NCAA Power Conferences Try to Force Unequal Deal on the Less Powerful in Lawsuit Settlements

A massive settlement in the antitrust cases against the NCAA could happen this week, but non-FBS conferences are pushing back after a proposed payment plan would hit their budgets harder proportionally.
NCAA president Charlie Baker needs to do what he can to make it as fair as possible for everyone and not just another deal that caters to the most powerful elements of college athletics.
NCAA president Charlie Baker needs to do what he can to make it as fair as possible for everyone and not just another deal that caters to the most powerful elements of college athletics. / Jack Gruber / USA TODAY NETWORK

As the NCAA has sought to redefine itself over the past decade, one of the most frequently repeated themes has been the vast differences between the power-conference, football-centric schools in Division I and everyone else. “Incredible disparities,” as Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey put it two years ago.

Those disparities have led to major structural changes to grant schools in the “autonomy five” leagues—the Big Ten, SEC, Big 12, ACC and Pac-12—the latitude to conduct business more as they see fit, without being tied to the worldview of roughly 295 other D-I programs that simply don’t operate the same way. Essentially, the big schools flexed their muscle and everyone else granted them more decision-making power. 

With this as a backdrop, it’s cute that those same autonomy five conferences are now agitating for their distantly related D-I brethren to foot a disproportionate amount of the bill in settling the House, Hubbard and Carter antitrust cases against the NCAA. And by cute, I mean obnoxious. After years of pushing the non-FBS leagues further to the periphery, the big boys now are passing the collection plate and saying, We’re all in this together.

That has spurred some outrage amid an urgent drive to finalize a deal. Time is ticking on a massive, multibillion-dollar settlement, with hopes of hammering it home this week. Meetings are being called and votes will be taken. The 22 conferences that don’t play FBS football are pushing back after seeing a proposed payment plan they say hits their much smaller budgets harder proportionally. 

“The settlement discussions have been ongoing for months,” says the commissioner of one of the 22 non-FBS leagues. “And the settlement itself is a good thing. But the strategy for paying damages was just pushed on us in the last week, and they presented it to us like, ‘You’re welcome.’ [NCAA] president [Charlie] Baker has been spending too much time in meeting rooms listening to the power conferences.”

Said another commissioner from outside the power-conference sphere: “In absolute dollars, the Power 5 schools are going to pay more. In relative dollars, this is going to have an inequitable result for us. These damages are football-related and going to largely go to P5 football players and men’s basketball players. So why are we footing that bill?”

Here are the numbers: The NCAA’s payment of back damages in lost NIL revenue is expected to be $2.7 billion over a decade, with $1.6 billion of that coming in reduction of NCAA revenue distribution to member schools. Of that $1.6 billion, roughly 60% is proposed to come out of the pockets of programs in those 22 non-FBS leagues, with 40% coming from the power conferences. Those 22 leagues, (the “CCA22”) would like to see those percentages pretty much flipped: 58% of the reductions coming from the Power 5 leagues and 42% from the rest of Division I. 

According to documents from that group obtained by Sports Illustrated, the percentage of revenue loss under the current NCAA model calls for a revenue reduction of 0.61% for autonomy-five schools; 0.95% for Group of 5 schools (the American, Mountain West, Sun Belt, Mid-American and Conference USA); 1.32% for FCS schools; and 1.68% for “I-AAA,” or non-scholarship football schools on the FCS level. 

The CCA22 proposal calls for an even percentage of reduction among all those Division I subgroups at 0.88%. Under that plan, the cost to autonomy-five schools would increase about $435,000 per school per year over what the NCAA proposes. The other subgroups would see an average decrease from the proposed reduction of about $106,000 per school per year.

You don’t need to see the balance sheets to know that an additional $435,000 hit at Texas is far less impactful than a $106,000 gain at Morehead State. Those percentages matter to the schools that aren’t privy to the geyser of football revenue—and don’t have athletes on campus who are worth millions in NIL money.

The big boys don’t just want more of the little guys’ NCAA tournament bids. They also want the little guys to pay a small-school tax that will go to athletes they never could have recruited to their campuses in the first place.

This is one more area where the most powerful conferences in college sports are trying to force an unequal deal on the less powerful. If you recall the College Football Playoff expansion resolution, the Big Ten and SEC carved out a major financial advantage for themselves—they’re each going to get about 29% of the upcoming contract. The ACC will receive 17%, and the Big 12 will get about 15%. In the previous contract, those leagues split an equal amount of CFP revenue—then the Big Ten and SEC kicked their slightly-less-rich peers into a lower strata.

But that revenue deal was mild compared to the aggression the Big Ten and SEC tried to foist off on everyone else—namely, an unequal number of guaranteed bids to the 12-team playoff. There even was a proposal for the champions of those two leagues to be guaranteed the top two seeds, an outrageous attempt at rigging the system further in their favor.

The lawsuit settlement plan stems from the same strong-arm mindset as the playoff agreement: If you can pull off a power play, you do it. Fairness is less important than finding an advantage. And if the peons protest too much, just threaten to break away and form your own super conference.

Baker has done a lot of work to bring the disparate Division I members to the precipice of a settlement. But in the final days of trying to close a massive, landscape-altering deal, he needs to do what he can to make it as fair as possible for everyone and not just another deal that caters to the most powerful elements of college athletics.


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Pat Forde

PAT FORDE

Pat Forde is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, covering college football and basketball as well as the Olympics and horse racing. He co-hosts the College Football Enquirer podcast and is a football analyst on the Big Ten Network. He previously worked for Yahoo Sports, ESPN and The (Louisville) Courier-Journal. Pat has won a remarkable 28 Associated Press Sports Editors writing contest awards; been published three times in Best American Sports Writing; and was nominated for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize. A past president of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and member of the Football Writers Association of America, Pat lives in Louisville with his wife. They have three children, all of whom were college swimmers.