The English Football League system which offers a hierarchy of leagues may offer an insight into the future of DI sports. As we discussed yesterday in Under Armour Deal Signals either The Beginning of the End, the gap between the Power Five conferences and the rest of DI is getting bigger. If this trend continues, at some point non-Power Five schools will be unable to compete.
The English football league system, also known as the football pyramid, is a series of interconnected leagues for men’s association football clubs in England. While each team theoretically can win the overall championship, they mostly compete to win their division. A key element of this system is relegation and promotion between leagues based on season performance. This element of relegation and promotion would not apply in our proposal.
However, the answer is a two-tier DI system.
Today, the NCAA supports DI, DII, DIII programs with declining levels of institutional involvement and support. Generally, DI schools must sponsor at least seven men’s and seven women’s programs, offer certain financial support and follow pre-determined scheduling criteria.
DII institutions must maintain at least five men’s and five women’s programs while student-athletes pay for school through a combination of scholarship money, grants, student loans and employment earnings. There is maximum financial support institutions can provide and there are scheduling requirements that must be met.
Division III, like Division II, must maintain a minimum of five men’s and five women’s programs. Division III features student-athletes who receive no financial aid related to their athletic ability and athletic departments are staffed and funded like any other department in the university.
Why not divide the current Division I into two divisions? For the sake of argument, let’s call one the ‘Elite Division’ and the other the ‘Top Flight Division’ (No different than England’s Premier League and the Football League Championship). The Elite division would be comprised of Power Five members and would compete for an NCAA title within their division. The same would hold true for the Top Flight division as they compete for NCAA championships by winning the Top Flight Championship. For most sports, other than American Football, a national season-ending champions game could be played between the top two teams from each of the two DI divisions.
Allow the Elite Division to create their own rules in regard to scholarships, pay, etc…The Elite Division would only play Elite members during the preseason, regular season and division playoffs. The only time they would face a Top Flight programs would be in a national championship final.
This would allow the Top Flight Division to negotiate their own separate sponsorships, network deals, and financial arrangements – creating a much more cohesive business. They could even establish their own national cable/network agreement. The NCAA and member institutions could set ranges for scholarships and CoA for the Top Flight members to control costs for members.
Fans would have two huge events to follow – the two divisional DI NCAA championships for each sport, excluding football, and the national playoff championships for each sport. The national championships could be a very balanced affair such as lacrosse or a David versus Goliath when the Top Flight Division may be a distinct underdog against the heavily bankrolled Elite Division. In both cases, there would be a great deal of fan interest and excitement.
The answer is simple – If the Power Five want to play by their own rules and avoid sharing revenue, then DI should be broken into two divisions with championships awarded within each of the two DI division winners. The Power Five can pay huge CoA’s, throw unlimited money at facilities and coaches while hoarding all of their revenue. In turn, this will offer the Top Flight schools a much better opportunity to build their brand, even the playing field, reward excellence, and negotiate deals for their division and establish spending levels and university requirements more appropriate to member revenue.