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Basketball Conferences Make Best Partners for Power 5

After some early week fireworks from the commissioners for the Big 12, SEC, and ACC, the Big Ten’s Jim Delany and Pac-12’s Larry Scott have cooled talk of a potential new NCAA division or complete breakaway from the association. The latter portion of the week has seen more focus back on the issues that would force such a split, like full cost-of-attendance scholarships or unlimited food for athletes.

But now that talk of a split is out there, there will inevitably be a scramble to get on the right side of that split. The American Athletic Conference is already making noise about why it should follow the Power 5 out of Division I and/or FBS. There are similar rumblings about the Mountain West. Like in many other issues, everyone seems concerned about the fate of the middle class, but not exactly clear on how to help them.

The idea of five football (sub)divisions is a nonstarter. The Group of 5 conference schools, having joined the arms race, cannot continue to compete even at the level they are against each other if they were cut off from the revenue they get for being part of the top level of college football. If this is purely a discussion about football, maybe we are more comfortable with watching just the MAC, Conference USA and Sun Belt slide back to FCS, while the Mountain West and American are granted a reprieve and get to come along. Provided, of course, they agree to the demands of the Power 5.

But if an all-sports Division X is still on the table, the Group of 5 conferences might be in even worse shape. To quickly recap this week’s conclusions, a division of 65-80 schools is simply too small. Unless schools are required to add more than a few new non-revenue sport programs, such a small division would all but force schools to drop too many teams with long and successful traditions or into which institutions have invested significant money to try and monetize.

So bringing more schools along might be the easier answer, but whom? The most logical answer seems like the rest of FBS, the Group of 5 conferences. But each football program that comes along means splitting up the pie a little more. Perhaps a couple may be added, say if as a condition of a new division the 14-team conferences in the east demand that the Big 12 and Pac-12 expand to similar numbers. But that does not allow for a 64-team basketball tournament or save men’s lacrosse. You need whole conferences for that. You need to double the size of Division X.

In order to add another 50-80 teams without having to share any more football revenue, the simplest solution is to add schools that do not play FBS football. The Power 5 might cherry pick their partners here, but nothing in the last 10 years of college athletics suggests that such big moves deal with smaller units than a single conference. So one plan might be to invite the five best FCS or non-football conferences along for the ride.

There has been as much or more movement, raiding and re-raiding, below the FBS level that simply using revenue distribution numbers is too blunt an instrument. Basketball prowess will be the big driver though. Massaging it a bit for geography, we get this set of conferences:

–   Big East

–   Atlantic-10

–   Missouri Valley

–   West Coast Conference

–   Colonial

Not only are you getting most of the best basketball programs below the FBS level, but you also have rough geographic pairs:

–   Big Ten/Big East

–   ACC/A-10

–   Big 12/Valley

–   Pac-12/WCC


The most problematic is probably the CAA, which has been picked apart repeatedly by the A-10 over the last couple of years. It also does not stretch as far west as the SEC, and runs far into the Northeast. Of all the areas, this one looks most ripe for creating a new conference, say a Super SoCon, picking off the best basketball schools throughout the Southeast.

Now Division X is really getting somewhere. Without spreading football revenue any further, this plan would add many name-brand basketball programs, bring the sheer numbers up far enough to justify a 64-team tournament, and boost the sponsorship of some non-revenue sports. The lack of FBS football also means that these conferences might be in a better position to agree to some of the demands of the Power 5. It is easier to get behind a stipend or full cost-of-attendance scholarships when you are not starting with 85 football players. Not to mention this preserves some of the character of college sports, especially the allure of the Cinderella mid-major.

The elephant in the room though is FCS football, sponsored by a number of schools, particularly in the CAA and Missouri Valley. If this an omelet, those programs might be the necessary eggs. FCS as a subdivision might be fine, especially if the Group of 5 conferences are forced to reclassify down a level. And maybe these our Division X mid-majors would be allowed to keep their teams in FCS. But the reality is some of those teams are going to get cut, and hopefully the opportunities and scholarships are offset by growth somewhere else.

The end result is that we could easily see a situation where the new Big East (i.e. the Catholic schools) is playing at a higher level than the old Big East (i.e. the American). Or where USF (the one in California) finds itself on the right side of the chasm while USF (the one in Florida) loses out.

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