What are some of your 2021 college sports predictions?
Here are a few of mine, from the business side to conference realignment to NIL and more.
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2020 was a great start for Extra Points, and I’m really bullish on 2021. Soon, I’ll have news to share with you about a new podcast, a new logo, new features, and new stories. I can’t wait to go on that journey with all of you.
On that note, I thought it might be fun to take a stab at a few other predictions for 2021. I’d like to offer up a few on a couple of off-the-field topics, and I’d love to hear some of yours.
College Sports Business predictions:
I’d expect the financial recovery for athletic departments is going to be pretty uneven in 2021. Even if schedules and crowd capacity return to close-to-normal levels by the Fall (and honestly, I think they will!), universities across the country will continue to face enrollment instability and declining state appropriations. Athletic departments for institutions struggling to maintain enrollment, or for institutions that heavily depend on student fees and institutional transfers, will face difficult struggles into 2021, as modeling future revenues will be very tough.
Because of those struggles, look for basically everybody to get more aggressive and more creative about finding other revenue streams. I wouldn’t be surprised to see even more schools look to take back their own multimedia rights, eschewing potential partners like Van Wagner or Learfield. I wouldn’t be surprised if schools aggressively look to secure new types of partnerships, including ones with gambling partners, like Colorado did. If a school can make a few bucks by slapping their logo on something, I think they’re gonna do it.
I think New Balance will announce new apparel agreements with multiple D-I institutions in 2021. Maybe not any massive brands, but hey, you can still run a very sustainable business with smaller athletic departments as clients.
With the industry facing very challenging headwinds, and with major opportunities for advancement often hard to come by, I think you’ll see a few more D-1 athletic directors leave the industry altogether for opportunities in professional sports, or perhaps out of sports entirely. I’m not just talking about folks nearing the end of their career either, but ADs and senior leaders in their 30s and 40s deciding that this particular grind just isn’t the best place for their talents.
Conference realignment predictions:
I don’t think you’ll see an exodus of D-I schools dropping out of D-1, but I do think you’ll see at least one school pull the trigger this season. My best guess is that UC Riverside, after waffling over whether to commit to a D-I program, finally decides to pull the plug. Chicago State would be another popular choice, especially as the WAC expands in new markets nowhere near Chicago, but they won’t be the only school to seriously consider their D-1 future in 2021.
Even if two or three schools decide to either drop intercollegiate sports or reclassify to D-II or D-III, I imagine more schools will still want to join D-I than leave. As the D-II ranks become more fraught, especially in the West, and as the immediate financial and logistical shock of COVID tapers off, I’d expect more D-II schools to investigate moving up, especially in the latter half of 2021. Reclassification talks around the country ground to a halt as everybody rushed to figure out how to get a handle on COVID this year. I don’t think that will be the case in 2021.
I think 2021 will be a big year for FCS realignment. Previously reported membership changes with the WAC and ASUN should be finalized shortly, but I feel pretty confident those won’t be the only FCS league membership changes in 2021. My guess? The MEAC, ASUN, NEC, Southland and Southern will all experience at least one membership change. What will drive those changes? A combination of a desire to save money on travel, a desire to better align with peer institutions, and a need to respond to other leagues making moves.
At the FBS level, there may be some more credible rumors, but I’m not expecting big moves. Except perhaps this one…I think Boise State finally breaks up with the Mountain West. These are not differences that can really be reconciled, even with Bryan Harsin now at Auburn, and the gaps in both resources and ambition are only going to grow wider in the next year or two. I don’t know if this story ends with Boise in the AAC or as a football independent, but it’s hard for me to see them heading into 2022 as a happy, long-term member of the MWC.
Currently, a handful of states have NIL laws on the books: California, Colorado, Florida, Nebraska and New Jersey. That list will absolutely grow in 2021. Michigan is a good bet to be the next state to pass a law, and others, like New Mexico, Illinois, Oregon, Nevada and New Hampshire could join them relatively soon. By late 2021, it will be more notable to point out which states are not considering such legislation. My guess is that Indiana will be one of the last, thanks to influence from the NCAA.
I’d be surprised if a federal NIL bill actually gets signed before July, which is when Florida’s state-level NIL law goes into effect. Early 2021 will be full of bruising legislative fights that have nothing to do with college athletics, and the path to enough legislative consensus doesn’t appear clear at the moment, especially since Biden will be the one signing this thing. I do think something will eventually get passed in 2021, but not in time for the NCAA to avoid their Florida problem.
My guess is that the NCAA will somehow attempt to sue to prevent Florida’s law from going into effect, but will not be successful. That means if only for a few months, Florida’s NCAA institutions will operate on different rules than everybody else. I do not expect the world to end over this development.
The biggest governmental question in 2021 will be how Alston is decided by the Supreme Court. I’ve talked to a lot of folks about this over the last two weeks, and my understanding is that the actual legal questions are a little more complicated to prognosticate than just “well, the conservative judges are gonna side against workers”, although I can’t really fault a cynic who automatically takes that view. My best guess is that Alston, in practice, ends up providing a limited antitrust exemption for the NCAA, but it will be narrow enough to frustrate the current athletic establishment, and will likely invite additional litigation. Basically, nobody is going to be really happy.
On that note, I remain really bullish about the future of an open NIL marketplace. I think a lot of athletes, especially women athletes, will benefit, not just financially, but academically and professionally. But in 2021, thanks to such administrative and legal uncertainty, I expect the primary beneficiaries of NIL to be attorneys and consulting groups, not athletes. The only truly undefeated force in college athletics will remain billable hours.
Other college sports-related predictions:
At the campus level, I expect college athlete activism to continue to grow. While certainly not perfect, I think it’s been heartening to see many coaches, campus administrators, and conference officials recognize this activism as a positive force to be supported, not suppressed. In an increasingly uncertain world, I think those conversations will continue, as athletes across different sports will get better at communicating their needs and their experiences. Coaches and administrators will learn that regardless of how they personally feel, they simply cannot strong-arm athletes away, lest they become uncompetitive in the recruiting marketplace. The Lloyd Eaton approach, while not extinct, will continue to become less common, at least as it pertains to political, social, and campus-focused expression.
But for 2021, I don’t think we’ll see the same fruits from cross-campus athlete activism. 2020 showed a flurry of such activity, as athletes in many college conferences banded together to try and advocate for various changes and protections ahead of the college football season…only to largely not get what they asked for, and even occasionally, to be undercut by other college athletes.
Organizing college athletes is going to be hard. They can’t unionize. They’re very young. They’ll only be college athletes for a short time, and many have very different short-term incentives. There may come a day when there’s a legitimate college athlete union (or Player’s Association, which would do many of the same functions) that serves as a counterbalance to coaches and administrators, or a time when athletes force a work stoppage. But I don’t think that time will be in 2021.
Widespread frustration with the 2020 season won’t be enough to change the formatting of the College Football Playoff. I’d be pretty surprised if the format expanded, or changed meaningfully, before the end of this contract. Non-power schools really don’t have much leverage to force change immediately, and words like “Swift”, “Nimble” or “Creative” don’t typically describe the highest leaders in college athletics. I’d expect more grumbling, and maybe another G5-ish member of the Playoff Committee, but no major changes.
Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State are probably all gonna be really good in 2021. Sorry. Had to step out on a limb a little bit there.
What about you? What do you see happening in the short-term in college athletics? Big changes in college hockey or lacrosse? Other administrative or business trends we may not know about? I’d love to hear your thoughts, either in the comments, Discord, or in my email. I’m at Matt@ExtrapointsMB.com.
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