Big-time College Sports Get Bigger

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - May 19, 2010
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Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany can play as coy as he likes. While he publicly states that no offer has been made to any school - let alone two, four or more - his reported activities have forced other major conferences to look for fertile hunting grounds while lesser organizations scramble to create contingency plans should the prime of their membership get purged by the higher powers.

And while conferences like the Mountain West and the WAC step nervously toward the future, no organization is more panicked than the NCAA itself.

Make no mistake about it. The Big Ten is going to get bigger by as many as five schools, which will cause similar moves by the Pac-10, ACC and SEC. Such growth will do more than ruin the Mountain West’s climb toward respectability and make it even tougher for UH to schedule home games against quality opponents, it may also make the NCAA irrelevant.


The departure of college sports’ biggest schools has been the NCAA’s biggest fear for a number of years. The organization is well aware that the schools in the BCS conferences don’t need the overbearing organization getting in their way and siphoning even more money away from the lesser schools they are forced to support.

The only way for the NCAA to survive is to give in to the inevitable: offer these 50-some schools the autonomy of their own division and create a third tier of Division I athletics to further separate the gentry from the serfs.

Should the NCAA not agree to a new division, the elite conferences will form their own organization, forcing the NCAA into the role of the NIT of college athletics - the older and once-respected institution that has been relegated to second-class citizenship. Worse yet, should enough schools join the exodus, the NCAA may have no bigger impact on the national sporting scene than the NAIA.

There is precedent for such a move. College athletics was first fractured along financial lines in 1973 when member schools were broken into three divisions. Five years later the split happened again as the NCAA divided its upper tier into Divisions 1A and 1AA.

While such a move will devastate mid-major programs, division is a necessary protective measure as university presidents show no signs of or desire to halt the explosive arms race that has resulted in multi-millionaire celebrity coaches and facilities that are the envy of professional sports leagues.


The driving force behind the inevitable creation of the so-called super conferences and the likely destruction or at least lack of relevancy of the NCAA is the Big Ten Network. A year ago the network reaped a $66 million profit. Add that windfall to the money received from the conference’s other broadcast agreements and each Big Ten member walked away with $22 million in television revenue alone. By comparison, Notre Dame’s deal with NBC paid the school a relatively paltry $9 million per season prior to its extension in 2008. Hawaii’s income from both TV and radio was just $2.7 million.

Smaller schools, like UH, cannot keep up with skyrocketing costs of competition. The big universities know they have a huge financial advantage and, like any other large corporation, have used this position to squeeze out lesser competition. And unless the schools voluntarily agree to a spending cap, the only way to ensure fair competition is to group the smaller schools with other lower-income programs. The alternative is to suffer the indignity of UH-Hilo baseball, which is forced to play a Division 1 schedule without the corresponding funds for recruiting and facilities.

An official split will not likely happen for a decade. The announcement, however, could come within five years or sometime after the NCAA or the new athletic entity renegotiates its broadcast contracts. Last month the NCAA signed a 14-year, $11 billion deal with CBS/Turner for broadcasting rights to the NCAA basketball tournament, and two years ago, the SEC hooked up with ESPN for 15 years.

The only WAC schools with a chance of surviving such a breakup are Nevada and Boise State. Both schools will likely end up in the Mountain West, especially if TCU, Utah and BYU take off for the Big 12, which could lose the bulk of its best teams to the Big Ten, SEC or Pac-10.

Hawaii is screwed. The Warriors are stuck in an awful conference that will only get worse. No other conference will want to add the expense of traveling to Hawaii which means the Warriors have very little bargaining power to shop around for a better deal.

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