The evolution of college sports alignment continued with Friday’s expected straw-poll vote at the NCAA Convention in favor of the five major conferences operating as a voting bloc. Essentially, the big-budget schools want more autonomy when it comes to spending decisions from income they mostly generate through large media contracts.
Makes sense, and even NCAA president Mark Emmert agreed this should happen.
So, what would change?
The 65 schools in the five conferences — Big 12, Southeastern, Big Ten, Atlantic Coast and Pac-12 — would create some kind of payment for athletes, a stipend. When this chapter of college sports’ history is written, providing more for athletes will be seen as a prominent agent of change.
It’s coming in other ways as well, including luxury residence halls that cater to student-athletes, like the one KU is planning to build.
What won’t change is access to the big postseason events. The five conferences aren’t forming a separate entity. They’ll be part of the NCAA Tournament. March Madness will keep its identity.
The new College Football Playoff will provide an avenue for Division I teams outside of the five major conferences, just as the Bowl Championship Series had.
But with more financial freedom, it’s natural to wonder if the gap between the haves and have-nots will grow to a point that would disrupt the balance of those events.
If Wichita State decides not to offer athlete payment at the same level as Kansas, could the type of season the Shockers are enjoying, 17-0 and No. 5 in the country, happen years from now?
Same question for Central Florida, which isn’t part of one of the top five conferences. In five years, would the Golden Knights be able to beat a program like Baylor in a bowl game?
Think of this way. The last great classification divide occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Division I college football broke off into Division I-A and I-AA. The larger class required a 30,000-seat football stadium and more football scholarships (currently 85 vs. 63 for I-AA).
The divisions split to such an extent that victories by I-AA programs, now known as the Football Championship Subdivision, over I-A (Football Bowl Subdivision) became stop-the-presses stuff. Remember Appalachian State over Michigan?
You wonder if a victory by a Mid-American Conference or Conference USA school over a Big Ten or Big 12 team — not uncommon now — will become a monumental occasion.
Finally, remember the angst of schools in this region three years ago during the realignment uncertainty?
With Texas, Oklahoma and others contemplating moves away from the Big 12, Missouri, Kansas and Kansas State spent many fretful hours wondering if they would be members of a high-paying league.
They found safe haven and a secure future at the top level of college sports.