The best reader e-mail I've received still makes me a little nervous. Chris Daubert of Brooklyn sent his missive on June 8, 2010, when it appeared a semi-satirical column I'd written four months earlier might actually have been an accurate prediction of the future. I had suggested that the top 64 revenue-generating athletic departments should break free of the NCAA and form a body called the Collegiate Athletic Select Hegemony (CASH). I had suggested that when this happened, the Big 12 and the Big East would fall and that the other four power conferences would gobble up the best of those leagues. When Chris sent his e-mail, my second suggestion was about to come true:
"Mr. Staples, you seem like a very decent person and I happen to think you're a great writer. However, if 'CASH' comes to fruition because they cribbed your article, then pick out a cozy spot in hell."
We all know the Big 12 Missile Crisis ended a few days later when Texas pulled out of a deal to join the Pac-10 and accepted Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe's proposal of a 10-school league that could generate almost as much money per school as a 16-school Pac-10. Meanwhile, the Big East survived Realignmentpalooza intact, added TCU and now stands poised to negotiate its own fat media rights deal.
So why do I still smell brimstone?
Because while Prophecy No. 2 seems unlikely, Prophecy No. 1 remains in play. Several recent events have suggested that college football's power brokers might consider a schism between the schools at the top of the FBS food chain and those at the bottom. So instead of the tongue-in-cheek idea I advanced in February 2010, it's time to take a more serious look at how such a break might take place.
The wealthiest schools might want to tear away from the NCAA entirely, but that isn't likely. The NCAA basketball tournament remains a valuable property, and such a break would require the new organization to duplicate all the services the NCAA now provides. CASH members would have to write new rules to govern every sport and create an enforcement staff. They would have to manage championships in multiple sports, and who really wants the headache of building a softball tournament from scratch?
More likely, the most powerful schools would simply remove their football programs from the NCAA and make football a club sport. How can they do this? Easily. Consider the NIRA.
Never heard of the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association? It's the sanctioning body for college rodeo, a sport dominated at various times in the past decade by teams from the College of Southern Idaho, Oklahoma State, Walla Walla Community College and UNLV. The NCAA doesn't sanction rodeo, so the schools that participate in rodeo formed their own group to manage the sport and enforce its rules.
The NCAA does sanction football, but a school that sponsors 15 other NCAA sports doesn't have to sponsor an NCAA football team. Hypothetically speaking, the members of the big six conferences and Notre Dame could remove their football teams from the NCAA and start their own sanctioning body. Maybe they would call it the League Of Outstanding Teams (LOOT).
One of the most entertaining aspects of the original CASH column was redistributing the teams into the four remaining conferences and then poking fun at the wailing of the fan bases who a) Thought I was serious and b) Couldn't believe their school didn't make the cut. Alas, there will be no such chart for the LOOT to enrage the populace. The SEC won't add or drop anyone. Neither will the ACC or the Big Ten. TCU will remain in the Big East, but the conference still won't change its name to the Big East of Lubbock. The Big 12 has a major fissure to close, but barring another calamity in that conference, the list of power schools should remain fixed. The big six and Notre Dame simply would form their own football league and continue to play the rest of their sports in the NCAA. BYU might also score an invite because the Cougars have a broad national appeal, but it's doubtful any other schools would make the leap.
Would the NCAA try to stop the schism? Maybe at first, but it wouldn't push too hard. Any sort of punitive action against LOOT schools might force them to go straight to CASH, and the NCAA cannot afford to lose the power conference schools in men's basketball. The men's basketball tournament pays for almost everything the NCAA does, and it would be crippled if the schools with the largest fan bases left and started their own league with its own tournament.
Those older than 35 probably read the above and thought, "Why, this sounds an awful lot like the College Football Association." It's similar, but not identical. The CFA, the consortium of 63 schools that formed to negotiate television rights in the wake of the 1984 U.S. Supreme Court decision that stripped the NCAA of its power to sell football rights, existed within the framework of the NCAA. Which is why it caused so many problems. CFA members had the right to play non-CFA members. They also wanted NCAA to handle the messy business of governing college football, but they wanted to make sure the money went only to those in the CFA. The people in charge of the NCAA are smarter than their predecessors. If big-time football schools want to operate in a different sphere, why should the NCAA provide the organizational structure and support?
Members of the LOOT would write their own football rulebook and provide their own enforcement arm for football-related issues. The NCAA would love this, since it has dumped millions into investigating and prosecuting college football outlaws while taking in only $12,000 a year per bowl in licensing fees. Yes, that's all the NCAA makes off the most lucrative collegiate sport, and that's why the people in charge of the NCAA want an NCAA-managed college football playoff so badly.
Most of the LOOT schools' revenue would come from the sale of television rights. Unlike the NFL, which sells the regular-season rights of every team as a package, the LOOT would sell those rights by conference -- as they are sold now -- for fear of violating antitrust laws. LOOT members, however, would negotiate a collective postseason TV deal. If they wanted to institute a BCS-type system without all the pesky have-nots, they would be free to do so. If they wanted to stage a more lucrative playoff, they would be free to do that as well. If someone still came along yelling about antitrust violations, LOOT members could point out that the NCAA is a similar organization that offers the consumer a competing product. If consumers happen to prefer the LOOT, then maybe the NCAA should produce a more appealing product.
This may sound radical, but so did the CASH when I wrote it. Then a large piece of it almost came true four months later. This schism is a real possibility. Earlier this month, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told USA Today that no conference intends to break away from the NCAA. But if a group of schools sought meaningful change and got stonewalled, more drastic action might be required. "At that juncture," Delany told the paper, "then I think it's fair to look at how else you get it."
Why now? Because of several factors. First, the BCS remains under attack by the government. Utah's attorney general has promised to sue the BCS for violations of the Sherman Act. At the moment, U.S. Justice Department officials are weighing whether they should challenge the BCS on antitrust grounds. Save your legal arguments, because it doesn't really matter if the DOJ has a case. If the federal government launches an offensive against the BCS, the BCS will fold because it is too expensive to defend, and the people in charge do not want to endure a potentially embarrassing discovery process.
Second, even in the current climate, the lesser-developed conferences are getting too much of the pie. The big boys already support those schools with paychecks for early-season games, but the little guys have applied so much political pressure that now they get a decent chunk of the postseason spoils. The six power conferences started the BCS so they could keep most of the money and all of the power for themselves. If the BCS can't provide that service, it's useless to the big six. That brings us to actual cost-of-attendance scholarships.
Thanks to a confluence of factors, major college football is more valuable than ever as a television commodity. But it's only valuable at the top end. No network is going to fork over nine figures a year to televise Sun Belt Conference games. More than ever, it's clear the six power conferences aren't only in a different financial league than the other five FBS conferences. They're playing an entirely different sport. When all the new rights deals kick in, the gulf between the haves and have-nots will grow even wider. The haves all will be able to afford actual cost-of-attendance scholarships for their athletes, which will cost about $3,000 more per athlete, per year. The have-nots won't. So that issue could be the one that cleaves the bottom five conferences from the FBS. Or it could be the issue that drives the big six to create something similar to the LOOT.
After all, why should the haves keep supporting the have-nots? Why not break away in football and play among peers while still enjoying the advantages the NCAA offers in every other sport?
Forget the CASH. Gimme the LOOT.