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Governance Reform Will Cause Division I to Shrink, Not Split

While this week’s Board of Director’s meeting is not the main event and there is still plenty of time for it to change, in all likelihood what is adopted will look very close to the steering committee’s proposed model and it will happen in August. Anything else, including major changes or a delay, will almost certainly result in a new NCAA division or exit of the five conferences from the NCAA. That is also not out of the question, but the safe bet is that this model will be adopted more or less wholesale.

After nine months of discussion and speculation about what the new Division I might look like, we now have it. That discussion and speculation can move on to what it means. It is a guarantee that you will hear that this change will “ensure the long-term health of Division I” or words to a similar effect. Stability for 50 or 100 years may be mentioned. But history shows that these governance reforms come around every 5–8 years. Not coincidentally, the next round of TV deals will be on the horizon about that time. So when considering the effect of these changes, that is the appropriate time frame, a time frame which can only be accelerated by outside influences.

The elements of this governance model all combine to make it very unlikely that the major conferences will leave the NCAA. Even the least charitable view of the NCAA still provides a lot of value for the big athletic departments. The NCAA is an effective shield from criticism, provides services the major conferences would need to recreate, and is a convenient vehicle for resolving or adapting to the various external challenges to the collegiate athletics model.

Likewise, these same changes made it equally unlikely that the major conferences will seek to form a new Division within the NCAA. The big schools got more or less everything they asked for and are in a position to exert even more influence over Division I than they did previously (which was already a lot more than they claimed). A new Division or association also throws into sharp relief the divide between the haves and the have-mores, which is currently masked by the presence of the have-nots.

But the membership of Division I is likely to get smaller over the next round or two of governance reform after this one (i.e. in 7–15 years). And if the big schools are not leaving Division I, the only alternative is some or all of the smaller programs will be on the way out. The reason is two-fold. First, smaller schools will increasingly be frozen out of the legislative process. And second, the big schools will be eventually be motivated to demand that everyone play by their rules.

Starting this fall, there will immediately be no way for smaller conferences to legislate or even propose rules either for themselves or the entire Division I membership in a number of areas. Rules are split into three categories: those reserved for autonomous decision-making by the five-conferences, academic issues controlled by the Board of Directors, and everything else which is under shared governance. But there is no mechanism for the smaller conferences to propose rules outside of the shared governance areas. Permissive rules adopted by the five conferences are Division I rules that apply to every institution unless conferences pass more restrictive conference rules. The only time smaller conferences get a say in any of the autonomous areas even for rules which apply to them is when voting to adopt actionable proposals passed by the five-conferences.

Here’s an example that shows how this is different than what many people might have thought of as “autonomy”. Imagine that the other 27 conferences were united in a desire for athletic dorms, which would help them facilitate training table and cut housing costs while providing a better experience for athletes. But say the power conferences were against athletic dorms, since the prohibition on athlete-specific housing makes that arms race harder for everyone else. There is no way for those 27 conferences to propose a rule, even just for themselves, allowing athletic dorms or athletic blocks since the entirety of Bylaw 16 is reserved for five-conference autonomy.

Beyond that, representation of the smaller conferences will decrease on shared governance and academic issues. Academic issues are now controlled by the Board of Directors, which does not include a representative from every conference like the Council. Council votes are now weighted more heavily toward the power conferences. Once all the other committees below the Council are reconstructed, there will be no requirement to maintain representation across the three subdivisions. “Competency” could easily become defined as “working at the biggest, richest schools”. This includes nomination to sport committees, which decide at-large bids.

Even if there is a class of rules that the smaller conferences have no vote on and even if they have decreased influence on other matters, that might still not cause problems in the short- to medium-term by itself. The entire point of this governance reform was to acknowledge that different schools should play by (some) different rules and the approval of the new governance model would signal some level of agreement with that idea.

But that can only hold for so long and the pressure to get everyone back on the same page is likely to come from the top, not the bottom. If all goes as planned, the five conferences will be passing permissive rules like cost-of-attendance scholarships and more flights for parents as well as actionable rules like reduced time demands and different processes when an athlete’s scholarship is cancelled. The other 27 conferences may adopt some of these rules but will not adopt all of them, again by design.

At some point this cherry picking will no longer be acceptable to the power conferences. Maybe the smaller conferences find a way to pay for cost-of-attendance scholarships in football and men’s basketball but only enough non-revenue sports to balance Title IX. Or they expand food benefits but have more flexible scholarship rules which allow coaches easier roster management. All the while the power conferences have taken the brunt of the legal battles, revenue that must be shared with athletes, legal liability for injuries, unionization efforts, and general public backlash.

It seems likely that after a period of drifting apart, the power conference will want to drag everyone back together under one set of Division I rules which requires all institutions to provide all the things the power conference schools have chosen to provide or been forced to provide to all athletes. All it might take is another threat to leave Division I or the NCAA and there should be enough support from the other FBS leagues and top basketball conferences to push through new membership requirements.

Those membership requirements will push some schools out of Division I at the very bottom. Repeat that cycle over time and the “very bottom” could rise fairly high up the current Division I ladder. It could achieve the same goal as a Division I split without the public relations backlash. The combination of internal reform and external pressure now makes this scenario more likely, with the added bonus that the power schools pushing for this sort of split come off looking like the good guys.

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