Talking the business of sports
One year ago today, college athletics changed forever. July 1, 2021, marked the beginning of the name, image and likeness era, and it set the stage for what has become perhaps the most transformative 12 months in college sports history.
This week, CBS Sports recognized that anniversary as the jumping off point for a three-part series taking a more intensive look at the state of college football and future of the game.
“I think we all knew something like this was going to happen,” TCU coach Sonny Dykes said. “For so long, we had turned a blind eye to what I thought was right in college athletics. We were filling these stadiums, putting 50,000-100,000 people in these stadiums, making tens of millions on television contracts. It was like, well, we’re not going to share any of this with the people that fans are showing up to watch?
“It was a day of reckoning and something I thought was long overdue.”
NIL is simply the latest crack in the decades-old fading facade of college football with more significant changes coming just around the corner.
The NCAA’s lack of preparation for the defining issue of its time has set the stage for what could be a truly transformational moment in athletics.
“In theory, could there have been [NCAA] legislation? Yes,” Miami megabooster John Ruiz said of NIL. “In reality, maybe we’re in a better place today than we would have been had we had legislation [from the NCAA].”
With that in mind, CBS Sports broke down a handful of the biggest issues that must be resolved as College Football 2.0 forms. The future of college football hangs in the balance entering this uncertain new era with governance, postseason structure and programs with disparate financial situations serving as pivotal factors.
Right now, it’s the SEC and the Big Ten. With the shocking news that USC and UCLA are joining the Big Ten, the two conferences have the biggest, best collection of college football brands in history.
That means, someday soon, they’ll be dictating — a lot — and perhaps even staging their own playoff. In that scenario, do you care if an undefeated Cincinnati is left out? At the least those two conferences will be hoarding money, talent, coaches and television windows.
Will anyone be able to tell commissioners Greg Sankey (SEC) and Kevin Warren (Big Ten) what to do? The NCAA will be out. That is all but assured as detailed in this series.
Ultimately, those running the game will be the same who are running it now: conference commissioners and university presidents. The difference being the FBS – either all or a significant portion of the 130 teams — will break away from the NCAA and create its own entity.
The day-to-day wouldn’t change, but the new entity might be responsible for duties previously left to the NCAA: rules enforcement, health care, officiating, etc. The NCAA was formed 117 years ago because the sport was too violent, but college football has grown to such a degree that it can no longer manage to regulate it.
One major question is stewardship. Whoever takes over college football will clearly have a lot on their plate. In the event of a breakaway, that new entity will be responsible for athlete welfare, including mental health and post-graduate healthcare. This has always been an NCAA responsibility. If the new entity doesn’t assume these responsibilities, will it at least contribute to a medical care fund?
That entity would do well to hire someone with significant experience in law and sports administration. That means someone less like current CFP executive director Bill Hancock and more like a CEO or czar who will answer to the commissioners and presidents.
Diversity will have to be addressed at the highest levels in a sport that has been run by older white men. That’s one among many reasons why someone like NFL executive Dawn Aponte seems right for the job. The anti-Mark Emmert, if you will.
Somehow, legal liability must be reduced. At last check, the NCAA was facing upwards of 30 lawsuits dealing with player health alone.
Complicating the situation? Four of the Power Five conferences have changed leadership since 2020. Three of those four took over leagues without prior collegiate experience. The Big Ten’s Kevin Warren came from the NFL. The Pac-12’s George Kliavkoff made his bones in the entertainment world in Las Vegas. The Big 12’s Brett Yormark is about to take over with experience from the NBA and Roc Nation.
There’s no guarantee these stakeholders will see eye-to-eye with college stalwarts like Sankey and the ACC’s Jim Phillips in this critical moment. But someone, somewhere needs to make a decision — and lead.
Yes, and more of it. When college football separates, there will be an opportunity to pay the players what would be defined as a “stipend” – the same as cost of attendance and Alston money.
Let’s call it $30,000 for each player in the form of revenue sharing that would be collectively bargained. (If that the stakeholders try to cap that figure, they’ll end up right back in court for antitrust violations.) If the sides collectively bargain, say, two years in residence by the players — thus providing some roster stability — in exchange for that money, it might work. Legal experts have told CBS Sports this approach could work. Working conditions could be collectively bargained without the formation of a union or an employee-employer relationship.
“I think that’s where we’re headed,” antitrust attorney Jeffrey Kessler told CBS Sports. “It’s really just a question of how quickly it gets there. We’re going to head to a world where the NCAA doesn’t have any regulations at all or authority regarding the compensation and benefits of athletes.”
There will be pressure for the revenue windfall created by an expanded College Football Playoff to be shared with the labor force that gives the game its value. Will the game’s stakeholders and players sit across a table from one another and negotiate for a piece of what is believed to be at least a $1 billion annual media rights deal?
That proposed $30,000, expanded across 11,050 scholarships for those 130 teams, results in an outlay of $331 million annually. That’s approximately 33% of that $1 billion. Sound fair? NFL players earn 48% of the league’s revenue.
However, if the top of the FBS breaks off, that would create an opportunity for a completely new model. Players may push for the ability to have employment and contract protections, along with other concessions as part of a collectively-bargained process. With revenues at SEC and Big Ten schools expected to easily clear $100 million — and counting — the case for limiting compensation grows infinitely weaker.
Whether through legislation or unionization, player empowerment is not slowing down. NIL legislation has opened the door to athlete compensation, and their power will continue to grow. It’s almost unfathomable to believe a new era of college football could be achieved without players at least becoming limited partners.
Potentially irrelevant if the FBS forms its own limited liability corporation (LLC). However, the CFP remains the most likely entity to take over the FBS as it already has some structure in place.
When a CFP working group proposed a 12-team expansion model a year ago, most expected it would be rubber stamped in time to be implemented as early as the 2023 season. Then Texas and Oklahoma decided to ditch the Big 12 for the SEC. And now, with USC and UCLA jettisoning the Pac-12 for the Big Ten, the waters are further muddied.
None of it can go forward now until we know who is playing in what conference. The political football of “The Alliance” between the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 is now dead.
If the CFP is to absorb the FBS, it must first figure out the expansion piece. As it stands, the playoff is almost guaranteed to move to 12 teams in 2026, though questions remain on the structure, especially with the SEC and Big Ten growing financially well past the rest of the sport.
Left on the table when expansion was paused earlier this year: A proposal for the six highest-ranked conference champions to receiver automatic bids with the top four getting first-round byes. The remaining six spots would be populated with at-large teams, including at least one Group of Five school.
Beginning in 2026, a unanimous vote wouldn’t be needed to proceed with expansion. Given Thursday’s developments, the SEC and Big Ten could simply dictate the look of the playoff.
A combination of the NCAA, whatever the FBS becomes and lawyers. Always lawyers.
The NCAA is in the process of allowing its divisions to make more decisions for themselves as is being overseen by the Transformation Committee. However, whatever entity oversees major college football will most likely be a for-profit business.
College athletics has been notoriously glacial when it comes to evolving with the times. With Considerations including player associations, state laws and potential federal legislation, the decisions could soon be taken out of the NCAA’s hands.
This is a critical juncture in which university presidents can take charge. It’s their put-up-or-shut-up opportunity. In times of strife, these men and women make a lot of noise about integrity only to ultimately do little.
Eventually, they will link up with conference commissioners to oversee a new business, not just a new division. It will be on their agenda to decide the role of academics, organizational enforcement, etc.
These officials often preach the importance of institutional integrity, but a future with NIL and perhaps direct compensation will require a complete mental realignment. College sports will almost certainly have a for-profit component, and it’s important for these presidents to rationalize that enterprise existing within a higher education framework.
“Previously, there’s been a lot of talk about, ‘Well, Congress is going to fix this, Congress is going to fix that,’ said Bob Bowlsby, outgoing Big 12 commissioner. “Repeatedly, we’ve been told, ‘Don’t bring your problems to Congress. Bring solutions to Congress and ask them to help you implement them.’
“I think that’s what we’ll need to do.”
This is the presidents’ most existential challenge since the NCAA formed in the early 20th Century. They’re losing credibility by the minute. Please don’t tell us about the importance of academics when USC and UCLA athletes will be flying 3,000 miles to play at Rutgers.
Their charge will be to find the thinnest thread that connects big-business college football to the old educational model because the new model is going to be more professional, more corporate, more about the money.
There will be an enforcement piece but not much of one. The members don’t want it. NIL has defined the future of compensation. Schools don’t want any outsider telling them about academic fraud.
There are already reports a new NCAA enforcement structure won’t touch innocent players. Guilty coaches will be banned and fined. Seems fair.
However, pitting athletic and business partners against one another presents its own set of problems in this new endeavor. There will be fewer rules in the future as deregulation of NCAA oversight continues, but is that a good thing given NIL is already running wild?
“Greg Sankey totally dislikes the NCAA enforcement process,” one Power Five athletic director said, “but I’m not sure what rules you’d be enforcing. A lot of this stuff is going to be deregulated anyway.”
The Wild, Wild West will only get wilder.
The NCAA got rid of its gambling, agent and amateurism division years ago. It may be time to bring it back. Sometime soon, every FBS conference — perhaps every school — will have a gambling partner.
As unsavory as that sounds, it’s a reflection of culture change. The U.S. Supreme Court allowed sports gambling in 2018. College football is still in the process of figuring out its role.
The MAC made an aggressive move by partnering with sports data firm Genius Sports to provide internal statistical data to be sold to gamblers. However, there are several other avenues to resolve if college football wants to be a gambling-friendly sport — and reap the financial benefits.
Now, the issue is how much gambling the stakeholders will allow. Coaches largely don’t release injury information. That information legitimizes NFL betting; all the injuries are public. Some administrators are worried that prop bets — wagers on individual occurrences — add a new level of pressure.
“We don’t have a month go by during the season … where there’s not at least one real issue around misuse of inside information,” said Matt Holt, founder and CEO of U.S. Integrity, a gaming oversight company that works with colleges.
College sports is waiting for its next big gambling scandal. Ultimately though, gambling is too big a financial force long term to get pushed down by bylaws, especially in a gambling marketplace that embraces the volume of college football products long term. The new governing body will have to make rules to protect gamblers.
Conference realignment shifting into gear again suggests there will be several left out in the cold. The age of the superconference is upon us. It’s up to everyone else to keep up.
It’s hard to believe the 130 FBS teams will not be trimmed to a more historically dominant and successful group as financial gaps between programs continue to increase. If the FBS does get divided, the “lower” tier of teams will have to face and answer some difficult questions.
Look for the SEC and Big Ten, who have already separated from the crowd with monster media rights deals, to set standards — scholarship limits, spending, rules — that force schools to keep up.
The FBS could split into two (or more) tiers: elite brands (30-50) and everyone else (100-80), a group that could be subdivided further. The SEC and Big Ten will lap the field, but what that means for the rest of the sport is undetermined.
A Group of Five playoff was valued at $160 million in a 2017 study. Considering the continued rise of sports media rights, that number will have increased significantly from five years ago.
A formally multi-tiered FBS system would officially end the mirage of 130 FBS teams competing at the same level with legitimate shots at winning the CFP.
At what cost will that come for the sport? We’re about to find out.
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