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The Evolving Landscape Of College Athletics With The Big 12’s Bob Bowlsby

Guest Bob Bowlsby, Big-12 Conference; Jeff Hathaway
18:52 min watch


If you prefer to listen to this conversation, see the ‘play’ below, or continue scrolling & click the timestamp below to jump to a specific question/topic in the video. As a third option, there’s also a full transcript of the conversation further down the page.



Bob Bowlsby, Commissioner of the Big 12 Conference, joins fellow college athletics leader, Jeff Hathaway, in a discussion for AthleticDirectorU on the evolving landscape of college athletics. Bowlsby provides perspective on a number of topics from making final decisions as a leader to amateurism in college athletics. The two also dive into their thoughts on attendance to live events and much more.

  • - How did your past as a Student-Athlete lay the foundation for your career in college athletics?
  • - Making the final decision as an Athletics Director
  • - What are your thoughts on the changes to the NCAA governance format over the years?
  • - The range of differences across Division I
  • - After having served on the NCAA Council, would you change anything?
  • - Thoughts on amateurism
  • - The future landscape of college athletics
  • - Do the current methods of fan consumption concern you with regard to attendance?
  • - What was the reason behind your State of College Athletics lectures?



(Full Transcript)


Jeff Hathaway: This is Jeff Hathaway for Athletics Director University, and I’m here today with longtime friend and colleague Bob Bowlsby, the commissioner of the Big 12. Bob, it’s good to see you.


Bob Bowlsby: Good to be with you, Jeff.


Well, thank you. I appreciate that. I’m wondering if we can start by going back to your days at Minnesota State. We’re turning the clock back a little bit.


I’m old, but I’ll try and remember back then.


You were a wrestler there, four-year wrestler there.


I was. Yeah.


What, you know, I think wrestling is a unique sport. It’s really one on one. It really underscores one on one and when you’re tied up in a knot and coach is yelling at you, probably not helping you. You’re trying to figure out how to get out of that. What did that mentality as a collegiate wrestler teach you or prepare for as you got into the athletic administration world, the athletic director world, conditional world?


Oh, I think I learned a number of things from it. I think you, in any form of sports, I think you learn preparation, the importance of being mentally and physically prepared. I think you also learn about resiliency, you know, bouncing back that day after a difficult defeat or a big disappointment. I think you learn that you got to get up and go get a workout and begin putting one foot in front of the other. And I think it causes you to be a little bit introspective and to begin to trust yourself, because when you’re out there by yourself it’s only you that’s going to do it. And as you know, we frequently find that ourselves in that lonely position where it’s our decision, it isn’t anybody’s else decision. You can listen to as many people as you want to, but ultimately, you’re going to have to come to closure on it yourself. And I’ve been doing it for a lot of years, and you have to, and I think I was served well by my life as a student athlete.


I think the resilient part is really interesting because as athletic directors, as both of us have been, you are the final, the buck stops here. You are making that decision on a coach or a staff member, and you do have to have that trust and faith in yourself to make those decisions and know that you’re not making everybody happy.


Yeah, and you’re also making those decisions at times that are difficult. Coaches left for another job and all of a sudden, it’s on you to make the next hire and everybody wants it done in a week and, you know, the, it’s more important than to get it right than it is to get it done fast. But you want to get both if you can. And so, I think there’s a measure of self-reliance that comes with the athletic director’s chair. And I think that after these many years, I do occasionally harken back to my days as a wrestler and I have a couple of questions. One is, did I ever really do that? And the other was, you know, that it’s, there’s a team component to it, but it’s a very individual sport. And that’s probably served me well in those lonely positions that we find ourselves in.


Well, that’s great. We’re going to talk a little bit about decision making. But first, I think we’re going to bounce around a little bit. We both remember the old days of the NCAA convention when there was 2,500 delegates and you had a paddle to vote with and the lengthy debates on the floor. And then go fast forward 2015 when the council came about the new form of governance, we were both inaugural members of the 25th Governance NCAA Council setting. How did that work? How did that work for you? What were your thoughts of that? Both from an AD perspective, a commissioner’s perspective?


Well, once again, my longevity in the business is sneaking up on me because I was the chair of the original management council, which was the latest and greatest around 2000. So 15 years later, I was uniquely qualified to go back onto the council. And, you know, I think the challenge with governance in a big organization like the NCAA is always the same.


It really is not about Divisions I, II and III. They operate almost independently, except for the financing components of it. But when you have 350 Division I programs, they’re all after the Holy Grail of the men’s basketball tournament and some other championships to a lesser extent. But what’s a great decision for the top 100 schools is a terrible decision for the bottom 100 schools. And what might be a perfectly satisfactory solution in legislative form for the mid majors like what I represented when I was in Northern Iowa and it doesn’t work at all for institutions like the ones I represent today.


And so that compromise, I think, has always been the challenge. And I think that too often we begin to design a thoroughbred racehorse, and we have a pretty good idea of what we want it to look like. And by the time it gets massaged and amended in and rejiggered a few times, it looks more like a three-legged camel, and it doesn’t really function the way we envisioned it. And so, you know, I guess that’s the nature of a big organization. But I do think we have some difficult challenges on the horizon, and it may very well be a referendum on whether 350 schools can self-govern.


There’s a big difference between the first 100 in the last 100.


Well, and they’re all important. They’re all great student athlete experiences. I’m not suggesting that you can only have a great student athlete experience if you’re at the University of Oklahoma or at Alabama or at the University of Iowa. I think there are lots of terrific student athlete experiences and I had a terrific student athlete experience when it was the old university division and college division. And so, I don’t think that it’s necessarily one size fits all. But we have a governance model that has been very inclusive, and it’s very large and very diverse. And I don’t think it makes one better than the other. I just think it makes us different, and it makes it very, very much a challenge to come up with something that fits everyone and serves everyone at the same level.


And to the respective student athlete at a university, that’s the most important university to that individual.


Without question.


Whether it’s the biggest school or the littlest school in Division I, that is their school and it’s important to them and it’s got to be important to us, the way the governance structure is, you know, set up now.


Well, I think that’s right. And to some extent, the conferences have filled a little bit of stratifying role over the years because you compete mostly against the people in your conference, and you tend to be more homogeneous within your conference than there is homogeneity within Division I from number 1 to number 351. But I think, you know, notwithstanding, if we dump them all in one bucket, it would be hard to make rules that would be mutually beneficial and mutually binding.


And we’ve seen that. I think we’ve seen that in action. Any one thing you would tweak on the NCAA Council after your service?


No, I think it works very well. You know, we had to work very hard to get to the weighted voting. And there are some that are still chafed by, you know, a long history of one institution, one vote, and now it’s a representative form of governance and some of the votes are weighted differently. But, you know, the, shortly after I came into the Big 12 we, the five now autonomy commissioners and conferences got together and began considering what the needs were of today’s 21st Century student athlete, and we were having great difficulty providing the benefits that we thought that those student athletes needed. And so, that was really the genesis of autonomy. And we’ve done some good things. I would suggest, we haven’t been as active as we needed to be. But we continue to face some issues that are going to be vexing for a while, and some of it is in the court. Some of it is in a legislative environment. Some of it is, I think, a clarion call to us to get busy and think about some of these things. And I think, seeding the name, image and likeness committee, the taskforce is a probably a good example of that. We need to be ahead of it or we probably won’t like what gets imposed upon us.


And that’s a nice transition to that topic. I think most of us in college athletics think that pay-for-play is not reality or is not what college athletics is about. But the name, image, likeness has really come to ahead now, if you will, with the forming of the committee, the NCAA Committee led by Val Ackerman and Gene Smith. What do you think their actual work is going to be, Bob? And what’s the end result? Is there an end result that you’d like to see come out of that?


Well, I’m going into it with very much an open mind. I don’t have any preconceived notions. I think Judge Wilkin has helped us a little bit again by saying whatever benefits might accrue to student athletes are going to have to be tethered to education. You know, I, it’s a little off the topic of the question, but, you know, I really take issue with the characterization of college athletes as amateurs or professionals. I really don’t think they’re either one. I really think that it’s a genre in and of itself.


There is no other place in the world where higher education and athletics is put together in a co-curricular activity like it is in this country, and I, it isn’t the pure amateurism of the Bobby Jones amateur golfer, and it certainly isn’t professional athletics. And so I think that when we seek to defend the model, we shouldn’t make any apologies for the model that we’ve built. It’s the second largest scholarship program in the history of our country. It’s second only to the G.I. Bill of Rights in terms of the number of opportunities it’s created. And so, I think the model that we have, the co-curricular model is, it’s second to none; 85% of the US Summer Olympic team comes off of college teams, and about 25% of the rest of the world’s athletes come off of our college teams.


And so, you know, I just think we shouldn’t make any apologies for that. We have a great model that’s been a terrific source of education and a terrific source of opportunity. And, you know, if it results in an opportunity to play professionally or it results in an opportunity to be on an Olympic team, I think those are highly desirable byproducts of a quality collegiate education. And, you know, I just, I’ve stayed in at all these years because I believe that we should be helping 18-year-old adolescents become 22-year-old adults, and in the process, get a good education and have a great athletic experience. And so, on that basis, I’m open-minded about giving more benefits and providing more to student athletes. But to have professional athletes on our campus, I think we will have forever lost our way if we take that leap.


Well, without question, that’s how I feel as well. And I think the fact of the matter is that education is the primary mission, and that’s why we’re all in this particular setting. Also, the opportunities that you mentioned. So many young men and women have gotten the opportunities to go to college when many might not have had that opportunity without athletics scholarships.


Well, even today, as developed as the program is, one out of five are first-generation college students.




It’s a remarkable story.


It is. It really is. How about the future landscape of college athletics, is what? Are we going to see another shift? What do you see down the road?


Well, you know, I’m 67 and late in my career. I’m not even buying green bananas. So, you know, I don’t know that I can forecast 10 years down the road, but I expect that we will continue to see change. I think we’re going to have to evolve, and over time, we haven’t done a great job of that. You know, I don’t know that we’d ever gotten the full cost of attendance had it not been for a judicial outcome that seemed to mandate it. And so, you know, I think, you know, I think the media landscape is going to continue to change delivery systems, the migration to OTT consumption and mobile device consumption. I mean, it’s almost in impossible to fathom that the iPhone didn’t exist 12 years ago. Think of the way it’s changed our world and think of the way it’s changed the way, especially young people, consume their sports. You know, we can all count our blessings that live content continues to be the coin of the realm. And as long as we have live content, there’ll be people that are willing to pay us to acquire it. But… so I don’t see the funding rug being pulled out from under us. I think it’s going to evolve.


You know, there was a day when television came in and everybody said, “Well, that’s the end of radio.” And then when cable came in, they said, “Well, that’s going to be the end of broadcast TV.” Well, you know, more people are listening to radio today than ever. More people are watching broadcast TV, 125 million people, and cable is getting marginally smaller. But at the same time, mobile consumption is growing geometrically. And so, I just think all of it’s been driven by live content. And as long as your own live content, I think there’ll be platforms available that are willing to pay it to acquire it.


I just looked at some statistics on the consumption of the Final Four and how viewers consumed that. It’s interesting. The consumption or the methods of consumption now, does that concern you as far as attendants, student attendance and fan, season ticket attendance?


It does. And I would be even more concerned about it where I still on campus. But it’s… I don’t think there’s any question that we’re competing against the very product we’ve helped to create. And the Big 12 recently did a digital platform with ESPN, and maybe the best part about this, the digital platform, other than the fact that it’s available 24/7 worldwide is that we can now control game times again.




And it’s been decades since we’ve been able to say, “Well, we like to play at 1 o’clock, so let’s just go ahead and play.” And with a digital delivery, you can do that. And… but in large measure, we’re competing for live gate against ourselves. There are no lines at the restroom. The beer is always cold and it’s free. And you don’t have to pay for parking. And you don’t have an eight-hour commitment and a trip home after the game. It’s pretty easy to sit there in front of your 70-inch TV and consume it, and, by the way, also have your mobile device, so you can watch the others.


Exactly. Exactly. You did something that was pretty… you did something that was pretty interesting, and that is you’ve done the state of college athletic issues in a couple different cities. Tell us… I thought that was a very strategic move on your part. Give us a couple, you know, we have about a minute or two to talk about that. Can you give us a little bit of insight on that?


Yeah, we felt like there wasn’t enough consideration being given to major issues in sports. The newspapers are not doing long-form articles, you know, multi-part articles. Unless you get a 30 for 30 or E:60 on ESPN, there really isn’t much feature length consideration of the issues. So we wanted to… we did one on race and sports. We did one on sexual assault. And we put people together that we knew were going to disagree. We brought in Ray Rice, and he was very gracious in agreeing to fess up to what he had been involved in. But we also put people together in the basketball environment. We had we had Jay Bilas and a couple of other provocateurs around basketball issues. And we just thought that we did seven of them all together, and they were long form. They were all carried on cable TV or by streaming, and we just felt like they were good ways to air the issues.


Well, it’s a great effort to put that out there and let people get their say on both sides of the equation. Well, that’s the end of our segment with Commissioner Bob Bowlsby from the Big 12. Bob, thank you so much. Appreciate having you here on the show today. Thank you.


I’m glad to be with you, Jeff.