By Ken Reed
The Huffington Post
August 27, 2014
Goodbye Boise State. Goodbye Butler. Cinderellas are no longer welcome in big-time college sports.
The college football season gets started in earnest this weekend. But it will do so with a new exclusive division on top of the heap. Let’s call it the Big Five Division for now.
On August 7th, the Big Five power conferences (Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12), in effect, pulled away from the rest of the NCAA in order to make their own rules. Undoubtedly, any new rules these conferences implement will be designed to enhance the advantages of the Big Five money-making machines while limiting competition from the smaller Division I institutions across the country.
The Big Five have snubbed their noses and waved goodbye to the rest of the NCAA.
As a result of the August 7th action, another distinct division in college athletics has been created, giving us five total. There’s the Big Five, Little Five (Mountain West, Conference USA, American Athletic Conference, Sun Belt and Mid-American Conference), FCS (formerly Div. I-AA), Division II and Division III.
Oh sure, the Big Five will stay under the NCAA umbrella in order to continue the façade that the athletic departments in these conferences have something to do with educating students. The NCAA umbrella allows the Big Five athletic programs to keep their non-profit status as educational entities while running huge commercialized businesses.
Despite being under the same umbrella, the Big Five conferences have huge financial advantages over the Little Five conferences. Conference realignment in recent years helped spur new mega TV deals for the Big Five conferences that are 10 or more times greater than the TV deals the Little Five conferences have. As such, the financial gap between the haves and have-nots has never been greater. And it’s going to continue to grow following the Big Five’s latest move.
Moreover, shortly after the Big Five conferences pulled away from the rest of the NCAA, U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken ruled in the Ed O’Bannon case that the NCAA was unfairly and illegally limiting athletes’ rights to make money off their names, images and likenesses.
As a result, athletes in big-time college football and men’s basketball programs will soon be allowed to receive compensation beyond tuition and room and board. How they will be compensated and how much is still to be determined.
So, while Wilken’s ruling was a big civil rights win for college athletes at our biggest universities, it also helped put a fork in the Little Five conferences. The combination of the Big Five secession and the Wilken ruling makes it even harder, if not impossible, for the smaller-budget Little Five schools to compete with Big Five schools.
The Big Five are now definitely in a league of their own – for better or worse. They got what they wanted: independence and the killing off of the bottom half of Division I. It was a classic power play.
As a fan of college sporting events, I’ll miss the compelling underdog stories like Boise State in football and Butler in basketball. Going forward, the Big Five will be nothing more than college versions of the NFL and NBA.
However, I’m also a fan of actual students playing sports as part of their overall college experience. As such, the secession of the Big Five might be the best thing to ever happen to college sports.
The Little Five conferences will now be forced to reevaluate their athletic programs. Do they want to try to keep up with the big boys and somehow find additional resources to pump into their programs (probably from academic budgets and/or student fees)? Or do they decide to deemphasize their athletic programs to the FCS level, or lower, and get closer to the original intent of college athletics: real students who prioritize education and simply enjoy playing competitive athletics as part of their time on campus?
On the eve of the 2014 college football season, the Little Five conferences and schools are officially in no man’s land.
Ken Reed is Sports Policy Director for League of Fans.
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League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
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