As COVID-19 cases rise nationwide, the NCAA’s Board of Governors will again meet Tuesday to discuss the status of fall sports championships.
The discussion, however, may be proxy for a much bigger topic—whether the governing body’s richest members still see the NCAA as an essential part of their future. As financial disparities between Power 5 conferences and the rest of their peers have grown over the years, conversations of independence from the NCAA have lingered. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated that gap and now, some think a cancellation of fall championships will turn the tide toward action.
“What once was sort of an idea floated between AD’s is now a legitimate conversation,” one Power 5 AD said. “Now I’m not saying there’s an actual plan in place or anything close to that, but [Tuesday] could be the final straw that actually gets us to that point. And people are definitely talking about what we could do on our own if championships are canceled and beyond.”
The board meets Tuesday afternoon to decide the fate of NCAA-sponsored championships in all sports except top-tier football, which has its own postseason outside the NCAA’s purview. However, the topics include lower-division football, plus year-end championships in cross country, soccer, field hockey, men’s water polo and women’s volleyball.
The Power Five schools still believe their resources will let them play games safely in some capacity.
This wouldn’t be the first time Power 5 schools have sought more autonomy. In 2014, the NCAA adopted a new Division I model, giving the five major conferences authority to create some of their own legislation. In the years since, the revenues tied to college sports’ elites have only continued to grow.
This fall, in particular, as schools grapple with diminished revenue projections due to COVID-19, the argument could be made that those at the top of the hierarchy could equip themselves to combat and manage the virus in ways that other institutions cannot.
“What you’re running into is not a ‘We are bullish and others aren’t,’ but a ‘We can test three times a week with the revenue that our sport brings in and others can’t.’ And we can do that for soccer and volleyball and the other sports too this fall,” a Power 5 athletic administrator said. “Whatever decision is made, that split is already there.”
The current structure of the NCAA, however, takes a blanket approach—something that could lead those Power 5 schools to consider breaking away. The NCAA Board is primarily comprised of university presidents and chancellors; of the 21 voting members, only five represent the biggest conferences. The rest come from smaller Division I universities or lower division schools. Many of them have already canceled fall sports altogether, which makes Tuesday’s championship vote appear more and more like a referendum on whether the top end of Division I should be allowed to press forward with the NCAA’s blessing.
Should the board elect to cancel fall national championships, conferences are free to hold their own tournaments. They could even hold championships amongst themselves, without any punishment from the NCAA, according to a spokesman for the governing body.
On Saturday, Sports Illustrated reported that the Power 5 conference leaders were exploring the possibility of staging their own championships for those affected fall sports if the NCAA rules Tuesday to cancel or postpone. That decision could naturally reopen conversations about the NCAA’s value more broadly. For a few, it already has. Sportico confirmed discussions of a potential secession and even talks of logistics, but only among some.
There are certain things Power 5 conferences have proven they have the infrastructure to do without the NCAA. Hosting championships is one, especially as the events have grown in recent years. In a scenario in which the conferences break away, talks have circulated wherein the five take turns hosting different championships on a rotating basis.
Administrators at a number of those schools also tell Sportico they could make decisions more quickly than the current governance process. Lethargy—coupled with qualms over inaction—within the NCAA continues to be a point of frustration.
The Power 5 commissioners signed a letter in May asking for clear federal legislation to supersede the patchwork of individual state laws passed to regulate how college athletes get endorsement money, with a specific request that Congress “not wait for the NCAA process to conclude.” Over the weekend, hundreds of Pac-12 football players delivered a list of demands to leadership and even proposed a boycott—something else Power 5 decision makers say they aren’t confident the NCAA is equipped to respond to in a timely manner. And, as one athletic director put it, “Responsiveness is a real need right now.”
For the 65 schools that sit within those conferences, hosting Power 5 championships could be the first step toward a clean break—which could come with more money. In a Power 5-only model, athletic departments would save anywhere between several hundred thousand and a few million dollars annually in guarantee game payouts to smaller programs, and they’d get greater competitive equity. Slates that are more competitive could also mean more media money.
“If you look at the history of criminal cartels, the idea of the Power 5 breaking away is sort of natural,” said Ricky Volante, CEO of The Professional Collegiate League, a startup college basketball league which will allow athletes to earn money while getting an education. “It happened in Colombia; it happened in Mexico. When big federations and cartels come together, eventually power wants more power. They eventually realize that, ‘Hey, wait a minute, now that we have all the infrastructure in place, we don’t really need you anymore.’”
Where the NCAA most obviously provides its value is in the small-but-important things less visible to fans: the rules, enforcement, legal protection, non-sport programming, oversight of officials, liaising with coaching associations, etc. And while talk swirls about the Power 5 to take over these responsibilities through its own association, a call to action still feels absent to many administrators.
While Tuesday’s outcome will be telling, administrators are concurrently grappling with a number of other crises. Forming an entirely new association would take time. Many are also skeptical that the NCAA will even take immediate action itself when it meets Tuesday afternoon.
“The NCAA could kick this decision down the road and I think that may be most likely,” the Power 5 administrator said. “I think they’ll really see how close we are to playing football over the next week or so and then make a final decision. But if they make a final decision to cancel everything, that really puts our backs against the wall.”