AUBURN, Ala. — No one lives under the assumption that college athletics are simply fun and games anymore.
Of course, that can be pared down to just two sports: Division I football and men’s basketball. Certainly, the tennis teams and golf squads and the other athletes competing in non-revenue sports want to win just as badly as their hardwood and gridiron counterparts. But notice the key part of that last phrase: non-revenue. There’s a reason that football and men’s hoops take precedence at nearly every Division I school.
They have billion dollar television contracts to thank for that — just look at the 14-year, $10.8 billion CBS and Turner Sports agreed to pay three years ago to get broadcast rights for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Next season is the first time major Division I football will hold a playoff, which will feature four teams. To get those rights through the 2025-26 season, ESPN is shelling out nearly $500 million per year. In turn, coaches in those sports have benefited handsomely. Most have six-figure deals. Others have an extra zero at the end of their salary. Not that every Division I school can afford that type of compensation — Texas and Alabama are on a different level than New Mexico State.
And that gap is about to get even wider.
During the “Division I Governance Dialogue” session in San Diego last Friday, it was all but approved that the five most influential conferences — the SEC, Big Ten, Pac-12, ACC and Big 12 — will get to play by their own set of rules going forward. In a poll of nearly 800 administrations, which mainly consisted of school presidents and athletic directors, 58 percent favored giving the “big five” leagues autonomy.
While NCAA president Mark Emmert didn’t reveal which way he voted, it’s a situation that he appears to know is beyond his control.
“It makes sense for the five big revenue conferences to have their own voice," Emmert told Yahoo Sports last week. "A year ago that would have been a very difficult conversation. Now (member schools) are saying, 'Yeah, that makes sense.' People have just become more comfortable with the ideas and concepts of it.'"
Get used to this reality: The rich are getting richer. By comparison, the schools in smaller leagues aren’t getting poorer, not that it makes them feel any better about it.
And the biggest reason for the autonomy push?
The wealthiest conferences have money to spend, and they want to spend it. Specifically, they want to better compensate their athletes. Even taking into account what scholarships cover, a disparity exists — ranging between a few hundred, or in some cases, thousands of dollars — that forces athletes to make up for the remaining cost-of-attendance.
With last week’s poll, it appears the biggest leagues will finally get their way. This concept is far from new. The top conferences tried in vain to get the “full cost-of-attendance” resolution passed for years, only to be outvoted by their smaller brethren.
Once the results were in, representatives from the less-wealthy leagues reacted the way one would expect. Words like “anxious” and “disappointed” come to mind.
At the same time, Peter Roby tried to appeal to the notion of an even playing field for all.
“I worry that the gap is going to get so large that the notion of competitive opportunity might not be possible for the rest of us,” the Northeastern athletic director told Yahoo Sports. "I don't think we're under the illusion that a Northeastern, or anyone in the mid-major category, is going to win (basketball) national championships. But those differences in revenue should (not) be obstacles that prevent us, if we get in the tournament, from being able to win some games and advance. I just hope there are some concessions, and maybe some of us have the opportunity to compete a little more fairly."
Don’t bet on it.
The five most powerful conferences have been seeking this kind of separation from the rest of Division I for years. Now that they have been given the go-ahead to open up their vast war chests, they’re not going to leave any stone unturned.
That “competitive opportunity” Roby yearns for?
It’s a pipe dream. Too much money is on the line for the biggest conferences to worry about that. If anything, they want the competitive balance to swing the other way, where any game played against a smaller conference opponent poses no threat. That mentality runs counter to what the NCAA lists as its “core purpose.”
Which is what, exactly?
“Our purpose is to govern competition in a fair, safe, equitable and sportsmanlike manner, and to integrate intercollegiate athletics into higher education so that the educational experience of the student-athlete is paramount,” it reads.
On both those accounts, the NCAA has been a colossal failure. It has failed because money — not sportsmanship or academic success — is paramount.
It’s a reminder, sadly, that the chief business of college athletics is business.