Attention NCAA: Heed the Chicken Littles, Hoopocalypse is a Real ThreatPosted by rtmsf on August 15th, 2011
Over the weekend, we were once again regaled and entertained by a conference realignment passion play, this one involving the forlorn and lost souls of Texas A&M, veritable auslanders in their own backyard, and the biggest, baddest bully on the football block, the Southeastern Conference (SEC). The brass in College Station, you see, is legitimately chafed that the monolithic academic and athletic powerhouse located 100 miles west in Austin — the University of Texas — will soon be rolling out its very own Longhorn Sports Network, a cable and satellite channel that can be beamed coast to coast to tens of millions of interested eyeballs while TAMU is stuck with its online channel, 12thManTV. Their anger is understandable — not only do the Horns regularly whip the Aggies on the gridiron (10 of the last 15 games) and the boardroom (Texas athletic department’s operating budget was $60M more than A&M’s in 2009-10), but they’re now positioned to permanently write their own ticket for the foreseeable future. That gap is unlikely to narrow.
As of Monday afternoon, a Texas A&M move to the SEC was still on hold. A&M’s regents need to first formally agree to approach the SEC, and then the Texas state legislature would have to be involved in some capacity as well. But whether it happens this week, next week, or even a couple more years down the road — this, and other moves like it, are inevitable. The astronomical number of dollars available to schools through BCS bowl payouts and television contracts ensures further positioning; in some ways, the search for a bigger and better deal is capitalism at its finest. But like any marketplace unfettered by regulation and common sense, individuals acting rationally for their own best interests can ultimately lead to irresponsible and undesirable outcomes. Two pieces published this morning hit on such a distinct future possibility.
Gary Parrish at CBSSports.com and Eamonn Brennan at ESPN.com both write that if realignment continues moving in such a way where each school and conference continues to chase dollars at the trough of football exposure, we’re ultimately faced with an endgame of the 65 or so biggest schools doing an end-around on the NCAA by breaking off and starting its own governing organization. We’ve discussed this rather apocalyptic possibility before here, and from a purely football (and financial) perspective it makes perfect sense, but Parrish and Brennan’s argument is a salient one. Such a conclusion would effectively end the mythical David/Goliath beauty of the NCAA Tournament as we know it. As Parrish states:
We could end up with a postseason basketball tournament featuring North Carolina, Kentucky, UCLA, Ohio State,Kansas, Louisville and nothing but schools like North Carolina, Kentucky, UCLA, Ohio State, Kansas and Louisville. All big boys. No Cinderellas. That’s not a tournament I prefer. I love watching Valparaiso advance thanks to a crazy inbound play. I love watching Northern Iowa shock the nation thanks to a little shooter. I love watching George Mason, Butler and VCU crush big schools and march to the Final Four. Those things don’t happen often, but the opportunity for them to happen always is in place, and that’s precisely what makes the NCAA tournament our country’s greatest postseason event. We get bad Super Bowls, boring World Series and NBA Finals that don’t match the hype. But the NCAA tournament never lets us down because a previously unimaginable storyline always materializes, and it usually involves a small-conference school.
Of course, he’s right. Purists like ourselves will watch the NCAA Tournament and love it regardless, no matter who is playing. But casual fans tune in to watch the little guys in the early rounds — the 27-3 team from some conference they’ve never heard of taking on a Georgetown or a Duke. They’re not interested in a Rutgers-Oklahoma State matchup, and they’re sure as hell not going to watch a ‘lesser’ version of the Dance either, one that involves only the mid-majors.
So, as we’ve harangued about before, the question becomes what, if anything, the NCAA plans on doing about this? New president Mark Emmert has already shown a more hands-on approach, instituting a new APR cutline and publicly suggesting much harsher penalties meted onto schools who break the rules. But the endgame scenario is the massive elephant sitting in the corner of the room. It’s well established that over 95% of the NCAA’s operating budget is funded entirely from television proceeds for broadcasting the NCAA Tournament, and the majority of those dollars are in fact funneled back to the schools through a variety of ways. But the NCAA is acting as the financial middle-man in basketball, whereas it has no such authority or placement in football. What does Emmert have up his sleeve on that side of the equation to ultimately encourage and incentivize his largest member institutions to stick with the NCAA rather than setting sail on their own course? Please tell us that there are strategies being mapped out in Indianapolis conference rooms to address this issue, and that the NCAA isn’t taking a losing approach of ‘they need us; we’re too big to fail.’
A secession of the largest schools/conferences seems inevitable at the 2011 view from 30,000 feet, but smart and effective leaders are masterful at getting in front of problems well before any such option is actually on the table. And what a problem it is for the NCAA, in particular — CBS/Turner is not going to want to broadcast Mid-Major Madness for its $10.8 billion dollar investment. Emmert’s organization absolutely must find ways to head this off through progressive and perhaps scary changes in how the NCAA does business; otherwise, the college basketball Armageddon that we all fear coming up on the horizon will be just a matter of time.