WASHINGTON, D.C. – The space outside the Conrad Hotel’s conservatory ballroom in the nation’s capital is abuzz. More than half of the 130 FBS athletic directors represented by the Lead1 Association are in attendance—nearly up to pre-COVID standards for what’s usually the largest gathering of FBS ADs in the country. Sponsors are back too, and there’s a lively hum of friends and colleagues who haven’t met in person for one of the association’s biannual meetings since September 2019.
The athletic directors, a mix of Group of Five and Power Five representatives, are more interested in catching up personally than professionally. NIL is name-dropped a time or two, but work can wait for Tuesday’s agenda of meetings—distilled into a single day this year, which also means the personal time is fleeting.
Since the last time these administrators met, much has changed in college sports. The same could be said of the landscape even since the association’s most recent virtual spring meeting—before the U.S. Supreme Court issued a monumental Alston case ruling, NIL pay for athletes began and Texas and Oklahoma announced plans to join SEC and elevate it to super-status. In response, the Big 12 then filled the void with four new members as whispers of another wave of conference realignment began to circulate.
Someone asks if the Longhorns’ leader, Chris Del Conte, is attending. The answer: He is and he’s not, as he’s only joining virtually. The same question is asked of NCAA president Mark Emmert, who is preparing for a constitutional convention in November that could radically reshape his organizations’—and his own—role in the governance of college athletics. The 23-person committee charged with proposing the new governance model and NCAA constitution includes a handful of FBS athletics directors, including Tulane’s Troy Dannen and Penn State’s Sandy Barbour–who’s chatting with Auburn’s Allen Greene, just days after her team beat Greene’s Tigers before a raucous crowd at Beaver Stadium.
Emmert and a troop of his senior executives (none of whom are strangers to Washington, D.C.) will make an appearance at the official meeting, participating in several of Tuesday’s scheduled sessions. The president will give a brief NCAA update; Jon Duncan, the governing body’s vice president of enforcement, will speak in a panel on recommended changes to the NCAA’s infractions policies; and Scott Bearby, the NCAA’s interim general counsel, will update the AD’s on the Alston case—presumably on the fallout and the future implications for college sports. There are also several sessions slated to occur without official NCAA presence so Lead1, which serves as a trade association for the FBS athletic directors, can get a sense of where its membership stands before November’s referendum.
Lead1’s president and CEO, Tom McMillen, a 6-foot-11 former professional basketball player and U.S. Representative from Maryland, will give a Congressional update to the group. Meanwhile, TV exec John Skipper, formerly of ESPN and DAZN and now working with Dan Le Batard to create a new media company, will discuss the evolving media landscape with Syracuse athletic director John Wildhack—a former ESPN executive himself. Sessions titled “Transformative Change in College Sport” (which, appropriately, includes part 1 and part 2) are also on deck.
Other college sports power players are also present, strategically sponsoring events for the first face time they can get with several of college sport’s decision-makers at once in months. From Learfield representatives to a slew of competitor Playfly’s execs, the college sports adjacent are also in attendance.
Sponsoring conference segments is commonplace for these companies, an easy sell when it gains your access to the one event this year that will brings a majority of athletic directors from the NCAA’s upper echelon together under one roof. Those who rely on colleges to sustain their business are as aware as any that the tides are changing—and they all want to ensure they know the right people in the right places when things really start moving. But for now, they’ll make do with seeing familiar faces in person as college athletics tries to find its new normal.