What would P5 schools leaving the NCAA actually DO?

One recent report says it's an actual possibility. But would that solve the big questions in college sports?

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Now, let’s talk about blowing up the whole damn NCAA

I feel like the two most common Doomsday scenarios for the NCAA involve either some massive conference realignment that creates four, 16-team SUPER-CONFERENCES, or for the Power Five to just up and leave the NCAA completely. They’re both relative staples of the offseason college football blog economy, and that’s not a criticism.

Dennis Dodd, over at CBS, recently reported that perhaps that whole big schools leaving the NCAA thing isn’t just fodder for message board speculation and talk radio. Maybe it could have some legs to it. Via CBS:

Despite the pandemic, the NCAA's foundation has already been in question. But during these uncertain times, the association may be one more calamitous event away from slipping off a cliff of relevancy.

"If there's no NCAA Tournament next year," Tatos said. "… I think then there has to be a breakaway from this model."

To put it more plainly, a separation of the Power Five conferences from the NCAA has long been possible. Those 65 schools, including independent Notre Dame, already exist as separate entities -- financially, competitively and even corporately. But with the coronavirus ratcheting up the stakes, a tipping point may be at hand. 

"I'm telling you, if you or I were going to place a bet on a stock … you could double down on the Power Five being a separate entity now within two years," said Vince Thompson, founder and CEO of MELT, an Atlanta-based sports and entertainment marketing firm.

Dodd has quotes from University of Utah economist Ted Tatos, Vince Thompson, an unnamed P5 university president, and a source close to the AAC.

There’s a reason this is a popular question, and why many close to college athletics might predict it eventually happens. Nobody likes the NCAA!

And hey, that isn’t without good justification!

The entire “amateurism” model looks like it’s one more good legal or political challenge from totally falling apart. The organization has been slow to take leadership on NIL, slow to maintain any sort of credibility in their ability to investigate rulebreaking or enforce any meaningful policy. They get bodybagged by critics at every opportunity. In an era where politicians agree on virtually nothing, it’s worth noting that both Republicans and Democrats can come together to agree that the NCAA sucks. It is honestly impressive.

There’s been tension between the big schools and small schools within the NCAA for about as long as we’ve had an NCAA. Former Texas head coach Darrell Royal spoke for many within the sport with his famous “I don't want Hofstra telling Texas how to play football” quip back in the 1970s. The schools who have the most resources don’t like being policed, on any level, by institutions that don’t share their financial and competitive realities. That’s what led to the push to give the biggest conferences more legislative autonomy.

Since the NCAA doesn’t run college football anyway, and the biggest programs continue to separate themselves from the pack, why shouldn’t the biggest programs leave and create their own entity? Surely they’d make more money that way, and then perhaps the Ball States of the world would be freed from the illusion that they share any sort of competitive space with Notre Dame or Michigan.

But there are some real logistical concerns with this plan

For one, limiting the top tier of college football to just 60ish teams messes with the current economics of hosting games. How can you secure seven or more home games a season without bodybag games? Wouldn’t you need somebody else to play, at least occasionally?

Dodd certainly thinks so. Per his column:

Don't necessarily think those 65 schools would be completely alone. They'd most likely have to play somebody. Think about a group of, say, the top 90 or 100 schools to enhance scheduling and a television contract.

That solves the schedule problem, but FBS only has 130 teams. Let’s say you’re conservative, and you limit the new D1+ to 90 teams. That’s the P5 (65 schools), plus the AAC, (11), then oh, BYU, Boise State, San Diego State, and ten other mid-majors. Let’s pick from other high performing schools…and lets say that’s Marshall, Louisiana Tech, Army, Air Force, Toledo, Northern Illinois, Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Louisiana-Lafayette, Arkansas State and Northern Illinois. If you feel really passionately about some other mid-major, pretend I included them and drop Louisiana Tech or something.

It’s great that you lopped off Eastern Michigan and Louisiana-Monroe and all, but the smallest budgets in D1+ are still going to be around $40 million, and maybe less, compared to the $200 million+ at the top of the league. That’s still a massive disparity that will create legislative and political tension, not to mention mismatched football games. Maybe, depending on how travel and TV contracts worked, that might be an even worse financial outcome for those mid-majors than the status quo.

And that’s just for football. Would a new basketball tournament with just the heavyweight programs and say, the Big East, be as commercially attractive a product as the Final Four? Would the NCAA allow those institutions to participate in any NCAA-backed tournaments? Would these new schools be interested in starting up and running their own softball, field hockey or lacrosse tournaments? Would those events suddenly become cost prohibitive?

I would assume that leaving the NCAA means leaving everything, including the stuff they’re actually good at. That isn’t a long list, but it isn’t an empty one either. The NCAA is legitimately good at organizing and hosting tournaments!

Plus, is it even safe to assume this would solve all the other NCAA ills?

I think sometimes fans, and even those close to the industry, forget who actually makes up the NCAA. It’s the member institutions! They’re the ones that actually create the policies that everybody seems to hate so much.

Let’s say everybody decides to quit and form D1+. Well, who creates uniform eligibility standards? What is the enforcement mechanism for those standards, and what happens to a school that breaks those standards? How are those standards and enforcement protocols going to be meaningfully different from the status quo? Was it American and Long Beach State that were conspiring to keep the legislative process trapped in perpetual quagmire?

Plus, is it that safe an assumption that every single P5 institution is in philosophical lockstep? After all, Boston College voted against COA stipends, and they’re in the P5. Administrators at other power conferences have expressed concern about “professionalization” of college athletics. If breaking away from the NCAA meant embracing that amateurism was a fiction, would EVERY school join them? I’m sure most of them would, but I’m not 100% sure every school would. Would Boston College? Army and Navy? BYU? Northwestern? Maybe a more financially challenged institution like Washington State? Depending on what the financial terms were, I don’t know if that’s automatically a slam dunk.

And even if every P5 institution was on board, I’m not sure there’s a real, complete, consensus on many of these important philosophical issues. You have some P5 ADs that have staked out pretty progressive positions on NIL, and others, like at Pitt and UNC, who have been much more conservative. You have P5 institutions that are highly selective, AAU research schools, and others that have completely different educational missions. They differ politically, religiously, culturally and geographically, and have historically been loath to trust each other very significantly. Are we to believe that substantially improves once the Pac-12 is no longer bound to share administrative ties with the Big Sky?

I think I can understand the theory that once the biggest programs are freed from the legally dubious amateurism framework, they’ll be able to effectively work together to create a quasi-professional college athletics framework, negotiating with some players advocacy organization, with functioning administrative systems, and with a high enough level of institutional trust, to overcome the flaws and excesses of the current model.

I’m skeptical.

I think there is real merit in an organizational overhaul. But I’m not sure I see the real benefit in breaking away completely

A lot of folks who follow college athletics closely have pointed out that it’s pretty stupid for scores of badly under-resourced schools to pretend to compete with the biggest budgeted football programs. Ohio and Ohio State aren’t playing by the same rules, and it feels strange that we’re all compelled to believe the fiction that they are.

I actually think there would be financial and competitive benefit to redefining the lines of what constitutes D1, not just for football, but for multiple sports. That might mean allowing some schools in D2 or D3 to play up a level, or for schools to decide to play down a level. It might be redesigning conference affiliations. It might even mean creating an entirely new NCAA divisional structure. Maybe college football should be FBS+, FBS and FCS. There are other potential organizational models that might produce better outcomes for schools, athletes and fans.

But at the end of the day, it’s hard for me to imagine so many of the things that frustrate fans, coaches, and everybody else about the NCAA just vanishing once the biggest schools decide to make a new logo and letterhead. You’re still going to have significant legislative squabbling about everything from eligibility to recruiting procedures to NIL and athlete benefits to just about everything else. You’re going to have a rulebook that will eventually grow and grow. They might even hire some sort of centralized figure to be a punching bag to let the other administrators off the hook.

So you can leave the NCAA, I guess. But for my money, I bet the Big Ten, SEC and the others will just find a new Mark Emmert for everybody to yell at.

You can take the big schools out of the NCAA. But I kinda doubt you can take the NCAA out of the big schools.

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