There are few immediate impacts on the University of Denver from the move of Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12 yesterday. Mainly, this is all about football, TV money and Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) to drive more coverage, notoriety and, of course, money. The deadline is 2025 when the deed-of-rights expires for the Big 12 and Big 10 and when teams can exit without penalty while providing 18 months’ notice.
However, there is a larger picture to consider once the football TV deals are done and the Power Five universities gobble up the available football cash and reduce the NCAA’s power to govern. They will begin looking at basketball.
Right now, the March Madness basketball tournament generates over a billion dollars and the proceeds go to the NCAA for administration, fund NCAA championships for all sports and are re-distributed to all NCAA institutions. College football revenue is quite different with the participating schools controlling football revenue from Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). Over time, with the declining power of the NCAA, the Power Five (or four) conferences are likely to do the same thing they have done to football with basketball and take control with, potentially, their own version of March Madness. That would allow them to keep the hoops revenue in-house and distribute among their own institutions, just like they do in football today.
So where does that leave non-Power 5 schools and, specifically, DU?
As a mid-major, Denver will have to align with the strongest possible conference that allows them to manage costs, maximize revenue and align with schools that have the same values and focus. That could be the Summit League or it may be somewhere else.
DU’s National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) membership is a good example. While the member schools are disparate in many ways, they have a strong focus on athletic excellence, strong leadership at the commissioner level, and an ability to compete at an elite level.
Assuming the Power Five conferences consolidate, it is a matter of time until the powerful conferences demand a bigger piece of the basketball pie ($) or take the entire thing. Mid-Majors can still challenge for titles in non-football sports but basketball is likely to become even more difficult unless you are a unicorn named Gonzaga. Once those two sports are all but ‘locked up’ by the Power Five, it will be critical to be positioned in a conference(s) that can compete with the Power Five conferences. This is likely to result in the stratification of ‘Mid-Majors’. Next-level conferences with strong leadership, like-minded schools and a commitment to support their student-athletes and fans are likely to separate themselves even more from the ‘rest of the pack’. These conferences can carve out a unique value proposition and survive and thrive while others will muddle along or even fail.
DU resides in the vibrant Front Range and brings in a major western market, something significant for conferences seeking visibility and a major market presence for NIL. The future looks potentially good if DU can take advantage of the turmoil and play to their market and academic strengths.
It is going to be a rough next five years as conference consolidations and reworked TV contracts change the collegiate athletic landscape and widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots – and not just at the Power Five D1 level. Denver needs to think strategically so they are well-positioned to take advantage of the changing landscape and align themselves appropriately.
Photo: New York Times