Football is King

Mark Emmert is the president of the NCAAMark Emmert is the president of the NCAA

The impact of conference realignment, media revenue, rule revisions and the costs of doing the business of college sports dominated the agenda at the IMG Intercollegiate Athletics Forum (IAF) presented by SportsBusiness Daily/Global/Journal last week in New York.

“College football owns Saturdays.” Those words opened the IAF and permeated the majority of the panels and discussions for the next two days. The ratings cannot be disputed — seven times this season, college football was the number one program in primetime on Saturday nights.

From conference realignments to the creation of the four-team seeded playoffs leading up to a national championship (to debut in 2014) to the impact of these developments on all other collegiate sports, one thing is clear — football drives the bus, and in one way or another, that bus stops at every aspect of university operations.

The IAF began with a one-on-one discussion between Abraham Madkour, executive editor of SportsBusiness Daily/Global/Journal, and NCAA President Dr. Mark Emmert. After some brief discussion about new expectations recently put in place around academic performance and some restructuring of committees, the conversation turned to a story that has been heavily in the news as of late — conference realignment.

Not long before the IAF, it was announced that the University of Maryland and Rutgers University would be leaving their respective conferences to join the Big 10.

“[The moves] are not being made because of some natural, inherent rivalry that exists that just hasn’t been recognized,” said Emmert. “This is the aggregation of media rights.”

Emmert noted that some of the changes likely erode the trust that existed between presidents of institutions, among athletic directors and among conference commissioners. As to the playoffs, Emmert said he thought they were a good idea, but it remains to be seen how it will play out over time.

Among all these high-stakes maneuvers, Emmert remains steadfast that the most important thing to remember is these are student-athletes. He will continue to press forward on reform efforts that positively impact them.

Emmert was then joined on stage by Dr. Nathan Hatch, president of Wake Forest University, and Dr. Harvey Perlman, chancellor of University of Nebraska. In that session, the growing divide between the top 60–70 institutions in Division I and the rest of the Division I institutions was introduced. For the first time, the question was raised: What’s to stop the top five conferences from separating from the NCAA?

“NCAA institutions are so different,” said Hatch. “Even within Division I you have athletic budgets that range from maybe $15 or $20 million to $120 million.

“[To separate] we’d have to set up the whole system,” he added. “I personally would be opposed to that.”

“The challenge we face in Division I is this huge heterogeneity of the kinds of schools that are inside Division I and their budgets,” Emmert said. “We have to figure out how we accommodate the legitimate concerns and needs of all various groups.”

The enormous salaries for football coaches, which cannot be controlled due to U.S. antitrust laws, leave colleges and universities trying to identify cost cutting measures so that athletic budgets are not subsidized by academic funds and student fees. Hatch said the biggest costs usually have to do with football.

“We cluttered up the rulebook trying to manage resource allocations in ways that nibble away at cost constraints while deregulating all the big cost items,” said Emmert. “Here are the things we don’t have any way of regulating right now: coaches’ salaries, all the non-coaching staff and their salaries, the scholarship costs because that’s a function of tuition, playing facilities, practice facilities, training facilities, all your support programs — academic support programs and social support programs — and how you travel.

“So now you’ve got a rulebook full of things trying to manage whether you can put cream cheese on a bagel,” he added. “The problem is we’re using the rulebook to try and control costs, but it doesn’t do anything of the sort. It does create all these ridiculous regulations that we now have to monitor.”

Perlman suggested that the NCAA could have an impact by making its monetary distribution to institutions contingent on the institution doing some cost control measures, but it would still only impact the margins.

As for conference realignment, both Perlman and Hatch feel the moves have been beneficial.

“We brought in two great academic institutions and we’ve spread the footprint of the Big 10 into contiguous areas,” Perlman said. “We’ve entered markets we haven’t been in before. That’s obviously good for revenue and for media.”

In the wake of the Penn State scandal, how to maintain control over a high profile football coach remains an issue. Boards can try to strengthen the support for university presidents and athletic directors, but given the power and prestige of football, it will continue to be a challenge.