RIDING A WHITE ELEPHANT INTO THE FUTURE
When a commissioner from a “Power 5” conference speaks, everyone in the NCAA listens, particularly at this time of year as the conferences hold their annual football media sessions to kick off, not only the start of another campaign for the programs that count most on campus, but the start of another academic year.
A year ago the commissioners of the “Power 5” leagues, the Big 12, Big 10, Pac 12, SEC and ACC, officially signaled the beginning of an era of radical change that will enter a new level next month when the NCAA endorses wide ranging legislative autonomy for the “Power 5”, who will then begin the process of expanding benefits for athletes, probably at the cost of some non revenue sports that are likely to lose their scholarship status. Athletes in the high profile sports, most notably football and men’s and women’s basketball, can expect to recieve scholarships that cover every expense of attending college and, in all likelihood, an additional stipend.
Yesterday the man who started the official transformation of college athletics with his call for “Transformative change”, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, issued the opening statement of the new era. “If you like intercollegiate athletics the way it is”, he said in his address to the league’s annual pre season football gathering, “You’re going to hate it going forward. There’s a lot of change coming.”
The message is clear, there is no turning back now. As with any era of massive change there are likely to be legal challenges at every turn, and the athletes themselves will be among the litigants. Already the NCAA is dealing with the Ed Obannon anti trust suit calling for payments to athletes for using their images for liscencing and product sales and the unionization effort by Northwestern football players. “I expect to be in court for most of the rest of my career”, Bowlsby told the Big 12 gathering.
Among the issues Bowlsby said the NCAA will be dealing with in the near future is the vortex at which the expenses of maintaining high level college athletics outgains income from television revenue, which, in all likelihood, will lead to new contrtacts for even greater T-V revenues for the “Power 5” which could, in turn, lead to less of the pie for the remainder of NCAA conferences, increasing the urgency for a step up for programs not currently in “Power 5” leagues that wish to keep up with the coming changes.
At the moment there are 65 institutions in the “Power 5” mix. The math for filling the footprint set out last summer by the “Power 5” commissioners suggests there are currently 15 vacancies and last week, in an interview with the Associated Press, UCONN athletic director Warde Manuel addressed for the first time what his program has to do to be an attractive entity to the “Power 5”. Among the most important factors he mentioned was Rentschler Field in East Hartford, and it’s potential for expansion. The under use of Rentschler Field has led many to refer to it as a “white elephant” that won’t pay for itself.
Rentschler Field was never designed to pay for itself, it was built to be an economic engine with an eye to the future, this future in particular, the one Bob Bowlsby says is now upon us, the one that will leave behind any college athletic programs that aren’t part of it. The time is now and any program with high hopes that doesn’t have a similar “white elephant” will only see those hopes dashed.
With a comment from the sports world, I’m Scott Gray.