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Autonomy won’t be a blow to college basketball…yet

August 15, 2014 Columns No Comments

The Big Football conferences have their way. The age of autonomy is almost certain to soon ascend upon NCAA Division I college athletics.

There’s much to learn about how the change is going to affect college sports. The guess here is little of it is good, but in the short term its effects will be less than some (many?) expect.

We do know this: forget what you hear from administrators who paint a picture of positivity that makes Joel Osteen look grumpy in comparison, because autonomy isn’t about the student-athlete. The ones claiming otherwise are the same types who brought us West Virginia in the Big 12 and Missouri in the SEC. Hardly moves for “student-athlete well-being.”

We also think we know many student-athletes don’t really need more money (this article reported on the issue quite well), but certainly could be educated on managing their scholarship checks better. Plus, and this should not be underestimated, polls consistently show most fans do not want to see college athletes paid. Major college sports is teetering dangerously close to a point of diminishing returns, turning off a fair share of the audience with its shameless greed, and payment just may be the tipping point.

But autonomy itself won’t result in significant changes on the fields and courts of play. And in that, we can take heart, at least for a while.

Many are noting the overt rule change in allowing autonomy for the group we will call Big Football, as if it symbolizes a new financial age in college sports. (And sorry, we’ll never refer to these conferences by the self-important “power” or “Big 5” handles. The true power conference is television. And the Big 5 is a beloved basketball institution in Philadelphia. Period. First, last and always.)

Increased resource advantages for this group is hardly a new thing, though. College sports saw all kinds of new money in the past 20 years, thanks to the BCS.

The BCS was put together to consolidate as much of the money in college football as possible to six conferences. It did exactly that, to the point where it became a brand name.

BCS schools got the biggest TV contracts. TV heads gushed almost exclusively about BCS schools. Kids wanted to play for a BCS school. BCS schools in turn paid coaches more and built ever more opulent facilities. In every way, financially and in exposure, the BCS should’ve already created a gap in competition in college football and basketball.

It didn’t.

On the football field, Boise State, TCU, Utah, Northern Illinois and Central Florida all won or were very competitive in major bowl games in recent years. Schools in Division I-AA, er, that division under the confusing “FCS” moniker, handed supposedly superior I-A (or “FBS”) schools a whole host of losses last year. It’s not a stretch to say the sport has as much parity as it has since the first half of the 20th century.

College basketball is still remarkably inclusive. The NCAA Tournament continues to deliver a whole host of teams capable of a Sweet 16 run every season. Butler nearly won a national title. Florida Gulf Coast went from a concept on paper to a Sweet 16 darling in 15 years. This year’s tourney was marked by a surge from schools that can get grouped in that “low major” category, with Harvard, Mercer, North Dakota State and Stephen F. Austin all scoring wins over bigger names.

Autonomy will make a difference in the “stuff” a school can offer, leading to a recruiting advantage. Just like the BCS label did. It’s also one more advantage in public perception.

But exactly how much is that worth? The BCS didn’t stop Boise State from becoming a powerhouse that routinely wiped out powers like Oklahoma, Oregon, Georgia or Virginia Tech. The BCS didn’t keep George Mason, Butler, Virginia Commonwealth or Wichita State from the Final Four.

Recent history shows the money is not an obstacle, and quite likely the only thing that will keep those schools from competing for top national titles is if they are not allowed to compete for them. Of course, that’s what many fear is the eventual end game, that the greedy will kill the NCAA Tournament as we know it. And that is a legitimate concern.

One questions, though, whether Big Football administrators really think they can carry a basketball tournament and get away with it. The guess here is they do not.

College basketball, as great as it is, is not the reason TV builds conferences their own networks. Regular season hoops is not a hot TV property, and there are only a handful of powerhouse basketball names that are major TV draws.

After that, casual fans need a reason to tune in. The unpredictability and charm of the NCAA Tournament, the pitting of land grant giants against small liberal arts colleges, is what made and continues to make the tourney an event. Fans love underdog stories.

This is why a window of first round (NCAA calls them “second round” now) games can draw more than 11 million viewers, while even a top regular season game between two big names in prime time is fortunate to draw more than 2 million. An average game between BCS schools, say, Florida-Mississippi State in prime time on a Thursday night in January, brings in about 350,000 viewers.

If the football conferences eventually think they somehow can do better with their own tourney? Go ahead. They’ll be in for a huge letdown. And if TV networks try to finance it? They’ll be in for a letdown too.

One supposes it’s possible the football money will be so big that these conferences will accept that anyway, but the guess here is there are reasons why these schools in pursuit of every penny possible haven’t left the NCAA already, namely 1) Title IX and 2) they know they can’t match NCAA hoops tourney money.

As it is now, college basketball and football will carry on much as they have already, and if administrators are wise, it won’t change much. That doesn’t mean the rhetoric won’t continue. Big Football conferences will continue to play up the gap in Division I as if it’s a bad thing for them.

But while Division I could stand to shed about 50 teams, that gap also is what makes the NCAA Tournament so successful. It also allows those big schools to buy home football games and play 7-8 contests in front of huge crowds every year, as well as 75% of their non-conference basketball games at home.

Big schools need small schools, and vice versa. Besides, there are gaps in college sports across the board. Texas and Northern Iowa aren’t much alike, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said. What he failed to note is that Texas and Iowa State aren’t much alike, either. Truthfully, Iowa State and Northern Iowa have far more in common than Texas and Iowa State do.

In fact, there already are questions of just how BCS schools are going to come to agreement on a “full cost” stipend. What USC can easily afford to pay, Washington State may not be able to. If USC doesn’t want to share with San Diego State now, what makes one think a few years down the line that they’ll want to share with Utah, either?

The idea of a few super-conferences holds romanticism for a few fans, maybe even administrators. But the truth is, even with the BCS, not much has changed: there are 20-30 college football programs responsible for much of the sport’s revenue-generating power and, in turn, the main chuckwagon of cash in college sports. The rest need each other, those above and below them.

So people like Bowlsby can talk about that gap all they want. But perhaps they should worry about the gaps inside their own leagues first.

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