
One athletics director at a non-football school, who
spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because of the
sensitivity of the topic, said it would only make sense for BCS football
programs to operate without the restrictions that apply to other
schools who don't have the same budgets or goals.
"When you think
about some of the schools that have gone through the major NCAA
sanctions recently and the impact that has had on their reputations,
they are great academic schools - Miami, Ohio State, USC," the athletics
director said. "If I'm a president at that level, why would you want to
put yourself at risk with that? You can run your business the way you
want to run it and those guys can do the types of things they want to
do, whether it's for stipends for players or recruit the way they want
to recruit and not be publicly embarrassed as institutions. I'd be
shocked if they didn't come to that realization."
Big questions to be resolved
But even that comes with a number of significant questions that are yet to be fully explored by college athletics power brokers.
How many teams would be part of the super division? The 64 in power
conferences, or would it also include some of the next tier in the
Mountain West and former Big East or all the FBS -- which is getting
larger with schools such as Appalachian State and Georgia Southern
recently announcing a jump from FCS?
• Would there be a commissioner? What kind of enforcement model would be in place?
• What kind of Title IX implications would there be if football is run and funded separately?
• And another key point: Would the power conference schools have the stomach to just play each other?
this year, the Big Ten floated a proposal to stop scheduling FCS
opponents, which has generally been a mutually beneficial relationship:
The power conference school (and coach) gets an easy win, and the
small-budget FCS school gets a high six-figure guarantee just for
playing. Although there's no evidence other leagues are interested in
moving in that direction, it would sever one last major tie between
big-time football and the rest of the NCAA.
characterize it as anything we're losing sleep over yet," said Southland
Conference Commissioner Tom Burnett, whose conference competes in the
FCS. "Could we exist without it? I'm sure we could, but it wouldn't be
anything like what we do now. The guarantee money is important.
you come down to funding in the future, are they going to cut us out
completely? I don't know. They have to play somebody. Are they just
going to play each other, are they just going to play the Sun Belt and
the MAC and Conference USA? If they do, if I'm in one of those
conferences, I'm really going to drive guarantees up tremendously,
because you're telling me I'm the only one you're going to play anymore.
We're already seeing guarantees jump upwards of a million."
if those schools do get cut out, what kind of congressional involvement
or antitrust implications might come up? Castiglione pointed
specifically to talk within the athletics community that a smaller group
of schools "controlling the marketplace" might bring up even more legal
challenges than they're already facing.
president of Economics Incorporated consulting firm who has worked on
antitrust issues involving a variety of sports leagues (but not the
NCAA), said any antitrust claim against a new college football
organization would have to prove that it was harmful to competition and
consumers, not just the schools left behind. That would be difficult,
Walker said, because there are a lot of alternatives to college
"There are lots of sports organizations that are
exclusive and closed - not every football team gets to play in the NFL,
the Pac-10 or even the San Juan Unified School District," Walker said.
"There are many good reasons why being closed is good for fans and makes
sports organizations more attractive to consumers.
wanted to challenge the new college football venture would have to show
why this new organization's exclusiveness and closed-ness was somehow
anti-competitive rather than serving similar pro-consumer purposes as
(do) all of the other exclusive and closed arrangements that are common
to sports conferences and leagues."
But once past
those issues, the notion of treating football separately - with its own
governing body and enforcement model that would cater to the 64 or 80
top revenue-producing schools - is more appealing than ever within the
college athletics community.
"It could happen, and it wouldn't be
that complicated," said former Big Eight commissioner Chuck Neinas, who
has consulted schools and leagues on issues ranging from realignment to
television to coaching hires, and most recently helped keep the Big 12
together as interim commissioner.
"The college presidents would
have to be comfortable that the structure would be meaningful and that
they could have satisfactory enforcement. That there would be a
governance structure undoubtedly controlled by the presidents and that
they would develop rules that are logical and enforceable, and they
would have the instrument there to make sure the rules are enforced."
Legal threat to NCAA on the horizon
why his organization is still relevant today given its diminished role
in football, Emmert said during a news conference at the men's Division I
basketball championship Final Four this month that he disagreed with
the premise. He said nothing had changed in the NCAA's relationship with
college football since schools won the right to negotiate their own
Despite Emmert's disagreement, it's
practically a consensus among administrators at the ground level that
some sort of structural change - whether subtle or major - will happen
regarding football, because it's what the market will dictate. The
budgets and issues that athletics departments deal with at that level
are simply too different.
The question, according to an athletics
director from a smaller conference that does not have an automatic BCS
berth, isn't whether there will be change but whether it's amicable and
"A lot of us would rather manage change than wake up and see something happen
us, and that might be best for both sides if we could come to some sort
of conversation," said the athletics director, who spoke on the
condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic. "I think the
real big question is the scheduling model. If the scheduling model
remains similar to the way it is today (where the small conference
schools command guaranteed money to play road games at major conference
schools), I think that's something that is palatable to this level that
we could continue to make work very similar to the way it works today."
that takes place could be determined in large part by the outcome of an
antitrust lawsuit originally filed by former UCLA basketball player Ed
O'Bannon against the NCAA over the use of his name and likeness in
marketing. There's a chance it could expand into a class-action lawsuit
at a June court hearing, which, if the NCAA lost, could have
far-reaching implications for the entire economic model of college
It is considered the biggest legal threat the NCAA has faced.
just think these cases that are out there right now will tell us a lot
about where our futures are going," Castiglione said. "I'm gonna say in
15 years I think we'll see a noticeably different structure. I'm not
g that means we're not still operating under an NCAA
umbrella. But we'll have had plenty of time to evaluate whether or not a
new model, a completely new model, would serve our institutions better
than the one we have right now."
If that happens, the next
question is whether other sports - and particularly the men's Division I
basketball tournament - would follow.
Currently, the $770 million
annually brought in by the tournament's television rights provides
nearly all of the NCAA's funding. The NCAA (a non-profit organization)
says 60% of its media rights revenue is re-distributed to member
schools, with the other 40% going to fund championships in non-revenue
sports and other programs and services, as well as the national office's
operating budget. That 40% includes some funding for schools in
Division II and Division III, where the sports do not generate that
level of revenue.
That fact brings out a host of
critics, who wonder whether the schools responsible for generating that
revenue will eventually want to stop sharing it - not just with Division
II and III schools but with the so-called mid-majors, such as Wichita
State, which earn NCAA "units" for their conference by playing and
winning in the tournament over a rolling six-year span. Each unit is
worth roughly $250,000. So Wichita State's Final Four run this season
amounts to a windfall for the Missouri Valley Conference, which
re-distributes that money equally to its members.
The fear among
schools at that level, however, is that they would be excluded if the
big-time football schools broke away and started their own basketball
tournament. In much the same vein as school presidents approved a
football playoff because the money was so overwhelming, a basketball
tournament outside the NCAA is one of the last major money-grabs
An athletics director at a successful non-BCS
basketball school, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of
the topic, said the major concern at that level is whether CBS and
Turner Sports, which carry the men's Division I basketball tournament,
will decide they would rather just get the guaranteed ratings with North
Carolina, Kentucky and Kansas than risk mid-major programs ending up in
the Sweet 16.
"CBS has more or less already said, through the
things you hear in this business, 'We don't care if there's 64 or 32
(teams in the tournament), the money is going to be the same,'" the
athletics director said. "If the 'Big 5' (conferences) split away, when
the next TV deal comes up, why are we (the non-BCS schools) going to be
involved in it? It's the one place where the benefits spread to the
whole. All the sudden, that's gone. So I can't afford to watch it split
Others, including Neinas, aren't sure there is much of an
appetite for basketball to be part of any restructuring because the
tournament's popularity is so culturally rooted in the diversity of
schools participating and the annual story lines that emerge, such as
Wichita State and Florida Gulf Coast this season.
that formula is risky, especially if a tournament is limited to just the
FBS or a super-division of 64 or 80 schools, with nearly all of them
participating -- not to mention how it would further devalue the regular
"I always felt the (current) tournament is absolutely the
best model," said American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike
Aresco, who helped negotiate the current NCAA tournament television deal
when he was the vice president at CBS Sports in charge of college
programming. "The tournament reflects the country. Everybody has a real
opportunity, and the tournament has that unique ability to include every
part of the country every year. There's a real charm for that. I think
the Cinderellas are usually valuable to the tournament. I wouldn't
change a thing."
Can we agree on anything?
idea that has been floated among administrators is a BCS-type
organization that would run the basketball tournament and include many
of the mid-major conferences, set up similar to the way it is now - only
without the responsibility to share revenue with Division II and III
There are dozens of other structural questions that would
go along with a multi-sport breakaway, including whether a new
organization would even want to be in charge of sports such as soccer,
tennis and wrestling, which don't bring in much revenue.
college athletics quibble with the job the NCAA does running
championship tournaments for those sports. But if you take away football
and basketball, what's left and where would the revenue come from to
Several administrators say the current legislative model
in the NCAA is already tilted toward the agenda of FBS schools and they
question whether a completely new organization could be much different
structurally from the NCAA, with the same issues merely reinventing
themselves under a new name.
That's an especially relevant question if college presidents want to remain in control of college athletics.
a period of high-profile scandals in the 1980s and early 1990s, the
NCAA restructured in 1997 and gave presidents full authority to govern
college athletics, with a diminished role for athletics directors and
The result is often an NCAA that appears
rudderless and chaotic, where presidents sign off on reforms that
ultimately get thrown back at them by ground-level administrators.
most recent example is the package of NCAA recruiting reforms in
football, passed by the Division I Board of Directors in January after a
year of presidential and working group debate, only to be picked apart
by athletics directors claiming they had no input in the process. Now,
those rules are back in a working group for significant alterations.
result is that true reform in the NCAA becomes difficult, if not
impossible. Emmert acknowledged this month the disconnect is wider than
it should be between presidents and those who work day-to-day in college
"I think when we've moved toward a more
presidentially-driven decision structure, that's a good one," Emmert
said. "But we shoved athletic directors, coaches, to a certain extent,
commissioners too far to the sides. ... How do we now look at our
current governance structure for Division I and make sure we're getting
good input, advice and counsel from the people that manage the athletic
enterprise on a daily basis?
"I think we have had for some time now a lack of engagement of those folks in the process."
biggest problem with any sort of plan about breaking away from the NCAA
is that if college administrators can't even agree on simple recruiting
rules changes like unlimited text messaging, how are they going to
build an entirely new structure from the ground up?
One FBS power
broker, who asked not to be identified because his discussions with
administrators are confidential, said many of the NCAA's issues are
rooted in a new crop of school presidents who simply don't have the same
level of interest or knowledge as their predecessors when it comes to
"They don't know the issues or traditions or history,
so consequently there's some problems," the FBS power broker said. "I
told one president on the (NCAA Div. 1) Board of Directors the other
day, if I were you guys I'd follow the 'Richard Nixon example' and claim
victory and retreat. Just say, 'We've run it for 20 years, we've got it
cleaned up, we've got it where we want it and we're going to turn it
over to the commissioners and athletic directors, but we'll always be
"He said, 'Some of us have discussed that.' "