I want to return to this story about the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s decision to terminate its football program to fund in part its move from Division II to Division I, because I think it says something relevant about the current economics of college athletic programs.
Trev Alberts is UNO’s athletic director and it’s clear from the article that he’s fully invested in the decision. As a former college football player and former Mark May sidekick, he’s not a college football hater. So why the call? While it was one Alberts felt strongly he had to make, it wasn’t easy. And it won’t be cheap for a school UNO’s size.
… Previously a school making such a step up paid a fee of only $20,000, Alberts said. But four years ago, concern that schools not capable of competing at Division I were making rash decisions to move up led the NCAA to put a moratorium on such reclassifications. During the interim, the NCAA put new standards in place to make it tougher to initiate such changes.
One was to require any school stepping up to have a bona fide offer of membership from an existing Division I conference. That’s why UNO’s invitation to join the Summit League was so critical, Alberts said.
As an additional hurdle, the NCAA created the $1.4 million fee. It’s based on the average annual share of championship revenue the NCAA divvies out to Division I members, though schools in lower-level conferences such as the Summit generally receive far less than that — in the hundreds of thousands annually.
“There’s a concerted effort to stop institutions from reclassifying,” Alberts said. “The NCAA hopes to eliminate those who would ultimately dilute the overall brand and (the NCAA’s) ability to distribute (dollars) to its members.”
Those “rash decisions” have come on the basketball side. The last time I looked, there are now more than 300 schools which are eligible to play in March Madness. That’s an awful lot of slices to cut if you’re the NCAA, even with a pie as large as the one the basketball tourney bakes. And a $20,000 entry fee isn’t exactly a daunting barrier to entry when you’re chasing even the relatively smaller payouts the Summit League receives. That’s why it became time to price the riff-raff out. And that’s why Alberts believed he had no choice but to take the drastic step of shutting down football. Because for schools like UNO, the money isn’t there; it’s in basketball.
All of which should make you wonder what would happen if D-1 football’s postseason were handed over to the NCAA for it to manage. Actually, I don’t think it would take very much imagination at all to see a number of 1-AA schools begin the gold rush to move up and gain access to the money which a football playoff would generate. And the inevitable expansion of both D-1 and the football playoffs to accommodate that. And the increased fee the NCAA would be able to charge schools looking to make the move. And the willingness of those schools to pay the fee in the hopes of gaining access to the huge pot of postseason money.
All of that would be good for the smaller schools looking to move up in class and the NCAA, but it’s hard to imagine how any of that benefits the schools in the power conferences who would face the double risks of watching the postseason money carved into many more shares than now and the potential dilution of the regular season TV broadcast rights as more and more attention would be diverted to the postseason playoffs.
How much imagination do you think Larry Scott, Mike Slive and Jim Delany have?