Split Big-Time Football from NCAA Oversight, Knight Commission Says

Emily Caron

Following a yearlong reexamination of college sports, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics has recommended a significant restructuring of the Division I model, taking particular aim at the NCAA’s relationship with the top-tier Football Bowl Subdivision. Among the three major recommendations from the group of university and athletics administrators and education experts, the most drastic was the proposed formation of a new governing entity for football at the FBS level, splitting the sport’s most lucrative programs from the NCAA entirely.

Under the proposal, the NCAA would continue to govern all other sports in a reorganized Division I system, including the second-tier FCS football. Schools with FBS football programs would remain part of the NCAA in all other sports, but would lose some of their current revenue distributions from the March Madness basketball tournament. They would, however, hypothetically have a chance to grow their own already massive revenues from football as a separate entity.

Thay proposed entity, which the commission dubbed the National College Football Association (NCFA), would be funded by College Football Playoff (CFP) revenues. The CFP runs FBS football’s $460 million postseason championship and all the money that comes with it. The move would mark what commission member Carol Cartwright, president emeritus at both Kent State and Bowling Green State, called the “logical final step in big-time football’s evolution.”

As Knight Commission member Nancy Zimpher argued, the “NCAA has not kept pace with the commercialization” of college athletics, and with top-tier football in particular. Over the past 15 years, the financial structures of most D-I programs changed drastically, particularly in the Power Five conferences where FBS football reigns. The combined revenues from the CFP, operated entirely independently of the NCAA, and the football-fueled Power Five conference media contracts exceeded more than $2.5 billion in 2019. FBS football schools have experienced exponential growth in these revenue sources, but the NCAA’s financial model hasn’t changed in response.

A commission-sponsored study found what Knight Commission CEO Amy Perko described to Sportico this fall as “significant” inequities in the current NCAA distribution formula for March Madness revenue, which sends nearly $600 million to the 351 Division I schools annually. Because of the governing body’s failure to account for the growth of top-tier football, these imbalances disproportionately benefit schools with FBS football programs.

The NCAA distributes some of its revenues equally to Division I schools and their conferences, but most is proportionately distributed based on a number of measures and incentives, including March Madness tournament success, the number of NCAA sports an institution offers and the number of athletics scholarships provided in those sports. FBS football is included in the latter two calculations thanks to an exemption to the rule that to qualify as an NCAA sport, the organization must operate that sport’s postseason championship. While the CFP and its championship operate independently of the NCAA, the exemption allows big-time football schools to earn the additional dollars that come from sponsoring more than the NCAA minimum of 14 sports and to receive bigger grants-in-aid payouts, which are based on the number of athletic scholarships offered. Those schools then “double dip” by also receiving millions more for football in payouts from the College Football Playoff (which gives out a total of around $460 million annually).

Without FBS football calculated into those March Madness distributions, the Knight Commission estimates that up to $65 million in of the NCAA’s revenues could be redirected to non-Power Five football schools. A more “values-based” D-I revenue distribution would result and also provide for more athletic opportunities within the NCAA. The commission believes this could stanch the wave of program cuts that have come in the wake of COVID-19.

Citing a lack of accountability for big-revenue college football, the commission stressed that these changes need to happen soon—though the independent organization lacks the authority to force their implementation.

“The history of change to the NCAA structure has been incremental,” Zimpher told Sportico. “There is a lot at stake with the billion-dollar March Madness contract. We believe that the governance dysfunction has reached a point where the cost of inaction is too high for the future of college sports and the experiences of college athletes. The NCAA’s inability to change is the reason Congress, state legislators and the courts have been more active in reshaping the future of college sports.”

The Knight Commission said it considered cleaving off the Power Five conferences—and all of their sports—to form their own separate entity as another possible proposal. But the commission believed an independent FBS football group was a more direct solution to the growing disparity in college sports.

Removing FBS programs from the NCAA’s current calculation formula would decrease the distributions each FBS football conference receives from the organization. Funding the new football governing body with College Football Playoff dollars could also mean a reduction in the CFP payout each FBS football participant receives, as some earnings would have to go toward administration of the new entity. The new entity, however, could focus on continuing to grow revenues by, for instance, expanding the number of teams in the playoff.

“From the FBS perspective, there will be give and take, but the status quo is not acceptable,” Zimpher said. “The NCAA is responsible for the liability of this high risk [and] high injury sport and receives no revenues from it. It is time to bring better alignment to the governance.”

The commission also proposed a reorganization within the NCAA for all remaining Division I sports. The current voting system is weighted in favor of FBS football conferences, giving them an outsized voice and impact in decisions despite the tens of millions of dollars in disparities between departments with top-tier FBS football programs and the remainder of college athletics. The new system would establish equal voting representation for all conferences, and keep the current March Madness structure. The third and final proposal includes governing principles for both the NCAA and the new FBS football entity, demanding that both organizations “prioritize college athletes’ education, health, safety and success in the operation of intercollegiate athletics,” among other objectives.

Even before the pandemic, the commission argued that overspending, a reduction in opportunities and increasing financial inequities were problematic. Now, said incoming Knight Commission co-chair Len Elmore, “the impact of the pandemic has created even greater urgency for action.”

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