The Future of Collegiate Athletics and the NCAA
Wilmington,NC - USA - 05-07-2021: Composite image of an NCAA Fin

Take the following three phrases and tell me how much you knew about them one, three, or five years ago?

Name…Image…Likeness

The game changer! Name, Image & Likeness…Athletes are now being paid and in some cases quite a bit!

Think back; How long ago did you first hear of these first three terms:

  • NIL (Name Image and Likeness)
  • The Transfer Portal
  • One and Done

The latter came first and has been highly criticized as being the beginning of the end for NCAA Division I college basketball as we knew it. Players at many Division I schools enroll, attend classes for ONE semester to stay eligible, and then are no longer seen on campus, except for in the arena for practices and games. Most never make it to the professional level.

The transfer portal came second and changed the game as athletes in all sports, whether it was and minor dispute with a coach for playing time, or just the fact that they didn’t like their surroundings, could instantly change the game by putting their name on the portal–whether it was a knee jerk reaction or not.

And the most recent is at the top; name image and likeness, which has forever transformed the game and came off a unanimous Supreme Court ruling. Let me repeat that; the ruling was unanimous! When does that ever happen with our Supreme Court?

Now, think about the retirement of Mike Krzyzewski and Jay Wright and others and try to realize that what they signed on for as coaches really did not include any of those three “new” staples above. Please understand, I am not saying any of them are wrong intrinsically; what I am saying is that they have changed the game. And the game is changing not just at the individual athlete level or the individual coaching level, but in the grand scheme of things, at the INSTITUTIONAL AND GOVERNANCE levels!

So, hang on tight because below is a “vision” that is a long time coming.

THE “GAME” HAS CHANGED AND THE FUTURE WILL BODE MORE ALTERATIONS

The year was 1998.

I was Vice President of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame, Inc., an excellent organization! I had a chance to deal with senior people from across the sports landscape including corporate, college athletic directors, college presidents, and head football coaches at all levels.

It was then that I came away with the feeling that at some point Division One (read major college football programs commonly referred to as the “Power-5” or A-5), would at some point give the “lesser?” or lower-level teams the cold shoulder.

If articulated, it might sound something like this.

“Hey guys, we just don’t need you, we have this multi-billion-dollar machine here in college athletics driven by football, which is what feeds all collegiate athletics. Let’s be honest; you can do the math. Yes, the basketball tournament does well and it’s exciting, but it’s football that is the money machine.”

And I thought at some point, yes, this will happen they will divest themselves from even the NCAA and manage themselves.

That was 24 years ago. And while it might have taken a little longer than I anticipated, I believe we’re on the precipice of that action. The NCAA has certainly not helped the cause!

Let’s be honest, Mark Emmert (outgoing President of the NCAA) was a complete disaster. I guess $3 million dollars a year and an academic background does not equate to a success story. What the NCAA needs is a solid business individual with some experience, not an academic per se. But, at the end of the day, it may not matter.

Recently we have seen the Pac-10 teams join the Big Ten and other incredulous geographical moves that make the conference names moot. Conferences with names that don’t match the number of teams. Conferences with logistical signals of schools/teams nowhere close to being their area. They say the only thing constant is change. But these are changes that are a long time coming in the world of college athletics and at the end of the day, this is only the beginning.

And if you remember this basic tenet, you will understand: It’s about money.

ECAC CALLS A TOWN HALL TO DISCUSS!

I attended an event hosted by the ECAC this past August. The ECAC (Eastern College Athletic Conference) is an eighty-four-year-old organization with well over 200 member schools across all three NCAA Divisions – I, II, and III. The ECAC exists to enhance the experience of student-athletes participating in intercollegiate athletics and provides great value for universities and colleges by sponsoring championships, leagues, bowl games, tournaments, and other competitions throughout the Northeast. The ECAC’s esports platform is growing and now totals more than sixty colleges and universities and is expanding the geographic footprint for the conference nationally. The ECAC also sponsors competitions and leagues involving other varsity and club sports that do not fall under the umbrella of the NCAA.

This “Town Hall” was entitled “Envisioning a Post-Power 5 Intercollegiate Athletics Structure.” Roughly fifty leaders from all three NCAA divisions gathered at The Summit in Danbury to discuss the recent dramatic changes to the industry, consider what the future may hold, and strategize about what steps might be necessary considering likely changes coming next.

Among the thought leaders headlining the day-long, in-person discussions were Dr. Mary Beth Cooper, President of Springfield College, Rich Ensor, Commissioner of the MAAC, Amy Perko, CEO of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, Dan Dutcher, former Vice President of the NCAA for Division III, Sarah Wilhelmi, Senior Director of College Partnerships for the US Olympic Committee, and Steve Gladstone, former Director of Athletics at Cal and current Men’s Rowing Coach at Yale (with 14 national championships in his career). A host of other commissioners, athletic directors, and other industry professionals participated.

“The biggest takeaway for me,” said ECAC Commissioner Dan Coonan at the end of the day, “is the tremendous appetite among all these leaders from every corner of this industry for this type of examination. The national narrative pertaining to all of this is being set by Power 5 Commissioners and national broadcast companies. But the lion’s share of college athletes in all three NCAA divisions participate at schools and in sports that are not driving these changes, but they nonetheless stand to be greatly impacted. It was great to provide a forum for these important discussions. I look forward to seeing where this takes us.”

One of the attendees was a friend and mentor of sorts, Rich Ensor longtime Commissioner of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, who recently announced his retirement after a successful 24-year run leading that conference.

Everyone LOVES the NCAA Tournament…the “Big Dance!” But what makes it great are those first two rounds when you get the David’s slaying the Goliaths—Virginia a #1 seed losing to UMBC a #16 a couple years ago, or this year when little ST. Peter’s out of the very MAAC that Ensor oversees!

“There’s always some coach who thinks he should be in with his sub-.500 conference record, that he finished eighth in his (mega D-I) conference but should be in the tournament over a Saint Peter’s,” Ensor said, and the Peacocks’ run served as the ultimate rebuttal.

“We bring a lot of value to that tournament,” Ensor said. “Saint Peter’s was the biggest story of the year. (High-major commissioners) hear that from their media partners, by the way — ‘Don’t mess with something that’s working really well.’ These schools keep it interesting, otherwise, those first couple of rounds would be boring.”

Within weeks of Saint Peter’s galvanizing the nation, Shaheen Holloway and his coaching staff went to Seton Hall and the top seven players transferred out. It was an unprecedented dismantling made possible by the elimination of the sit-out year for transfers. Statistics show that under 40% of individuals who put their name in the portal play at the same level.

“That’s the reality of what we’re dealing with right now,” Ensor said. “We’re damaged by it in some cases, but we benefit by it in others. Is Saint Peter’s benefiting? No. But those kids earned the opportunity to play at a higher level. I see the pros and cons.”

“I would put some more guardrails around it as far as academics,” Ensor said. “People transferring too many times are going to lose credits and they’re not going to graduate. We’re probably two years away from seeing what the result of all this is.”

The eight-team MAAC Ensor inherited included La Salle, Army, Holy Cross, and Fordham (all now elsewhere). Currently, it’s 11 teams, with Monmouth leaving for the Colonial Athletic Association and Mount Saint Mary’s coming in. “Monmouth leaving was a football decision. I understand it.”  He added “realignment is part of the fabric,” both for teams leaving his conference and coming into it.

“I think we’ll probably get to 12 (schools), and it could be (decided) this year,” Ensor said. “We’re talking to a couple of schools.”

“Since the day I got into this business, there’s always been a threat that the majors are going to leave, the power conferences get everything that they want anyway.”

“The NCAA serves its purpose. Take football out and do whatever you want with it — professionalize it, because that’s where it’s headed — and leave the rest of it alone, with basketball being a key cornerstone,” said Ensor as practically and bluntly as it can be stated.

Stay tuned.

Related content:

What Is NIL? Name, Image, Likeness for Collegiate Athletes with Lyle Adams [Video]

What’s Next for High School & College Athletes Impacted by Covid? [Video]

How Is Covid Impacting the Collegiate Job Market Now and Going Forward? [Video]

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