Forget expansion -- it's time for full-blown conference realignment
I don't normally hear black helicopters. I've never fashioned headgear from a roll of Reynolds Wrap. Yet every time I think about the tectonic shifts in the conference structure of big-time college sports, I hear a telltale thwap-thwap-thwap, and I suddenly find myself standing in front of an open drawer in my kitchen.
When we hear about the Big Ten potentially plucking Nebraska or the Pac-10 nabbing Colorado, there are no darker forces than usual at play. But maybe there should be.
Anyone who reads this space regularly knows I prefer a playoff to the BCS to decide a football champion. So it is with great trepidation that I present a plan that could bail out the fatcats who created the BCS from their greed-induced government torment. My scheme could also help them build a more profitable -- and nearly bulletproof -- system that would allow them to prosper for the foreseeable future.
If the leaders of the nation's top revenue-generating athletic programs want to save the bowl system, if they want to avoid a Justice Department investigation that would destroy the BCS on antitrust grounds, if they want to make oodles more money with minimum interference, they'll forget about trying to move a few chess pieces around the board and realize they need to start playing an entirely different game.
It all starts with leaving the NCAA.
The NCAA began with the noblest intentions, but it has grown into a bloated beast of an organization that routinely does harm even when it tries to do good. Plus, if you're in charge of an athletic department that brings in more than $40 million a year in revenue, you don't appreciate the NCAA's pesky habit of distributing money you played a larger role earning to programs straining to keep their noses above the poverty line. You also probably don't appreciate the president, Congress and the Justice Department telling you how to run the postseason in your most lucrative sport.
So tell them all to go fly a kite.
Use whatever number and organizational structure you want, but it seems most sensible to take the 64 highest earning athletic programs and split them into four regional, 16-team superconferences. Play all the sports you've been playing, but keep the competition within those 64 programs and let the remaining NCAA teams play one another. There's a ton of money in postseason men's basketball, and you'll need plenty of women's sports to keep you Title IX compliant. Plus, the non-revenue sports make great tax write-offs, which you'll need now that you no longer enjoy the NCAA's tax-exempt status. (Sorry about that, but you'll still come out ahead.)
Form your own governing body and write whatever rules you want. You can call the new group whatever you want. I suggest the Collegiate Athletic Select Hegemony.
So here's how the CASH would work. Since the SEC and Big Ten, the two strongest conferences, will want to keep their regular-season television deals, allow each conference to cut its own regular-season deals while centralizing control of the postseason rights. The Pac-10 has its Rose Bowl connection, making it powerful enough to make the cut. Meanwhile, the ACC offers some attractive football programs and roundball legitimacy. Using the data schools supplied to the U.S. Department of Education after the 2008-09 school year, I compiled a list of the 64 biggest earners. As coincidence would have it, only one member of the four surviving conferences (Mississippi State) fell below the Delany line. Since the SEC's new multibillion-dollar TV deals kicked in during the current school year, it's safe to assume the Bulldogs will vault into the top 64. So sorry, Iowa State. You just missed the cut.
The only school from the current crop of mid-majors to win a golden ticket would be TCU, which brought in $46.5 million in revenue in 2008-09. If a program from a conference that receives a negatively disproportionate share of the postseason pot can rake in that kind of dough, it's welcome in this new millionaires' club. The Horned Frogs would join Baylor, Colorado, Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech in the new Pac-16.
The Pac-16 football champ could play in the Rose Bowl every year against the champion of the Big Sixteen if the membership so chose. No one could do anything about it -- especially not the government.
Since the CASH would pay taxes, the president couldn't threaten its tax-exempt status. Since it would produce the same product as the more-established NCAA, it wouldn't be a monopoly, either. Instead, it would be the NCAA's direct competitor. If consumers chose to spend more money on the CASH's product, so be it. The CASH is an athletic organization
If, down the road, the NCAA grew tired of second-class citizen status, it could sue the CASH on antitrust grounds. This is America. Anyone can sue anyone for anything. If that happened, the CASH might lose, just as the NFL lost an antitrust suit to the USFL in 1986. Remember how much the jury awarded the USFL? One buck.
The CASH will make lots of bucks. Its football and men's basketball seasons would be television gold. Because they would have to avoid playing NCAA teams for antitrust reasons, CASH teams could only play one another. That means no patsy games. Alabama wouldn't play Chattanooga in November. At worst, we'd get Bama-Kansas State.
The men's basketball tournament wouldn't generate as much as the current NCAA tourney, which brings in about $545 million a year in television revenue. Let's face it. People love their Cinderellas. But the pot would be split 64 ways and not among a Division I membership more than 300 strong. Plus, if the CASH so chose, the governing body wouldn't have to take a cut as big as the NCAA does from its tournament. Besides, there remains money to be made in a regular season made more legitimate by the lack of 64-team tournament. How will ESPN fill all those hours of regular-season programming? With the Horizon League?
There is, of course, a major stumbling block that probably would keep the CASH from getting its black helicopters off the ground. Many of the schools in question here are prestigious research institutions, and it's difficult to imagine the presidents of Vanderbilt, Michigan or UCLA signing off on a venture so blatantly commercial. But presidents signed off on the 12th regular-season football game, and that was a shameless money grab. They may sign off on a 96-team men's basketball tournament and greedily bastardize the world's most perfect sporting event this side of the World Cup. So we know the eggheads can be bought for a high enough price.
Besides, if the presidents need a way to spin their choice to chase the CASH, they can point to the bottom line. All 64 athletic departments would be completely self-sufficient; no chief executive would ever again have to explain to a state legislature why he needs government funds to build a softball stadium.
Meanwhile, back in the NCAA, the remaining members of the Football Bowl Subdivision would slip back toward what the NCAA originally intended. Students who probably would have gone to their chosen college anyway would enrich their academic experiences through athletics. The ones who wanted to play in a pro farm system would sign with a CASH program.
It all sounds so corporate, so cold, so ... honest. The CASH wouldn't expose or exploit the ills that face big-time college athletics any more than the NCAA does. It simply would offer a more straightforward alternative than the NCAA, which must govern schools that truly embrace amateur athletics as well as those that offer football and men's basketball programs that serve as thinly disguised Triple-A affiliates for their professional counterparts.
So why continue the ruse? Why not break away? The market made the top 64 what they are. Now, those 64 can use the same market to enrich themselves and stave off government intervention into their affairs.
If they elected to make the leap, it wouldn't take long before the CASH became king.