The End of Division I Athletics As We Know It Is Coming, Part 1

When we revived LetsGoDU seven years ago, we opened the blog with a number of articles about the progressive professionalization of college sports, the increasing power of the Power Five conferences, and the increasing power of student-athletes with less-restrictive transfer rules, cost-of-attendance stipends, and NIL (name, image & likeness) rights. Turns out, most everything we wrote about has come to pass and now, DU needs to face these changes head-on with a clear strategy.

The obvious next stage of collegiate athletics, after the ongoing rewrite of the NCAA constitution, is the full and complete breakaway of the Power Five (PAC-12, Big 10, SEC, ACC, and Big 12). For the remaining schools that embrace this change and drive the future course, this new world will create opportunity. For those school leaders who quake at the thought of change and are left ill-prepared, they are sure to come out on the short end of the coming and inevitable dramatic transformation.

The schism between the haves and have nots has been widening over time and now accelerating. The Big 10 just negotiated a $1 billion, with a b, dollar TV deal. That, theoretically,  will allow them to provide all of their athletes in EVERY SPORT full scholarships, room & board and large stipends. On the other end of the spectrum is Augustana University in Sioux Falls which recently announced its intention to go D1 with a current budget of just ten million dollars a year. Yet, both Augustana and the Power Five members fall under the same Division I guidelines and rules, guided by the NCAA, an organization that is gradually, and in many cases, correctly being stripped of its powers of governance and compliance.

Fight the notion all you want that mid-majors can compete with the big boys over the long-term – time and money will always prove you wrong. It is not a matter of if but a matter of when this occurs and only the strategic schools, tactical athletic directors, and bold chancellors, deans and presidents will navigate this change to their benefit – but we will wait to address this in Part 2.

Let’s begin with an excellent piece written by Ross Dellenger in a Sports Illustrated piece, The Fight Over the Future of College Sports Is Here: ‘It Needs to Implode’. NCAA leaders are in the process of restructuring Division I and according to the article, “A microcosm of the NCAA, Division I is a fractured group of 350 schools, 32 conferences and three subsections—FBS, FCS, and non-football-playing members—whose differing resources, missions and abilities have made it nearly impossible to regulate competitive equity. There is animosity and tension among them, mostly centered on how rules are made and how money is distributed and spent.”

The differences within D1 are untenable and infighting once kept behind closed doors and out of view, are now public and driving the collegiate athletics zeitgeist. “Division I is too large,” adds Big XII commissioner Bob Bowlsby. “There are more ways in which we are different than are ways that we are the same. There is an appetite [in the Power 5] for more control over our fate.”

Power Five conferences are negotiating intra-conference agreements to limit the number of ‘buy’ games against non-Power-5 schools and increase the number of conference games played, especially in basketball and football, the two key revenue drivers for every Power Five school. This is reducing guaranteed payouts to cash-strapped programs that volunteer to play buy games (sometimes referred to as ‘body bag’ games) for large cash payments. Estimates show buy games infuse nearly $200 million dollars into smaller athletic program coffers.

Dellenger goes on to cite that a succession of the power conferences from the current Division I classification is inevitable, not this year, but in the near future. This is made even more possible with the gutting of the NCAA from a regulatory role and distributor of tournament funds to, largely, a spectator role which leaves the biggest schools with a larger legislative role as well as

“I’m a pessimist about the current state of Division I and college athletics. I believe it needs to implode, truly implode,” says Amy Huchthausen, a two-time captain of Division III Wisconsin–La Crosse’s softball team before working at NCAA headquarters, the ACC, and Big East, and becoming the first woman commissioner of the America East. “We are heading down the path of a true implosion. Just blow it up.”

Oh, and in the near future, winning the Summit League may no longer give DU teams an automatic trip to an NCAA Tournament.  Automatic qualifiers (AQ) may no longer be guaranteed in the future if the Power 5 get their way. In Denver’s case, basketball, soccer, volleyball, tennis, and golf may not make a tournament – even if they win their end-of-season conference tournament. Smaller conferences, like the Summit League, rely on March Madness basketball revenue payouts if their teams advance in the NCAA tournament with unit payouts. Eliminating AQ bids for smaller conferences, as well as changing the revenue distribution model for March Madness, is certain to cause backlash from the smaller programs as the Power Five wrests power and money for their own members. Today, AQs are a way to keep Olympic sports growing, especially for mid-majors, but the Power Five could avoid this issue completely by breaking away and forming their own rules.

The ultimate professionalization of student-athletes at the highest tier, a new ‘Super D1’ division, will come at a steep cost. Stated Tom McMillan president of Lead1, an association representing the FBS athletic directors. “Given the Supreme Court’s NCAA v. Alston ruling, NIL-based recruiting inducements, and a transfer portal that has evolved into a free agency waiver wire, college athletics seems bound to diverge from NCAA membership. At its end, is an employee-employer relationship between athlete and school, where collective bargaining, revenue-sharing, and contracts exist.” This is, based on the University’s own history, a game Denver will be unwilling and unable to play.

DU’s nationally ranked hockey program is not immune to these tectonic shifts. Imagine if the Big 10 gave full scholarships and free room and board to all their players along with a $20,000 stipend. Would Denver be able to compete on a level playing field? According to Title IX, similar benefits would need to be awarded to women’s athletes as well.  Could and, probably more importantly, would Denver match those inducements?

The best hope for DU centers on the following statement from Betsy Mitchell, a former Olympic swimmer at Texas and athletic director at Division III Caltech “The main thing coming out of this seems to be the realization that the divisions are quite different and need not be tethered together to serve their unique needs,” she says.

How can the University of Denver exit the coming restructuring and come out as strong as before? Read Part 2 coming on Wednesday.

6 thoughts on “The End of Division I Athletics As We Know It Is Coming, Part 1”

  1. The only reason the Power Five haven’t already separated from the rest of NCAA Division I is the fact that all athletic departments — especially Power Five athletic departments — like being under the non-profit umbrella of the colleges and universities they represent. The tax benefits of this non-profit status are significant. Eventually — and maybe the time is very near — the Power Five conferences will determine that the negatives of being tied to the NCAA and the rest of college athletics outweigh the positives. As McMillan alludes to in the post above, if the Power Five folks break away, they will need to deal with things like players unions, worker’s comp and for-profit tax consequences. Personally, I don’t mind the breakup for big-time Power Five football but I would hate to see March Madness basketball, as we currently know it, go away.

  2. Great points, Ken. The next step is what can ‘all the rest’ do to distinguish themselves rather than becoming a small part of a glorified D2 division.

  3. This a pretty grim future picture for the Pios, in my view.

    It all depends on whether the P5 schools will be allowed to play against the other schools left behind or whether the P5 schools are only allowed to play each other….

    Even if DU is able to band together with other like-minded, left-out privates to form a new conference in the wake of a P5 breakaway, will the media care about all the schools left behind? Most of the money and attention with shift to the P5 school, and the schools left over will be left to battle for some kind of lesser national championships with less money/relevance, just like FCS football does now…

    In hockey, only the Big 10 schools (Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Wisconsin and Minnesota, along with Boston College (which is an ACC member) would make the P5 breakaway cut. Every other school is theoretically out of the top division if those P5 schools only play against each other as a ‘new Division 1’.

    In lacrosse, B10 members Penn State, Michigan, Ohio State, Maryland, and perhaps Johns Hopkins (a current B-10 affiliate that could be grandfathered in lax), and the ACC’s Duke, Notre Dame, North Carolina, Virginia, and Syracuse would make the cut in the highest Division. Everyone else is out.

    DU would certainly still play sports, but our national visibility in sports, even at the very top of the new division would likely be seen as secondary, like North Dakota State winning the FCS National Championship in football is now.

    The one more interesting opportunity here is if the NCAA is crushed and no longer relevant after the breakaway, perhaps some of the NCAA’s Olympic sports will break out and be run by individual sports national governing bodies (e.g. USA Hockey) instead of the NCAA. In that scenario, perhaps the P5 schools would be allowed to stay with the other schools left behind…

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