College sports could soon undergo a transformational change that splits its largest schools from everyone else both on the field and off, as three conference commissioners this week mused about the possible formation of a new division that includes only the biggest conferences. While the details of how such a split would occur are unknown, the outline is fairly clear. The five largest conferences — the Big XII, Southeastern, Atlantic Coast, Big 10, and PAC-12 — and perhaps some members of the new Big East and newly-formed American Athletic Conference would form their own superdivision of 65–80 schools, while the remainder of the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly known as Division I-A) would remain behind.
That’s a decision that seems inevitable as the budget gap between the largest schools and everyone else be continues to grow, and it’s one that could bring substantial changes to college sports for both fans and players.
For one, it could totally change the viewing experience of college sports. The Big 10 has already introduced a proposal to stop scheduling opponents from the Football Championship Subdivision, the lower division of Division I, and that practice would likely cease altogether if the divisional split occurs. That means fewer Saturdays watching Ohio State whupping up on poor opponents you’ve never heard of and more marquee match-ups. Of course, that’s largely bad news for fans of those smaller programs, but for the broader sport, it means more quality games between powerhouses and fewer Saturdays filled with snoozers.
The question is how the new division would treat the teams in the middle — those that won’t move up to the superdivision but aren’t in FCS right now. It’s unlikely that the superdivision teams will only play each other, so schools like Marshall and Bowling Green and Central Michigan could still get some games against marquee teams. If the big schools do decide to only play each other, though, that could deal a major financial blow to the mid-level programs, and that would fundamentally change the viewing experience for fans of those teams. The idea of spending early September Saturdays on the couch watching a non-conference slate that features games like Texas-Ohio State and Alabama-USC is enticing. It’s decidedly less so if you’re a Marshall fan who no longer gets to see your team play West Virginia, the biggest in-state rival.
The other question is if this will apply across sports or just to football, because if basketball is included, it could bring an end to the NCAA Tournament the way we know it now and the Cinderella runs that everyone finds so entertaining. The change will definitely be “transformative,” as Big XII commissioner Bob Bowlsby put it — we just don’t yet know how transformative it will be, and until we do, it’s hard to judge exactly how it will affect fans and viewers.
For players at major conference programs, and particularly for those in football and basketball, the stakes are much higher. The divisional split is, at its core, a power grab, a move the large conferences want because they don’t have enough control over their business right now. They’re upset about enforcement procedures, about recruiting reforms, and especially about the issue of the $2,000 yearly player stipend that they want to give players above and beyond their scholarships. That proposal is supported by the majority of big schools and NCAA president Mark Emmert, but the smaller schools that make up a majority of Division I and say they can’t afford to provide the stipends have repeatedly voted it down.
The stipends aren’t a wholly altruistic venture, though. The NCAA is facing court challenges over compensation and a broader conversation about whether it should be paying college players, not only for the use of their names, images, and likenesses but for their labor as well. The stipend is seen as a way to head off many of those conversations, an appeasement that will keep players happy as academic costs outside what is covered by their scholarship continues to rise while mollifying others who are upset that the NCAA’s business model generates millions of dollars a year in revenues but leaves the players out of the fold. Stipends would cost less than losing in court or paying players, and the NCAA knows that. The stipend would give players some extra money, but it could also make the fight to provide labor rights and real compensation to college athletes that much harder in the long-run.
That’s important, because it doesn’t change the fundamental problem with the NCAA, which is that players don’t have a say in what constitutes fair compensation. Once again, the NCAA, or in this case its biggest schools, would be making that decision for them. So while this may be a “transformative change” for fans — and in some ways change for the better — it likely won’t be for the athletes. As Sports On Earth’s Patrick Hruby tweeted yesterday and as I’ve written before, a new system that “perpetuates amateurism” and the “collusive economic control” that comes along with it might work better for the NCAA’s biggest members, and it might even benefit fans and be taxpayers and students. But it still won’t solve the biggest problem at the heart of the system we already have now.