Wednesday, October 05, 2011

The NCAA – Who is at the helm of the Titanic?

Over the last month college sports headlines haven’t focused on news relating to athletes on the field but rather have focused on NCAA schools switching conferences. Texas A&M are leaving the Big 12 for the SEC. Syracuse, a founding member of the Big East Conference, along with the University of Pittsburgh , are leaving the Big East for the Atlantic Coast Conference. These are the first dominos.

By the time the college athletic conferences have reshaped themselves the new configuration will include a group of four or five super-conferences (with as many as sixty-four to seventy-five schools) and a handful of schools left on the outside looking in. None of this is good for the NCAA as it creates a mess for President Mark Emmert to deal with.

“People today have greater doubt, greater concern about what we stand for and why we do what we do,” Emmert said last week at a meeting of athletic directors and faculty athletics representatives. “And that is a huge problem for us.”

“The specter of the past couple weeks of conference realignment has not been a healthy thing,” said Emmert, speaking forcefully and without notes. The prevailing belief among the public and the press, he said, is that college sports stands only for money. But he scolded the ADs for allowing talk and speculation around realignment to center solely on financial matters.

“The world’s convinced that’s all we care about…that all this is about money,” he said. “I didn’t read many of us stepping up and saying that this will work really well for student-athletes because we’ll do X, we’ll do Y, it will create more resources, it will help us stabilize our programs.”

“It was all about the deal,” he said.

Through little fault of his own Emmert has been at the center of the college conference storm for weeks. However, as he points out, the NCAA constitution dictates he is powerless to stop the impending implosion of college conferences.

"I've been talking to commissioners and presidents and helping to try to keep people focused on the picture and reminding people at the end of the day we're talking about student-athletes and I think the institutions are being as thoughtful as they can on this," Emmert explained to ESPN a few weeks ago. "We don't have a formal role in any conference configurations. The presidents have always had that and always will. As a former university president (at Washington ) I know that."

Is Mark Emmert the right man for what is going to be a very tough job – managing the NCAA through what could be a very challenging time? His background suggests indeed he could be the right man to get the job done.

Emmert became the fifth president of the NCAA in October 2010. Prior to assuming his current role Emmert had been president at his alma mater, University of Washington, since 2004 where he led the university to its standing as second among all public and private institutions in research funding with $1 billion in grants and contracts per year. Before returning to his alma mater, Emmert was chancellor at Louisiana State University from 1999 to 2004.

Among his administrative appointments in higher education, Emmert was chief operating and academic officer at the University of Connecticut (1995 to 1999), provost and vice-president for academic affairs at Montana State University (1992 to 1995), and associate vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Colorado (1985 to1992).

Emmert is a member of the Higher Education Working Group on Global Issues as part of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the former chair of the Executive Group of the Worldwide Universities Network, and served on the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board.

He was a National Academy of Public Administration Fellow, an American Council on Education Fellow, and a J. W. Fulbright Administrative Fellow. He has written extensively on higher education and public administration over a career that spans the last 30 years.

Credentials aside, Emmert is well aware he may be powerless to stop the creation of so-called super conferences which will leave a large group of NCAA schools with Tier II athletic programs. When all is said and done, the NCAA could be history, with the super conferences creating a new college athletic association.

"I know that's a popular conversation point," Emmert told ESPN. "People on talk radio and other places chat about that but I don't see that as a serious issue. Everybody is trying to get the best conference alignment they can. They're all looking at their situation."

In looking at the NCAA, Emmert realizes that chaos theory is alive and well.

"It's dynamic and some of the moves look dramatic," Emmert said. "There are those who are being affected that it may seem chaotic but people are trying to make thoughtful decisions and do it in real time and almost all of the conversations are private ones. You can't have those conversations public. It's less chaotic and less illogical then it appears."

Emmert has an ace he and the NCAA can play whenever they wish -- the NCAA's $10.8 billion, 14-year deal for the men's NCAA basketball tournament with CBS/Turner Sports.

"(The contract) supports something in the order of 96 or 94 percent of the revenue that flows into the NCAA," Emmert said. "It's very important to the membership and a vast majority of the money indirectly or directly flows back to them and supports the various championships that we support. The only real question now is when this is all over whether or not the automatic qualifiers (to the NCAA tournament) have to change over time and the same thing with the BCS. We'll see where this ends up when it's all done.

"I've been talking pretty constantly to all the commissioners and presidents involved in these things since the beginning," Emmert said. "My job is to shape the outcome and to make sure the decisions are made with good information. Just like last year, it looked like monstrous changes but only a few schools moved around. Let's see what really happens this time."

What can or should the NCAA expect from Emmert? Emmert needs to hold his member schools accountable. He’s correct in suggesting he has little power to stop schools from switching conferences but he needs to remind the schools he’s holding several aces in this game of poker being played such as the $10.8 billion men’s basketball TV contract. But, the conferences are holding their own aces – college football TV contracts.

On June 27, 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in NCAA v. Board of Regents of Univ. of Oklahoma that the NCAA's television plan violated the Sherman Antitrust Act. As a result, individual schools and athletic conferences were freed to negotiate contracts on their own behalf. Together with the growth of cable television, this ruling resulted in the explosion of broadcast options currently available.

The 1984 Supreme Court ruling led to conferences signing their own network television football agreements (SEC with CBS, Big Ten with ABC and Notre Dame (home games) with NBC) but the piece de resistance in college football remains the five game BCS series. In 2008, University presidents reached an agreement with ESPN that included exclusive television, radio, digital, international and marketing rights for the Fiesta, Orange and Sugar bowls from 2011-14 and the Bowl Championship Series title game from 2011-13. The $125 million a year payout represented about 40 percent more than the previous contract with Fox.

The two sides (the NCAA and their member schools) have to work together. Emmert will act in the best interests of the NCAA as a whole and he’s not likely to focus on the 64 to 75 schools that would be a part of four to six super conferences. But, it will require Emmert to take a leadership role, to lead this ship. The NCAA right now resembles a ship run amuck, a lot like the Titanic (after the ship hit the iceberg). What Mark Emmert doesn’t want is to be playing a violin while the NCAA sinks.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: ESPN and Wikipedia

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