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College Athletic Redesign Opportunities

By Victoria Jackson, Ph.D., Arizona State

Arnold Ventures is a philanthropic foundation dedicated to tackling some of the most pressing problems in the United States with one overarching goal: to maximize opportunity and minimize injustice. Through this biweekly series of white papers with leading thinkers, Arnold Ventures examines the challenges facing college athletics and raise critical questions about the future of college sports. We are grateful to partner with AthleticDirectorU to continue this conversation. Learn more here

Part I of Victoria Jackson’s three-part paper on the importance of football in the overall economic structure of college athletics was published April 12, 2022 in ADU.

Part II focused on splitting media rights revenue with football athletes and was published August 2, 2022 in ADU.

The Relationship Between Colleges and the NFL Will Need to be Reconfigured, as will the scope of the NFLPA

The NFL and major college football have established a collection of practices that work to “keep the peace” and strike a balance ensuring the health and wellbeing of both “leagues.” The nature of this working agreement between the NFL and colleges, however, has left college athletes vulnerable and unprotected. With the introduction of athlete compensation and labor relations in college football, the NFL and colleges’ relationship will experience a natural renegotiation. 

Scouting and draft-eligibility determination processes will need to be reworked. The NCAA serves as a direct pipeline for the NFL; in recent years, every player drafted into the league has come from the NCAA. Right now, the NFL enjoys streamlined scouting and schools effectively running player development for them. (Contrast this with the club-financed academy system of player development in European soccer football.) 

For an example of peace-brokering, NFL official messaging discourages college athletes from declaring for the draft before exhausting their college eligibility. The NFL’s development pipeline website and College Advisory Committee emphasize the importance of earning degree before declaring for the draft and leaving college; this is an odd message, considering schools’ (recently forced) adoption of a lifetime scholarship policy (as long as athlete leaves in good academic standing) and the NFL’s provision of education and degree completion funding too.  

Another precarious balancing act that will require recalibration is that between NFL athletes and college athletes, and whether they come together as one unit to negotiate with their respective employers. NFL athletes will understandably want to protect their jobs from expanded competition, but also should recognize that college athlete pay may encourage college athletes to stay in school longer. College athletes will need representation, and, ideally, as a collective body. While the NFLPA holds a potential for being compromised by prioritizing NFL athletes’ interests, however the union is also perhaps best positioned to become the bargaining unit considering this is a young, temporary workforce. 

“Supporters” and “Community Trusts”: Transforming The Myth of Declining Fan Interest into Community-Building Opportunity

Just as the term “student-athlete” should be abandoned, so too should the term “booster.” Taken together, these labels have worked to transform a university relationship with community supporters into a complicated one marked with skepticism and encouraging the keeping of an eye for potential for corruption. By abandoning amateurism, American universities can begin work redesigning this relationship in the mold of English and European club football by building relationships with a collection of “Supporters” in a “Community Trust.” Power 5 schools could hire community relations and engagement professionals from a Manchester City or Wolverhampton to consult on this effort. 

Learning the lessons of European football—and seeing how much European football clubs and communities have in common with American college football teams and college towns  – will embolden university leaders to recognize that by losing their “unpaid” identity, athletes will by no means lose their appeal to fans. Even the “student” identity of athletes may eventually no longer matter, though that does not mean that schools can abandon their commitment to providing free education for life to football athletes—it could simply mean that the free education is enjoyed by the football athlete at a later time.  

College football always will have a unique product and feel, thanks to the students who attend games as fans, the season falling at the beginning of the school year, and the memories and ideas of football in college town communities and what that has long meant to Americans. Likewise, American colleges will continue to be able to sell the idea of college to American families and prospective students with the image of a college football game. The “paid” or “unpaid” identity of athletes will have no effect on the feel of a football game on a college campus in the fall.  

Women’s Sports and Olympic Sports Coming Out from Under the Shadow of Football: Global Brands and Community Assets

There is great opportunity for women’s sports and Olympic sports by having football treated separately with football athletes in an organized labor revenue-sharing agreement. It frees up Olympic sports for a redesign too. The separate basketball study recommended as a next step will determine whether men’s and women’s basketball should be placed organizationally with football or Olympic sports, or should operate in a third category of their own.

Conferences could make the current conference commissioner “Conference Commissioner for Football” and create a new “Conference Co-Commissioner for Olympic Sports.” This new Conference Co-Commissioner for Olympic Sports could have a list of responsibilities including: Working in partnership with National Governing Bodies and Coaches’ Associations to create new subsidization models in a sport-by-sport manner.  Working in partnership with schools to develop sports infrastructure on university campuses as community assets. Packaging and selling Olympic sports for the valuable global assets they are, and expanding the conference’s and member schools’ global reach. All these directives align with universities’ local, national, and global strategies.

The domestic focus of football has held back the global market growth of Power 5 Olympic sports. Power 5 conference championships in the Olympic sports are like mini-Olympics, or a preview of Olympic Games, only with athletes from many countries participating together as school teammates rather than representing their national teams. Again, European football provides a model for global brand and market growth strategy. Conferences could hire a consultant from a club to advise on Olympic sport global strategy, or hire the new conference co-commissioner from a European football club.

There is an opportunity to redesign Olympic development and American college sports in tandem. Next steps will involve studying practical possibilities for rethinking subsidization and the potential for universities’ sports infrastructure to be publicly subsidized as Olympic development centers and community-serving assets and spaces of community use. The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, amid growing concern around college cutting Olympic sports teams, launched a College Sports Sustainability Think Tank, bringing together American Olympic sports and college sports stakeholders to brainstorm ideas for protecting Olympic sports on college campuses.  This effort could be legitimized and empowered through conferences.

“But What About Title IX”

“But what about the women” has regularly been deployed as a Title IX shield to defend the amateur status quo, and often, as women’s sports advocates have noted, by the very people often working to stymy the growth of women’s sports. Organizing Olympic sports separately could be the very thing to enable schools to actually comply with the gender equity law in substantive ways that expand participation opportunities in line with a scholastic model of sport. It could also work to bring back men’s teams cut because of the focus on football yet blamed on Title IX. 

A quick practical note: One way to remain in compliance with Title IX after the adoption of football revenue sharing at the conference level would be to have conferences separate out (and make public) media rights in a sport-by-sport manner. (Or dividing in three groups: football, men’s and women’s basketball, and Olympic sports.) As National College Players Association Executive Director Ramogi Huma has been advocating, adopting 50-50 revenue sharing in a sport-by-sport manner would keep schools in compliance with Title IX. Another option is to spin off football. 

There is irony in advocating for the separate treatment of football from other sports teams on college campuses. Early resistance to a broad application of Title IX in college sports settled on working for an exemption for football (after the attempt to get an exemption from compliance for all of intercollegiate athletics failed). While Senator John Tower’s 1974 football-exemption amendment also failed, the pressure placed by football powerbrokers did result in schools’ ability to essentially run football separately and treat it differently from other sports.  

But Congress passed Title IX and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare drafted regulations in the 1970s, before the massive business growth of college football began its upward trajectory. Football has for a long time no longer fit with a scholastic model of sport (think high school sports writ large). At the same time, the obligation of schools to provide scholastic sporting opportunities and with attention to provide equal educational opportunities on the basis of gender will remain. School sports will not disappear when football athletes get a portion of the revenues they generate.

Recent revelations exposing gender inequity as a feature, not a bug, of NCAA championships planning, funding, and marketing also suggest opportunity in removing women’s sports from the imposing shadow cast by football. Kaplan, Hecker & Fink’s gender equity review exposed the myriad ways in which the NCAA has held back the growth of women’s sports, and not just in colleges. The NCAA’s active manipulation of markets, like underselling the women’s basketball national tournament’s media rights and preventing the sport from negotiating its own corporate partnerships, has worked to create a (mis)perception that women’s sports represent an unpopular money drain, and affecting women’s professional sports in the United States too.

Relatedly, conferences have not received similar attention as NCAA and schools for their attention to gender equity. A conference restructuring including an initiative to redesign Olympic sports conference organization, championships, and the packaging and selling of media rights would benefit women’s and Olympic sports too. Heeding the lesson of the KHF gender equity review process, Power 5 university presidents should recommend that their conferences make public previously undisclosed information related to organizational charts, championships planning, and finances. 

The neglect of women’s sports demonstrates another way in which amateurism has held American college sports back while global sports business advances on. The Deloitte Sports Industry Outlook for the last two years has highlighted women’s sports as the greatest growth area in the global sports industry.  If women’s sports are able to pick and partner with the brands that want to work with them, if the NCAA and conferences adopt gender equity in championships beyond football as a guiding principle, women’s college sports will (finally) be given the opportunity to develop and thrive with their own business cultures. 

For both women’s sports and Olympic sports, releasing them from football’s shadow will free up these sports to identify, own, market, and sell their true identity and value. Untethering these sports from football-driven business strategy and partnerships will allow them to pick and partner with better fitting corporate sponsors and thrive with more independence. In addition to serving elite athletes, expanding school sports participation opportunities to more students and opening up facilities for community use are in line with the educational and community-serving mission of universities. 

What Becomes of Football Beyond the Power 5 

The Group of 5 conferences will have some decisions to make. They could choose to follow the Power 5 conferences and adopt this model of 50-50 revenue sharing with football athletes coupled with an Olympic sports redesign. They could decline. But should the Group of 5 challenge the Power 5’s adoption of revenue sharing citing competitive balance, they will face considerably difficulty. The College Football Playoff’s current distribution model sends far less money to Group of 5 conferences than the Power 5. 

Furthermore, Group of 5 university presidents will need to consider whether it is in the best interest of their universities and their students to continue to sponsor a football team. They should question the viability and ethics of continuing to get paid to play football against Power 5 schools and then using that money to subsidize athletic department operations and other teams’ playing opportunities for the year. This sport can be harmful to brains and bodies, and having less college football teams (and less bowl games) could be a good thing. 

Much like Olympic sports among the Power 5 conferences, a recalibration and the restoration of a scholastic model of sports among Group of 5 schools provides opportunity to reimagine what school sports participation means in a university setting.

What Becomes of the NCAA

Football—and football power residing with conferences—has long been the existential threat to the NCAA, not the end of “amateurism” and athlete pay for play. The NCAA will also need to face and address the changes soon coming to elite U-23 basketball that could compromise the association’s lucrative men’s national championship basketball tournament (not to mention the women’s it has neglected).

If the NCAA does not establish a leadership role in sports governance: setting standards and enforceable principles around academic integrity, race and gender equity, health and safety (including protection from sexual assault and abusive coaching), or beginning to work with Olympic sports NGBs and coaches’ associations to develop national championships in a coordinated way, it may cease to exist, or at least see in its future a similar loss of power in sports governance as the Amateur Athletic Union experienced in the 1970s. 

College sports and national championships participated in by elite world-class athletes will continue to exist without an NCAA. It will be up to NCAA leadership whether the NCAA continues to play a role in organizing championships and executing governance in American college sports.

About The Author:

Victoria Jackson, Ph.D., is a clinical assistant professor of history and sports historian at Arizona State University. She is a former NCAA champion and professional track and field athlete and has written extensively about American college sports.