So it’s official. After two years of stump speeches and steering committee reports, the Power 5 conferences got their wish Thursday when the NCAA Division I Board of Directors approved a new governance system that allows those leagues legislative autonomy to expand benefits for their athletes.
But as the rest of Division I braces for this new world order, set to take effect under the new board in January 2015 (although legislation can be proposed as early as Oct. 1), many are nervously hoping for the best while fearing the worst. Will the autonomy model approved Thursday truly appease the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC, or will it ultimately prove a stopgap until the day they pursue a more drastic separation?
“I hope there’s not another next step of separation where those 65 schools go off on themselves,” said Atlantic 10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade. “Because if they do, that would be a sad day for intercollegiate athletics.”
That particular threat has hovered over the industry for several years now, ever since the conference realignment wave of 2010 and ’11 created bloated superconferences and allowed four of the five to negotiate considerably more lucrative television contracts. (The Big Ten will cash in when its current deal comes up in 2017.) The financial disparity between those five and everybody else is now so wide that starting next year former Mountain West member Utah will make more annually from the Pac-12’s revenue distribution (at least $20 million) than the entire Mountain West averages in annual TV revenue ($18 million).
Autonomy could become a litmus test of sorts at a time when industry leaders – not to mention outside forces like politicians and judges – are paying more mind than ever before to the question of whether cash machines like Florida and Michigan can truly coexist under the same umbrella as Stony Brook and Savannah State in 2014. Division I athletic budgets now range from as low as $3.7 million (Coppin State) to $147 million (Texas), according to USA Today.
“There are 27 conferences that do business quite differently than the Big 5,” said Big Sky commissioner Doug Fullerton. “They look more like a commercial enterprise than we do. They recruit a different kind of kid.”
The power conference commissioners have been adamant throughout the autonomy discussions that they have no desire to take their ball and walk away. They want Division I to remain as is, and that they intend to use their newfound privileges only to … here comes the company line … benefit their student-athletes.
“It has been our goal from the first time we ever talked about this to stay within the NCAA, to stay in the big tent of Division I,” SEC commissioner Mike Slive said last month. “ … I know there’s angst amongst some of our colleagues in Division I, but I think those are fears that are really not necessary. This is not about competition. We’re pretty competitive. We don’t need to create additional advantages for competitive purposes. We don’t need to create additional advantages for our ability to generate revenue.
“What we want to do simply and solely — and the cynics have a hard time accepting this — is to create a system that benefits student-athletes.”
They’ll soon be able to do just that. Over the next year, if not sooner, expect the Power 5 to usher in measures like the ability to provide full cost of attendance scholarships, cover travel expenses for players’ families to attend postseason games, increase insurance benefits and more. Frustration with the NCAA’s cumbersome legislative process, specifically when the larger membership overrode a $2,000 scholarship stipend proposal passed in 2011, led to this day. In theory, those obstacles have now been removed.
“We look forward to moving past the process that brought us structural autonomy and onto the prospect of substantive reform that focuses on education and student-athletes,” Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said in a statement Thursday.
But the question now becomes, will the Power 5 schools themselves be able to accomplish their stated goals? Or will the diversity within their own ranks – Florida State operates quite differently from Wake Forest – start to expose deeper fissures?
“People assume a measure of unity that doesn’t exist,” said Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick. “There’s no clear position (among the 65) on some of the key issues. That doesn’t mean we won’t reach solutions. I absolutely believe we will. But the notion that that’s already happened, that we’ve got clear consensus on legislation that is queued up and ready to go — we’re not there yet.”
Both the Power 5 and the other 27 have a lot invested in the new system’s success. Specifically, they have $10.8 billion. The constant elephant in the room whenever talk of a possible breakaway comes up is the NCAA basketball tournament. The new College Football Playoff will be perfectly popular if the big boys claim the four spots every year, but March Madness as we know it would go kaput if Cinderella no longer played in the same division as Kansas and Kentucky.
And both groups know it.
“As a Hoosier who saw end of one-class (high school) basketball, I can say there’s real value in having everyone at one level,” said Swarbrick. “There’s something magical about being connected to that.”
“The uniqueness of the men’s basketball championship is you can never underestimate the will of the human spirit,” said McGlade. “You see teams with much smaller budgets and much smaller venues win championships. That’s the beauty of intercollegiate athletics. I hope that’s not what we lose.”
And basketball – where Butler or George Mason make an occasional deep run but the big boys still largely dominate the Final Four – is not even the sport most threatened by a Division I fracturing. UC-Irvine and Pepperdine field Top 10 baseball teams. Yale and Union College won the past two hockey Frozen Fours.
But football is the revenue-driving giant that continues to dictate conference and NCAA movement. In particular, the various antitrust lawsuits threatening the college sports model — most notably Ed O’Bannon’s and the still-nascent case being brought by prominent labor attorney Jeffrey Kessler — are focused almost entirely on redistributing some of the Power 5’s pot of football gold.
Many believe these external pressures may eventually force the big-money schools to start a new and more expressly commercial enterprise. Others believe those schools need to remain affiliated with the other 27 conferences to maintain the facade that they’re still primarily amateur and academic enterprises.
“I think it would be very difficult for the Big 5 to become something unto themselves,” said the Big Sky’s Fullerton. “I don’t think that’s where they want to go, because while we need them for branding, they need us for cover.”
Swarbrick believes the breakaway talk will dissipate for at least the next several years. If it returns, he said, it would likely not be until about a decade from now, when the College Football Playoff contract as well as those of the ACC, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC all come up for negotiation within about three years of each other.
But that’s assuming the Power 5 actually succeed in ushering in substantive athlete welfare measures via autonomy, and that those benefits appease their various critics.
“I don’t think we go through the level of effort and commitment to this project if there’s not a focus on keeping the unique aspects of Division I athletics in tact,” said SEC executive associate commissioner Greg Sankey.
The rest of Division I – and college sports fans everywhere – anxiously wait to find out whether the big boys’ rhetoric ultimately translates into meaningful change. Because nobody wants to find out what happens if it doesn’t.
Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. Before joining FOX Sports, he covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, “The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff,” is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.