The NCAA has begun a state-of-business review taking a top-to-bottom analysis of the entire association, NCAA president Charlie Baker told CBS Sports. The association has hired Boston-based Bain & Company, a top-10 global management consulting firm, to handle the review.
This evaluation comes at a time when the NCAA's future role in college athletics is itself under review. The NCAA has failed to get its arms around NIL and continues to fight lawsuits on several fronts. What will the NCAA even be if courts determine athletes are employees?
Big East commissioner Val Ackerman believes the NCAA as a whole is sometimes inefficient and undervalued. Failure to capitalize on that value has led to some of the association's current problems.
"There isn't a clearly defined commercial unit within the national office. In my opinion, it's failing," Ackerman said during an extended conversation with CBS Sports. "The NCAA is a billion-dollar concern because of the money they bring in from March Madness. I think we would all benefit from a clearly defined structure, business unit that would be run by a chief marketing officer and a chief commercial officer who would be entrusted with oversight over television with a dedicated broadcast person underneath them."
Ackerman's credentials make her a leading influencer in whatever the NCAA -- and college sports at large -- becomes in the age of NIL, player empowerment and legal threats. The 63-year-old former Virginia basketball captain and first WNBA president is in her 10th year as Big East commissioner. Her league just came off its third men's basketball national championship since 2016.
She is hardly alone among the membership in questioning the term and value of the ongoing men's basketball television contract that ends in 2032. The value of sponsorships is in question as well. All of it provides the foundation of the NCAA's $1 billion budget, approximately 90% of which comes from men's basketball tournament revenue.
One Power Five administrator perked up when informed of Ackerman's comments.
"There are so many different things [the NCAA] should be thinking about revenue wise," said that administrator, who did not want to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject. "I could tell you 10 things they should be doing. They should sell the naming rights to 'March Madness.' What do you think that would be worth? It's enormous what that number could be."
In an age when even the naming rights of the Rose Bowl has been monetized with a title sponsor since 1999, "Toyota presents March Madness" doesn't seem that far a reach.
Specifically, Ackerman would like to see:
A commercial unit that would vet and maximize the value of sponsorship deals. Those entities have long existed on the campus level. Ackerman mentioned something similar to NBA Properties for the NCAA that could oversee promotion, sponsorship and merchandising. "In the pro leagues, these have become very sophisticated things," said Ackerman, also a former NBA vice president of business affairs under David Stern.
A potential partnership with players regarding NIL. The NCAA is currently hamstrung because of its failure over the years to allow player rights.
A person -- or persons -- dedicated to women's sports. As in all NCAA sports, there is no one entity that runs a particular sport. Those duties are split up between regulatory championship, competition and rules committees. The closest person to that designation might be Dan Gavitt, the senior vice president of basketball.
Recent success suggests the women's basketball tournament -- currently bundled for television with other non-revenue sports in a deal reportedly worth just $35 million annually -- has become successful enough that it could earn its own TV rights deal beginning in 2024 when the existing contract expires. An NCAA gender equity review showed that a separate women's tournament TV deal could be worth $81 million to $112 million per year.
Streamline FBS football. The reform-minded Knight Commission has already suggested a breakaway of FBS from the NCAA as well as a committee to oversee major-college football. "That's why [the NCAA is] trying to bring Bain in," said Tom McMillen, CEO of Lead1, the organization that represents FBS ADs. "... One of the big issues for the NCAA is … if 90% of my revenue was concentrated in one source, I'd be worried about it. It's high risk. Costs are going up. They're under legal attack so they have to diversify."
Baker, a former two-term governor of Massachusetts and former CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, has completed similar top-down reviews at prior stops. The decision to have Bain review the association has been shared with NCAA membership but not formally announced.
"I'm pretty fired up about the possibilities coming out of it," Baker said.
"Every time I've done this it's created a lot of clarity both where the opportunities are and where we need to get better," he added. "It's also a good anticipatory thing. [Bain will] come with all kinds of thoughts about the nature of the business that they see from the outside in."
Ackerman remains a member of the NCAA Board of Governors Federal and State Legislation Working Group (in short, an internal group evaluating the NIL landscape). She said an early idea was to establish a registry for NIL contract disclosures.
"Some lawyers got their hands on that concept and were skittish and it got shelved," Ackerman explained.
Baker is now advocating for such a registry as.
Bain has extensive experience in higher education consulting. Its website states it specializes in, "performance improvement, operating efficiency, cost management and reduction, growth strategy, organizational effectiveness and funding strategy."
FBS football is a critical juncture within that structure. The NCAA spends $65 million a year on a sport for which it doesn't sponsor a championship. That rankles the likes of the Knight Commission, which in 2020 proposed a new governing body for FBS separate from the rest of the sport.
The conflict obviously being that a large part of that $65 million the NCAA spends on football comes from earnings created by men's basketball. The most powerful part of men's basketball remains the Power Five. That creates somewhat of an unbreakable circle. One can't survive without the other in this complicated NCAA structure.
A further issue: The 69 Power Five schools that in 2023 will lead the FBS -- the most powerful financial and athletic entity in college sports -- have weighted voting privileges in the NCAA. In fact, reference to those voting privileges by the "Autonomy Five" are written into the NCAA Constitution.
Former NCAA CFO Kathleen McNeely laid bare thein a September 2022 meeting with FBS athletic directors. She said at least $10 million of that total is used annually to fight lawsuits filed against the NCAA related to football.
Approximately $40 million of that total goes to funding FBS scholarships.
"Every time there is a lawsuit about football, the NCAA gets sued, all 350 [Division I] schools," Ackerman said. "... Because these lawsuits are about them, when the NCAA gets sued, we're all sharing in the risk and legal liabilities."
"These [football] guys want it both ways," Ackerman later added. "They want to stay under the NCAA tent, but we're still litigation protection for them."
Baker said recently on NBC's "Meet The Press" that he supports taking a look at bidding out the women's basketball tournament for its own TV deal. That alone would address concerns over the NCAA being undervalued.
"I think this is definitely something that is on our radar," Baker said. "The program is at exactly the right time … because the contract is up. We do have an opportunity to put it out separately. And we're going to work really hard to make sure those student-athletes, those schools, those programs get what I would describe is what they should get."
That landmark Dresser Report addressing NCAA women's championships inequities proposed the men's and women's Final Fours be played in the same city. That proposal was not adopted by the NCAA.
"What we're doing now is preposterous in having them in different cities," Ackerman said.
To her point that the entire enterprise might be undervalued, there could be money to be made in separate TV deals for the College World Series, Frozen Four, women's volleyball and softball championships. But industry sources question that assertion in a media rights world that has yet to accommodate Pac-12 football.
"I'm not sure she's wrong. I'm not saying she's right, but particularly right now," said former UNLV AD Jim Livengood of Ackerman. "There's going to be a lot of things going on as it relates to not just women's basketball but to basketball itself. When one group feels like they're not being listened to … that's the motivation for sometimes people to say, 'Let's kick this into high gear.'"
Livengood, 78, might as well be the mayor of Las Vegas. He has been a driving force for the NCAA to relax its one-time ban on staging championship events in the city because of gambling concerns. Now that state-sponsored sports betting is the law of the land, Las Vegas has exploded as a sports destination.
Livengood gets much of the credit for the NCAA awarding a men's Final Four for the first time in 2028. He once pushed an idea to stage the entire women's Sweet 16 in Las Vegas.
"This is going to further galvanize the conversation. It's time, pull it [women's tournament] out [of the bundle]," said Chris Plonsky, executive senior associate athletic director at Texas. "This is the first time with all the changes in the landscape of distribution … when [the women's tournament] is truly at market."
Plonsky compared the nascent revenue situation to the birth of the Big 12. In 1994, the new league walked away from TV negotiations with ESPN to go with ABC and Liberty Sports in a five-year, $100 million deal. At the time, it was believed to be the largest cable deal for any conference.
"As conferences, we all think about revenue streams for our leagues," Ackerman said. "I see tremendous inefficiencies. We're all being left to hire consultants to help us in new business areas. It would be nice if there were some expertise within the national office as part of our membership fee that could help us understand areas like esports, NFTs. Should we be looking at cryptocurrency or not?"
One of those NCAA gender equity reviews reflects some of Ackerman's recommendations.
- Create the position of chief business officer.
- Establish a "new tier" of corporate sponsorships for the Division I women's tournament
- Cross-promote the men's and women's tournaments
- Allow for the use of "March Madness" for the women's tournament (already implemented)
"If they're the national governing body for college sports and they're entitled to some rule-making authority to create this connective tissue ... what are the bounds of its rules-making function?" Ackerman said of the NCAA.