Last Updated on June 5, 2014
(This is the second installment in a series discussing the future of the NCAA. In Part I, we looked at the issue of enforcement. In Part III we will look at the various legal problems currently plaguing the NCAA and their potential impact on the future of the organization. In this post we will be looking at super-conferences and the possible separation of the BCS schools)
I hesitate to even begin writing on the topic of super-conferences, for the simple fact that by the time I’m finished it’s highly possible news will have broken that fundamentally changes the framework of the discussion. That’s how fluid the situation is. At any moment the Big Ten could gobble up two more schools in a bid to be the first to 16, which very likely leads to the Big 12 making a move, etc. It appears this scenario (or one like it) is almost inevitable. If so it will be because there is more money and stability in the super-conference model than in the model we have today. And there very well could be. Conference leaders won’t want to stand pat for fear of being left out, looking vulnerable, looking dated and behind the times, losing members to other conferences and/or losing out on television money. They like the idea of adding major media markets to their footprint, and the perceived exposure and visibility their new additions provide. And over the past two years, we’ve been rapidly moving toward super-conferences, making a u-turn hard to envision.
Having said all that, plenty of issues persist that could prevent the super-conference takeover. After all, it could have happened already, but it hasn’t. Since everything begins and ends with finances, if things break down that will be the likely cause. Every school added to a conference means dividing the television money into one more share, so look for conferences to study in depth the incremental financial impact of adding schools. If a league’s current schools would see a reduced financial distribution after expanding, that’s a tough pill to swallow regardless of the other benefits (stability, exposure, etc.). And with the recently signed television deals it’s hard to find schools that are worth the extra $15 or $20 million plus per year it would take to keep the other members’ shares at or above even.
Another reason super-conferences may not happen is a fear on the part of conferences like the SEC that the new BCS football playoff would become a matchup of the four super-conference champions (this wouldn’t have to be in the official selection rules, but could be a bias committee members could reasonably develop over time). This jeopardizes the possibility of multiple schools from the same conference qualifying for the playoff, which in many years would do the sport a massive disservice (e.g. 2011 BCS Championship Game participant LSU could have been left out). Think in college basketball terms: How nuts would it be to only have conference champions represented in the NCAA Tournament? On the other hand, can you imagine a 16 team BCS super-conference (i.e. Big Ten, Pac-16, Big 12/ACC) not claiming one football playoff spot for its champion? This is the conundrum created by limiting the playoff to four teams in the midst of expanding and consolidating BCS conferences. Oh and don’t forget the wrenches that are independent Notre Dame and potentially BYU. Super-conferences may very well happen in spite of these issues, but if they do, I believe the push toward a larger playoff would begin immediately and eventually become reality.
In addition to super-conferences, the other possible structural change being discussed is the BCS schools completely separating from the NCAA. While anything is certainly possible, I don’t see this as a realistic scenario anytime soon. What happens when the schools separate? Will there not be any rules? Of course there will be. And who writes, interprets and enforces those rules? The BCS presidents aren’t going to and neither are their ADs. No, they would have to delegate that authority to a newly created organization that is similar to the NCAA but just for the BCS schools. And what is the benefit to that? There isn’t much of one; though an argument could be made that if you think the NCAA is beyond repair, it is better to simply start over.
I think a far more likely scenario is for the BCS schools to create a new football division under the NCAA umbrella. The distinctions would be similar to those we already have between Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) and Football Championship Subdivision (FCS). There would be an opportunity within this model to legislate BCS football completely differently from the non-BCS FBS schools, and impose lofty standards for those schools wanting to move up into the BCS. A BCS division would mean acknowledging that the Pac-12 and SEC have little in common with the MAC and Sun Belt when it comes to football. And decisions could be made amongst the BCS leadership without having to worry about how they’re going to affect the schools in those leagues. The BCS division model (rather than complete separation) also allows schools to continue competing in all the other sports as a Division I member as they have been. Nobody wants to see two college basketball championship tournaments with Duke and North Carolina in one and Gonzaga and Butler in another.
I think we’re going to see the four super-conferences finish coming together within the next five years, and an expansion of the football playoff in the next 15. It will be fascinating to see which way it goes, but let’s just hope Butler and Duke are still playing in the same basketball tournament at the end of it.
Follow Daniel on Twitter at @DanielHare.