Formation of Division 4 is the next game-changer in college football
Why is major-college football threatening to split into a subdivision? After seeing many playoff versions, Dennis Dodd says the answer is money.
Let the have-nots stage their own four-, eight-, 16-team postseason extravaganza.
You'd watch because ratings and history have shown you can't turn away. (Those 35 bowls aren't going away anytime soon.) You'd watch because any kind of playoff enhances those bowls, rather than diminishes them.
You/we/me would watch a Nevada-Ohio national semifinal because we can't get enough college football.
Could such a playoff happen? Sure. Might make some money, too. I talked to a bunch of conference and TV types who didn't exactly shoot down the concept.
CBSSports.com learned this week that such a playoff was actually a topic of conversation among the non-BCS schools in the early 2000s. The concept went as far as marketing such a playoff as the NFL (BCS) against the AFL (non-BCS).
Just like NBC partnering up with the AFL at the time, one administrator characterized a non-BCS playoff this way: "You only need one network to love you."
I can think of one at the moment -- Fox Sports 1 debuting this month -- that would be drooling all over itself at such a prospect.
Will it happen with the likes of Conference USA, the MAC, Sun Belt, American and the Mountain West? Not anytime soon.
"We don't want the perception to be that we haven't played at the highest level of college athletics," American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco told me this week. "That's why there was some talk about us having our own playoff. I dismiss that because we don't want to go that route at all. Why would we put ourselves in a kind of subdivision?"
That's the game-changing question for everyone. Why is major-college football as a whole threatening to split into a separate division? It last happened 35 years ago. Since then we've had three iterations of the postseason, the rise and fall of the BCS and radical conference realignment.
The easy answer is money. There is more of it now because college football continues to be the second-most popular sport in the country. The more complicated answer is how to make more money. There's a reason the Pac-12 is looking to China to play games and Google Fiber could revolutionize how we consume the sport.
We'll pay to see it.
So a non-BCS playoff isn't the craziest idea because the well of money and popularity hasn't been tapped out yet. The Big 5 (Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC, ACC) have hijacked that playoff that begins in 2014. Beginning next year, those non-BCS schools -- "Group of Five" if you will -- will be playing for scraps.
At least fewer scraps than they do now. Those five conferences -- as one -- will play for one automatic berth in the six College Football Playoff bowls. If they get into the top four they'll play for a national championship. But of those approximately 60 Group of Five schools only five have even played in a BCS bowl.
In most seasons, that one precious automatic berth is going to the American or the Mountain West. Yes, we're talking a subdivision within a subdivision. The AAC and MWC are better, in general, than the Sun Belt, Conference USA and MAC.
All of it points out both the uncertainty and the potential in establishing a Division 4 within -- for now -- the NCAA.
Some answers to boilerplate questions on Division 4 going forward:
How would a Division 4 be established?
Remember, this isn't a breakaway. Not yet. Those Big 5 conferences would still play in FBS. Louisiana-Monroe would still have a chance to beat Alabama. The MAC would still pull its annual stunner or two against the Big Ten. It's more about governance and the big boys being able to call their own shots when it comes to rules.
One administrator put it succinctly about the Big 5: "What do you guys want that you haven't got?"
A split might be as simple as a letter from the Big 5 to Mark Emmert. Those commissioners have been clear in their desire for "transformative change." They control the biggest money-maker in amateur sports -- college football. They created the playoff on their own. They essentially own the major bowls. The NCAA, it would seem, would be a bit player in this discussion.
If the issue goes through the formal legislative process, it depends on how a split would be viewed. If it is considered a new division, all 1,000-plus schools would have to weigh in at a general business session at the NCAA convention.
The association's executive committee when then sponsor legislation for a new division. A two-thirds majority would be needed to pass. If Division 4 is viewed as a subdivision of Division I, then the issue would be limited to the 31 D1 conferences (340-plus schools).
In any division-wide issue, the BCS leagues could be outvoted. The controversial stipend proposal was essentially overridden by FCS schools (Division I-AA) and basketball-only schools within Division I. The five BCS leagues as well as the American (former Big East) and Conference USA all have the same weighted votes (three points each). The Mountain West, MAC, Sun Belt, WAC (still alive in basketball) are weighted half as much (1.5). The remaining 20 Division I conferences (about 200 schools) get 1.14 points.
Those non-BCS leagues (once again: MWC, MAC, Sun Belt, Conference USA, American in 2014) don't want to be cut further out of the BCS herd. They've already been marginalized in the College Football Playoff .
As far as establishing a Division 4 within the NCAA, "it's kind of like conference realignment," said John Infante, who writes the Bylaw Blog for athleticscholarships.net. "you don't send an invitation until you know it's going to be accepted."
Look for big changes at the 2014 NCAA Convention in San Diego. Emmert already has sent out save-the-date reminders to administrators for what promises to be the biggest convention since the reform days of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Why is it being referred to as Division 4?
There are three divisions in NCAA sports -- I, II and III. Within Division I, there is the Football Bowl Subdivision (formally I-A) and the Football Championship Subdivision (formally I-AA).
Only the NCAA could make football sound like a Securities and Exchange Commission hearing before Congress.
Why and how did this happen?
The Big 5 commissioners (and athletic directors) were frustrated that a system they essentially oversaw had been undermined. A group of ADs met in April voicing concern about being cut out of the process. There was tremendous frustration almost everywhere about the Penn State decision.
Think about the history of the NCAA CEO's position. One (Walter Byers) ruled with an iron fist, one left office amid scandal (Dick Schultz), one died in office (Myles Brand), one is embattled (Emmert).
Meanwhile, the decision to put presidents in control has been a failure. The commissioners went out of their way trying not to pin this all on Emmert. The current condition has been developing over decades. However, the level of frustration cannot be ignored. A source told me this week that the association's perceived failure not to do more on the concussion (player safety) issue means an Emmert-led NCAA has "completely lost support from people."
Those Big 5 commissioners now view the stipend (OK, true cost of attendance) as the canary in the coal mine. To them, it's a no brainer that players should be paid.
It's a sense of fair play with the commissioners controlling billions in revenue. It's a sense that everyone knows players work way past the mandated 20-hour work week limit. It's a sense of guilt.
The NCAA allows those same players to hold summer jobs. Who among them would have the time?
But if the rest of Division I can defeat and water down the stipend, in what other ways are the Big 5 going to be ganged up on?
"This isn't about separating ourselves from the rest of the group," one source said. "It's having a lot to say about the rules."
• The commissioners have been critical of enforcement. What if Division 4 wanted to outsource enforcement to a private company? What if it wanted to federalize it, give investigators subpoena power? It should be noted the most significant reform of the Emmert term started Thursday. It had to do with enforcement.
• What if off-campus recruiting was eliminated? That's right, no home visits. I ran that by a coach this week. He said that would undermine the development of personal relationships in recruiting. But what if on-campus visits were expanded to, say, five. Parents can come along.
That's five 48-hour periods where cell phones and Twitter don't matter.
• Commissioners have a chance to address freshman eligibility and stronger academic standards.
• Something has to be done about the transfer situation. Coaches are allowed to skip out on jobs but they hold players to a different, unfair, hypocritical standard.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly wouldn't release recruit Eddie Vanderdoes from his scholarship just to send a message to any other recruit who was thinking about transferring. Thankfully, the NCAA stepped in on this one case and allowed Vanderdoes to become eligible immediately at UCLA.
• Think how the current O'Bannon lawsuit mess could have been avoided. The Big 5 could have negotiated a licensing deal with EA Sports. It could then freely identify the players in NCAA '14, put the players' names on the jerseys. Then they could gather up the licensing money and pay those players an annuity, but only if they graduate.
That's almost non-controversial. The system wouldn't be subjected to cries of professionalism. No one would be getting paid, unless and until they graduate.
Yes, women would share the money. They would have to with Title IX.
What about the possibility of paid players (stipend) competing against nonpaid players?
It doesn't seem to bother most folks. Everyone recognizes there is a competitive imbalance between the haves and have-nots. This is not athletic socialism.
A stipend would only be an option anyway, most likely. If Michigan plays a Lehigh in the NCAA tournament that doesn't pay players, how does that change the spread?
What about legal challenges?
If the commissioners can survive the BCS and a couple of appearances before Congress; if they can survive two years of establishing the playoff and further marginalizing the have-nots; then they can likely survive establishing a new subdivision for governance.
What is the possibility of a breakaway by the Big 5?
Small for now. But as I've pointed out many times, the big boys are acting out because they can. They have the leverage. They have the hammer. If they don't get most of what they want, soon, they can -- and will -- form their own association.
"Real power," one source close to the situation said, "is never having to use it."
The commissioners aren't going to abuse their power. Example: Don't look for a $10,000 stipend per player. But they are going to fundamentally change the way NCAA business is done.
Why is this happening now?
For those of us old enough to remember the College Football Association, it's the CFA in reverse. Frustrated that smaller schools were sharing in TV money, the CFA was formed in 1978 by 61 major-conference schools. With the threat of those schools signing their own TV contract, the NCAA established Division I-A at the '78 convention.
That cut out the likes of Ivy League, Missouri Valley and Southland Conference and relegated them to Division I-AA. While that sounds inconsequential today, those schools were denied what would be a financial windfall in the future.
Critics would argue that there would have been no windfall if those schools were allowed into the club.
As they do today, market forces applied. The biggest, best, most traditional football programs survived at the top level. That level was essentially established by their worth to TV networks.
In the decades that followed, the resulting Division I-AA (now FCS) was neither transformative nor financially rewarding. The division's playoff is run by the NCAA and any profit from the rights is negligible.
A new subdivision (I-A) for those 61 schools didn't keep the CFA from wanting more. The NCAA called a special convention in 1981 and threatened to sanction any school that accepted a national package from NBC. The CFA eventually led a legal challenge that produced the landmark Supreme Court decision in 1984.
Since then, those power schools were free to make their own TV deals. That's why we're here today. That's why conference realignment has torn at the foundation of the sport. The Bowl Coalition led to the Bowl Alliance which led to the BCS which got us to an FBS playoff.
While the playoff has maximized the Big 5's revenues, this time they feel more frustrated with governance. They want the option to pay players -- OK, a stipend.
They want to fix enforcement. They want to, perhaps, change the fundamental model of recruiting.
That's why it was ominous to hear Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby say last week, "We've made it too easy to get into Division I and too easy to stay there."
Those words could easily have been used in 1978.
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