Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby can see fiscal trouble in flush world of college sports

07/21/2014 8:47 PM

07/24/2014 10:19 AM

Strong rhetoric is the expectation from commissioners who kick off football media days, but something a little different happened at the Big 12 on Monday.

Bob Bowlsby got specific.

Amid lawsuits and threats over the last few months, college sports senses change and feels the vibrations. But few offered a peak into a future operation until Bowlsby pulled back the curtain and saw potential hardship.

Not enough to set off an alarm, but at least know where the switch is located if Olympic sports are your thing.

In a new model with additional benefits to athletes based on billion-dollar television contracts, including full cost of attendance to fatten scholarship funding, Olympics sports could go on the chopping block.

“Even in an environment where we have some additional revenue coming in from television resources primarily, it’s going to be very difficult for many institutions to fund that,” Bowlsby said. “It’s not hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, it’s millions of dollars a year.

“It’s probably going to extend into the consideration of other benefits for student-athletes, which is great. But in the end, it’s somewhat of a zero-sum game. There’s only so much money out there.”

Bowlsby’s address was the most hard-hitting of the commissioners. Last week, the SEC’s Mike Slive basically dared teams outside the power five conferences to vote against a governing structure designed to allow the rich leagues to spend how they see fit.

The ACC’s John Swofford echoed that idea Sunday and added the power conferences were likely on board with his league’s desire to grant multiple-year scholarships.

Bowlsby went there, and threated to scuttle your school’s tennis program.

“I think over a period of time what we’ll find is that instead of keeping a tennis program, they’re going to do the things it takes to keep the football and men’s and women’s basketball programs strong,” Bowlsby said.

This hip-shooting isn’t coming from an empty suit. Bowlsby has some of the top bona fides in sports. Before running a power conference he oversaw the nation’s most successful across-the-board athletic program at Stanford, and has served on the U.S. Olympic Committee board.

His cause-and-effect scenarios come from a place of authority and knowledge.

To Bowlsby, additional benefits will go to all athletes, not just the revenue producers, and Title IX ensures a female competitor won’t get slighted.

“Therefore the cost is higher,” Bowlsby said. “And you begin to look and say do we want to have 25 sports and fund this broad array of benefits or would we be better off … and sponsor only 20? It’s not too much of a leap.”

No Big 12 school sponsors that many sports, but the notion holds up, and it’s one that’s been part of college sports since, ironically, the gold rush of television income.

Colleges have been dropping sports for decades to balance budgets and accommodate Title IX requirements while facilities improve and coaches’ and administrators’ salaries skyrocket.

“I don’t think that coaches and athletic directors are going to take pay cuts,” Bowlsby said. “I think that train has left the station.”

Bowlsby then connected the prospect of dropping Olympic sports to “significant damage to our international efforts,” because 85 percent of summer Olympians come through college programs.

It was all eye-opening stuff. For months, much of the college sports focus has been scoreboard watching. Who will win the O’Bannon lawsuit, the Northwestern football players’ union quest, the power conference pursuit of governing autonomy? Not enough discourse has been dedicated to college sports life on the other side.

Tennis coaches may not like to hear what Bowlsby has to say, but he and others in his position need to say more.

To reach Blair Kerkhoff, call 816-234-4730 or send email to bkerkhoff@kcstar.com. Follow him at twitter.com/BlairKerkhoff.

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