The NCAA Has To Grant More Autonomy To Power 5 Conference Schools If It Wants to Survive

A sea change is quietly  happening in college sports, and it is one that could alter the fabric of how university sports are played.  In the din of recent football upsets: Alabama losing to Auburn and knocking it out of a chance at a third consecutive national championship, Ohio State losing for the first time under Urban Meyer and losing its shot to the title game as well, a quiet war regarding NCAA rules it taking place among the presidents of the large schools and those of the smaller ones who are benefitting under the current system.  Basically, the large schools want to given its players bigger stipends and have looser rules regarding other grants, while the smaller schools that can’t afford such things oppose the proposals.  In the middle is the governing body.

Mark Emmert, the President of the increasingly embattled NCAA, has been saying lately that it is likely that the governing body will grant more autonomy for members of the so-called Power 5 conferences when it comes to financial aid to players in their revenue sports:

“Everybody seems to understand what the high-budget schools need, and there’s an increasing recognition of what the small-budget schools need. I think they’re going to wind up in a pretty amicable place without anybody having to do threats or innuendos.” — Mark Emmert

Truth is, Emmert, the NCAA, the smaller conferences and the 220 schools not in the Football Bowl Subdivision have no choice.  If they stop the larger schools who are pushing for new rules allowing player stipends and simplified rules regarding non-regular aid, the larger schools will inevitably leave the NCAA and form their own alliance.  While the NCAA does not control the FBS football post-season already, such a move would put them in danger of eventually losing their crown jewel in terms of income: the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

How could it lead to that?  Easily. Say the Power 5 did indeed break away in football and start their own post-season football playoff, with all of the riches it would bring.  Those schools would eventually realize that it could do the same in basketball and hold its own tournament for hoops that would bring them more money than does the current arrangement.  The truth is, aside from a very few so-called “mid-major” schools, the bulk of the eyes in the NCAA basketball championships goes to the bigger schools that are in those Power 5 conferences.   That’s echoed in the ratings for the first round games: schools like Duke, Kentucky, Ohio State, North Carolina and others dwarves those for the likes of Virginia Commonwealth, Butler and others, despite the fact that competitively VCU and Butler and doing quite well competitively in recent tournaments.

And since college sports is all about money, and little else, that makes it pretty easy to connect the dots.  Television outlets are all about ratings, and a major outlet would be all too happy to pay for the rights to broadcast a post-season tournament that would bring as much interest as a new one would.  And since the so-called mid-majors would likely not be involved, the Power 5 schools would profit even more than they do from the current NCAA basketball extravaganza.

How real is such a threat?  Very real.  Consider what’s being said about the proposed rule changes:

“If we can do that, I think we can stay together,” [Big Ten Commissioner Jim] Delany said of the proposed rule changes.

Delaney seems to be making his point quite clearly here.  If they “can’t do that” — meaning the smaller schools vote down the Power 5 conferences’ proposals, then the Power 5 will break off on their own, and start the dominoes tumbling.

The idea of these events coming to pass — no matter how far-fetched it might seem today — must cause deep shivers of fear over in the NCAA’s headquarters, especially in Mark Emmert’s office.  That’s why he’s being so accommodating to the wishes of the big schools because he knows if it doesn’t, he could well be the last president of the storied college athletic governing authority in its current and relevant form.