NCAA vs. Big-Time Football Conferences in Groundhog Day

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NCAA vs. Big-Time Football Conferences in Groundhog Day
LM Otero/Associated Press

Imagine that there's only one college football game on TV every Saturday. Just one.

Imagine that your favorite team can be on TV only once all season. Just once.

This isn't some doomsday scenario on some parallel planet. This was reality only about 30 years ago.

That only changed—so now you have an embarrassment of riches as far as televised games go—because big-time college football programs took the NCAA to court. And won.

In the landmark NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 1984 against the NCAA, a decision that freed the big-time college football programs to cut their own TV deals and opened up the cash flow spigot. There is nothing that has done more to transform college football into the money-making machine that it is today.

Outraged by the NCAA's 1970s TV policy that they viewed as an illegal restraint of trade, the big football powers of the day formed the College Football Association to take on the governing body. The 64-member CFA consisted of the Atlantic Coast, Big Eight, Southeastern, Southwest and Western Athletic conferences, plus major independents including Notre Dame, Penn State, Pitt and the service academies—curiously, the Big Ten and Pac-10 declined to join.

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With strength by numbers, the CFA aggressively confronted the NCAA, which haughtily threatened the members with various forms of sanctions. The jousting finally reached the courts, with the universities of Oklahoma and Georgia taking the lead. When the Supreme Court sided with the schools, the NCAA effectively lost all control of the financial windfall that soon flooded the coffers of major Division I-A football programs.

Now history is on the verge of repeating itself.

With the NCAA under siege from various lawsuits all relating to the issue of player compensation—mostly in football and men's basketball, the only real revenue-generating sports—the "Big Five" conferences are mulling another split from the NCAA. Thirty years ago it was about finances, this time it's about governance.

These 65 schools (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC, plus Notre Dame) understand the current compensation model is unsustainable and probably won't stand up in court. While the programs are reaping millions from television contracts, apparel deals and ticket and merchandise sales, the players are punished for receiving even the most inconsequential fringe benefits.

The drive to split the revenue-rich power programs gained momentum early this year when the majority of an NCAA seminar attendees voted in favor of granting them more autonomy. Thursday's ruling by the National Labor Relations Board to allow Northwestern football players to unionize will only accelerate that process.

These institutions simply make too much money to not allow the labor (ahem, "student-athletes") to have a piece of that financial pie. The lower-rung Division I programs (both FBS and FCS), on the other hand, are constantly in the red and cannot afford to increase the aid packages their players receive. This schism is what caused the NCAA to table a $2,000-per-player stipend proposal in 2012.

Top Revenue-Generating Football Programs (in Milliions)
School Revenue* Expenses Profits
Texas $103.8 $25.9 $77.9
Michigan $85.2 $23.6 $61.6
Alabama $82.0 $36.9 $45.1
Georgia $75.0 $22.7 $52.3
Florida $74.1 $23.0 $51.1
Notre Dame $69.0 $25.8 $43.2
LSU $68.8 $24.0 $44.8
Oklahoma $59.6 $24.1 $35.5
Ohio State $58.1 $34.0 $24.1
Nebraska $55.1 $18.6 $36.5

* Data from U.S. Department of Education (2011-12 academic year)

But they can't kick the can down the road for much longer. The financial well-being of all these schools—founded on winning the NCAA v. OU case—is now being threatened by lawsuits filed by others. They understand that in order to preserve most of the riches, they must share some of it with those who contributed all the sweat labor—broken bones, torn ligaments, concussions and all.

The NCAA is headed toward the ash heap of history. Big-time college football can't save the NCAA (or maybe they don't want to), so its best bet is to abandon the sinking ship instead of going down with it. 

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