The showdown is now out in the open. What was hinted at in the past is formally a conflict. Actually, it’s worse. The NCAA and the Power Five are official adversaries.
That much was obvious Saturday night when CBS Sports confirmed a story Sports Illustrated first reported about the willingness of the Power Five to stage its own championships in fall sports (other than football) if the NCAA Board of Governors cancels them this week.
That board, comprised mostly of administrators and campus CEOs, is the NCAA’s top governing body. The NCAA does not sponsor championship for the 130 FBS teams. That is controlled by the 10 FBS conferences, ESPN and the College Football Playoff.
By cancelling those other fall championships, the board knows it would be painting the FBS into a corner. The optics would not be good if the championships in eight sports were canceled amid the COVID-19 pandemic yet big-time college football played on.
But by cancelling those championships, the board might set in motion an eventual breakaway from the NCAA by the Power Five — the 65 total schools from the nation’s largest most powerful conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC) plus Notre Dame.
Simply put, those power conferences have thought for a while they could do it better than the NCAA. They’ve increasingly lost faith in the association.
And so, at this inflection point, it’s not so much that the Power Five will break away to conduct its own championships. It’s that it has reached the point where such a move is financially and systematically possible.
It may only be a matter of time. The Power Five has the money, leverage and — as we now know — willingness to break away. A group of schools that can’t agree on much — including scheduling, as we’re seeing now — have agreed to stare down the NCAA, at least on this issue.
Earlier this summer, CBS Sports detailed how that breakaway could occur amid the growing dissatisfaction between the NCAA and the Power Five conferences.
This week could mark the next, most significant step in that possible split. The board already passed on making a decision about staging the championships once, tabling a vote on July 24.
The next vote is Tuesday. The board has been lobbied hard by the Power Five to stand down.
“Lobbied” might be too soft a word.
The disillusionment between the two parties had been growing for a while. Then the pandemic hit.
The perception is NCAA president Mark Emmert has offered little leadership during these trying times. Whenever he opens his mouth lately, Emmert seems to antagonize either his own people or the Power Five “opposition.”
“If I were Emmert, I’d really be worried about it. He’s got to keep the Power Five together,” one athletic director told SI.
Critics of such a power play by the Power Five argue it would be a bad look, ostensibly taking over those fall championships in 2020 simply to justify the playing the college football season. The pressure is mounting due to the pandemic. That’s hard to argue against. Dozens of schools in lower divisions have canceled the season and/or postponed until 2021.
But the conferences have their own health experts. They already have the power to cancel the season on their own if the coronavirus spreads.
There is a basic distrust among key stakeholders in the Power Five who believe the NCAA just can’t handle this situation. At the time, there wasn’t total agreement among the conferences that the NCAA should have canceled all spring championships in March.
Sources confirmed to CBS Sports that the Power Five conferences have the financing necessary to stage those championships on their own. The NCAA?
It may not be able to afford them, especially after the fiasco from March. No doubt, the NCAA did the right thing by cancelling its Division I basketball tournament in the face of the pandemic. However, the association may have been woefully unprepared financially when the tournament was called off, according to the Washington Post.
That revenue shortfall alone caused a budgetary tsunami across college sports. The Power Five are best prepared to survive it.
All of this is the latest result of the 1984 Supreme Court decision that allowed schools control of football television rights. That day 36 years ago, the NCAA’s iron grip on college sports began to slip. The eventual windfall in revenue led to an explosion in TV media rights, fueled conference realignment and created the facilities arms race.
The schools control the product. It’s getting harder for the NCAA to control the schools.
The biggest reason for playing college football this season might be to preserve a portion of that revenue.
If there is a high ground to be gained here, there will be a slippery slope to get there for either side.
Georgia says it has an athletic reserve fund of $100 million. That’s a rarity. Some schools may take out loans to make ends meet — not unlike buying a house. A 30-year loan for $100 million would be backed up by the university itself.
Power Five life goes on. Everybody else is on their own. If that means a super division of those financially elite schools, so be it.
One critic recently called the NCAA the world’s largest party planner because, aside from its gala basketball tournament, the perception in some circles is that it does little else that serves the Power Five.
The enforcement division has come under withering criticism. The Power Five and NCAA seem to be on separate tracks regarding name, image and likeness rights for athletes.
Think about these optics possibly emerging out of Tuesday: The NCAA was ambushed by COVID-19 and couldn’t stage its biggest event, the Division I basketball tournament. However, five conferences were able to put on those other fall championships.
If COVID-19 sticks around long enough to affect a second straight basketball tournament, the question would have to be asked: What does the NCAA actually do?
SI’s story revealed how the pandemic has turned a large part of the membership against the NCAA. At least the part that matters.
You can see the Power Five’s, well, power in the return to college football. They have fallen back on their greatest resource — themselves.
That doesn’t make it easy to watch. The minimum testing guidelines provided by the NCAA may be noble but are perhaps not nearly enough.
Scheduling highlighted once again how fractured the big conferences are in achieving a common goal. Four of the five conferences (SEC, ACC, Pac-12, Big Ten) have implemented slightly different scheduling philosophies with the season starting at different times. The Big 12 is to decide its schedule format on Monday.
Those shortened schedules reduce travel during the pandemic but have also consolidated power. In eliminating several Group of Five opponents, the Power Five has denied those schools millions in game contracts. The MAC alone had 13 games against Big Ten opponents canceled. The losses in game guarantees from those Big Ten schools totaled more than $17 million.
That added to a gap between the Power Five and Group of Five (American, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt) that has never been wider. And it’s more obvious than ever.
The NCAA board has options Tuesday. It could do nothing. It could delay a vote. It could separate Division II and Division III, canceling those championships while allowing Division I fall sports to proceed.
The NCAA must choose wisely. Its choice may determine its stability.