HARRISONBURG – The big question facing mid-level Division I conferences after the Power Five gained more autonomy Thursday is simple: Will there now be less money for the middle-tier schools?
James Madison athletic director Jeff Bourne’s answer: Nobody knows.
The NCAA board of directors voted Thursday to give the 65 colleges in the five major conferences the authority to write their own rules on a wide range of issues affecting athletics, a decision intended to placate increasingly restless big-league schools whose budgets and priorities differ from the majority of Division I members.
“The question will be, with that autonomy, will it end up being a factor with regard to future revenue distributions back across the greater whole of the country with regard to other conferences? Will more money be retained long term by the top five and then less shared with the rest of us?” Bourne said during a telephone interview Thursday.
Thursday’s measure passed 16-2, with Delaware President Patrick T. Harker – the Colonial Athletic Association’s representative – and Dartmouth President Phillip J. Hanlon of the Ivy League voting against the measure.
The University of Delaware’s communications department did not respond to a message seeking comment from Harker on Thursday, but CAA Commissioner Tom Yeager said his members opposed the new structure, which some believe will widen the already-huge chasm between the Power Five and the rest of college sports.
How big is the gap? According to information supplied to the federal government for 2012-13, CAA member James Madison’s athletics budget – one of the biggest for a mid-major – was $36 million. The University of Virginia’s sports budget was $84.1 million, and Virginia Tech’s was $66.4 million.
Both U.Va. and Tech are members of the Atlantic Coast Conference, one of the Power Five. The other major conferences are the Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern, all of which reap millions of television dollars from Division I-A (or FBS) college football. Colonial schools are in I-AA (or FCS), which generates essentially no money.
“I think we all talk about Division I being Division I. When we talk about all those sports, [Thursday’s vote] ends up being on the shoulders of a football decision. Yet when you look at it, all of our other sports programs compete at the Division I level,” Bourne said. “We look for a level playing field for all of sports across the country. The question long-term will be how might that change and, again, I think it goes back to nobody really knows the answer to that. Time’s going to end up being the deciding factor.”
The NCAA vote still is subject to an override. To overturn Thursday’s decision, 125 schools would need to object within 60 days; that would trigger a vote of all 350 Division I members, with a five-eighths majority needed to kill the measure.
Neither Bourne nor Yeager expect that to happen.
JMU – with a state-of-the-art 25,000-seat football stadium and some of I-AA’s biggest crowds – has made clear its interest in moving to I-A. Under NCAA rules, I-AA schools seeking I-A membership must receive an invitation from an existing I-A conference before making the jump – and Madison did not get one before the annual June deadline this year, so it will remain in I-AA for at least another year.
Has a jump to Division I-A for Madison’s football program become less appealing given Thursday’s news? If JMU were to receive an invitation, it would not be to one of the rich Power Five conferences. It would be to a far less-affluent league, such as Conference USA, the Mid-American Conference or the Sun Belt.
“I don’t know if it would affect our long-term way that we look at conferences,” Bourne said. “I think the real key point here is you ask the question what’s it going to take to make sure you’re taking care of the student athletes that you have at your institution now and those that you’re going to recruit in the years ahead and make the circumstances as best for them as you can. Our goal is just to make sure everything that we’re doing is really aimed at them.
“And in terms of how if might affect [JMU] or what the viewpoints of some other conferences might be along those lines, I wouldn’t want to interject or try to anticipate.”
Yeager said the vote is another indication that big-time college sports is skewing priorities at major universities.
“I think that the athletic departments have become detached in many ways from the greater university mission,” Yeager said during a telephone interview from the league’s Richmond office. “That at a time when every institution – every institution – has been wrestling with a tightening economic climate that has forced cutbacks and funding at the state and federal level … and faculty have been furloughed, we have runaway coaches’ salaries when you have building projects on campus that have been long delayed.
“… We’ve lost our way a little bit. Now I fully understand what’s driving it, but this [NCAA measure] isn’t going to solve any of that. It isn’t.”
College athletics, with many of its football and basketball coaches being paid more than $3 million a year, is under intense pressure both politically and in the courtroom to better care for its athletes.
Rules surrounding issues such as stipends to cover the true cost of attending college and insurance benefits for athletes could come under discussion by power conferences schools as early as Oct. 1.
Yeager said the Colonial is unhappy that its members will have less influence in NCAA decisions, assuming the vote survives the override period. Under the new system, NCAA votes affecting all Division I members will be weighted toward the Power 5.
“Basically, the schools in the CAA didn’t support the revision,” Yeager said. “Mainly because I think we feel the current system has the ability to be responsive. And that we’re concerned in part by – on a philosophical level – the erosion of the voice of the non-65 institutions and how things operate. But then again, I think the feeling of our [member schools’] presidents is this will not solve a lot of the current issues and concerns circulating around intercollegiate athletics. But the 65 will now have to accept responsibility for whatever frustrations they feel. It’s not our fault, the little schools. It’s not our fault anymore.”