In the last couple of weeks, we have seen the discussion around NIL take on a confrontational tone. Really, it’s no surprise other than perhaps Nick Saban being the flashpoint.
The typically calculated Saban seems to have started a firestorm without his usual intentional foresight. The resulting conversations exposed the dire straits that major college football is in with the essentially unregulated combination of NIL and the transfer portal.
At the core of the situation is the complete impotency of the NCAA. The once vaunted NCAA has been reduced to a shell of its former self. In recent years, the NCAA stood by through an FBI probe into the improper financial dealings of D1 basketball teams and shoe companies with barely any enforcement action.
University specific NIL collectives to pool booster resources to compensate players is the latest innovation in the evolution of NIL’s effect upon college athletics. The unintended consequence of NIL is allowing universities to create a grey market for recruits. Collectives sign prospective players to lucrative deals as a quid pro quo for signing a letter of intent with the school.
Since this is the first season for these collectives, no one really knows how this is going to work out. What happens when a recruit doesn’t perform or transfers is yet to be seen. What is known right now is that the money being waved around is changing the landscape of college football at a lightning pace, and there is no sheriff in town.
What is to be done?
I think there are 2 potential actions that can rescue college football from this quagmire, and create a stable long-term future.
Form a new league
The first step is to acknowledge the existing NCAA structure is on life support. In order to move forward, college football must reorganize. One way to do It is to bring the Power 5 conferences with lucrative long term TV deals together to form a new CFB division. This means that the Big 10 and the SEC are the most expensive properties to include. In reality, they are the hottest properties for ESPN and FOX because of their income potential.
The league TV picture is complex but workable
The Big 12 and Pac 12 are up for renegotiation soon. Their value will increase from the $20-21M that each school brings in annually, but not into the stratosphere of the SEC or even the Big 10. Being that the Big 12 & Pac 12 are already partnered with ESPN and Fox, the synergy seems plain.
The ACC is the only league with a long term deal in place that is questionable. the ACC whose deal with ESPN provides around $17M per school in revenue, but again its an ESPN-only deal. The bargain for ESPN for ACC content makes them an attractive target.
Notre Dame is the most significant challenge
The real outlier is Notre Dame. Notre Dame’s $15M annual TV payout is attractive enough for NBC to not be interested in a new league or a new deal. The interesting part is the end date for NBC and Notre Dame is 2025. That would seem to provide a window of opportunity for some combination of ESPN and/or Fox to step in and become a player for Notre Dame’s rights.
ESPN and Fox are the key players
With ESPN and Fox controlling the purse strings for most of major college football, it would seem that an alliance that can garner the networks more revenue from those properties would be a winning plan. If (and this is a big “if”) the league commissioners and school presidents can put their egos on the shelf, forming a new league among these 5 conferences is entirely possible.
A brand new league
The plan that makes the most sense would be to isolate these 5 conferences (plus Notre Dame if a deal can be reached in 2025) beginning in 2025 into an entirely new league. The rules of this league could be renegotiated to account for NIL, to place limits on “free agency,” and to enact other policies in keeping with the common economics of the schools. No concern would have to given for Big 5 or FCS schools and their lower budgets. They would be a non-factor as the new league would play all their games within the Power 5 pool.
Involve the Networks in the future
The other major wrinkle of this plan would be an alliance between Fox and ESPN to become a league partner. The television networks present a lucrative partner with a valuable asset, the bowl games. In this plan, the bowl games become a huge revenue opportunity by converting into a playoff system for the new league.
For instance, the Texas Bowl could become the league championship game for the Big 12 or the Pinstripe Bowl could serve as the division championship tilt for the Big 10. The regional footprint of the bowls is the perfect set of games. Each already has local support and is essentially a made for TV event at this point anyway.
Networks are already running a league
Moreover, networks have proven they can run a league in partnership. Fox and ESPN are doing an exemplary job with the USFL. Where other spring leagues have failed, the TV driven USFL appears to be succeeding. Sure, the USFL has a sensible business plan with limited rosters, no travel, and lax officiating, but it has succeeded to the level expected or more.
Networks give the schools what they really want
To do this, the ADs and school presidents would have to give more sway to the networks, but it’s possible. In fact, the network has what the schools like even more than power, money. By paying hefty bonuses from the post-season, the networks could incentivize schools and conference leaders to join in and to stay in line.
This plan avoids anti-trust issues
The beauty of this plan is an opportunity to reset from the archaic NCAA with its outdated system and Frankenstein-ed set of rules. This reset with new rules and new policies gives the governing body a way to craft a plan that avoids perhaps the scariest specter facing college football: an anti-trust suit.
In fact, the only thing that would insulate more would be a soccer-style relegation system for the bottom few schools. This way NCAA schools would have a legitimate opportunity to make it to the big leagues and to compete at the highest level. Relegation will never happen, but it is worth noting.
So there it is. What do you think? Leave a comment here or hit me up on Twitter at @TideWorldOrder. I’d love to hear your thoughts!