NCAA Autonomy Gap Not Seen Widening on $108 Million Vote

The new era of autonomy for the richest conferences in college sports won’t produce a major gap in what schools offer athletes, at least at college football’s top level, conference officials said.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s five wealthiest leagues this weekend passed their first pieces of autonomous legislation. They included a 79-1 vote to give schools the option of offering scholarships that meet the cost of attendance, a measure that could shift $108 million to student-athletes.

Leagues and schools not in that autonomous group also have the option of joining the new legislation, and most already are planning to offer the cost-of-attendance scholarships.

“There is a public perception that this is some kind of mini Armageddon, and it is not,” American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco said in an interview.

The 65 schools in the “high-resource five” -- the Atlantic Coast, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Southeastern conferences -- spent a total of $3.5 billion on athletics in fiscal 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Education, an average of $54.1 million per school. The institutions in the rest of college football’s top level averaged $20.6 million.

The discrepancy grows even larger when expanded to include all 351 Division I schools. Those not in the high-resource five spent an average of $13.1 million last year, less than a quarter of the autonomous institutions.

Oliver Luck, who spent four and a half years as athletic director at West Virginia University before taking an executive position at the NCAA last week, said that despite the obvious resource gap, many will keep pace with the autonomous schools.

“My sense is that more will opt in than will opt out, at least initially,” Luck said. “I don’t know if there’s really going to be that much more separation than there inherently is today.”

Partial Autonomy

Those 65 schools were granted partial autonomy in August, a recognition that their resources gave them the ability to offer more to athletes.

The first changes were made this weekend in a three-hour session at the 2015 NCAA convention outside Washington, in a room closed to anyone not associated with those leagues.

There are about 36,000 student-athletes in that group. Using a conservative estimate that the average grant falls $3,000 short of actual expenses, that’s a commitment of around $108 million to students.

In addition to the cost-of-attendance boost, a group of 80 voters -- one representative from every school and 15 students - - passed enhanced concussion protocol, a proposal that lets students borrow against future earnings for insurance, and legislation that prevents athletes from losing scholarships due to on-field performance.

No Surprise

None come as a surprise to those within the NCAA, which means other schools and conferences had time to prepare for the next step. Like the AAC, the Mid-American Conference has said its schools will follow the autonomous ones in offering cost-of-attendance scholarships, as has Conference USA.

That’s good news, according to ACC Commissioner John Swofford. He added that it was those leagues’ responsibility to know what they could and couldn’t afford.

“In the past there have been references to the Power Five going their own way, and that has never been the preference of majority of the people in this room,” Swofford said in an interview after the voting.

That second group of five conferences received a financial boost this year with the new College Football Playoff. They split a baseline total of $75 million, 5 1/2 times more than the $13.2 million that four of those leagues shared last year.

Recruiting Competition

The Sun Belt Conference will let schools make their own choices, Commissioner Karl Benson said. The footprint of many of those leagues overlap, creating direct competition in recruiting that Benson said may compel Sun Belt institutions to follow suit.

“They will have to,” Benson said in an interview at the convention. “It’s who you’re recruiting against. The coach is going to go to the athletic director and say, ’This is the kid we want, so-and-so is offering him this, can we do that?’”

The Mountain West Conference will also leave those decisions up to individual schools. Boise State, whose president Bob Kustra was one of the most outspoken against autonomy, has announced it will offer cost-of-attendance scholarships for all athletes.

Schools in the 22 other Division I conferences may consider a similar approach, according to Val Ackerman, commissioner of the Big East.

Remaining Competitive

“The Big East is well resourced and fully prepared to take any actions needed, including subsidizing the full cost of attendance, to meet the needs of our student athletes and remain nationally competitive at the highest level in the sport of basketball,” Ackerman said in an e-mail.

Aresco said he was not worried that joining the autonomous group in these measures would set a precedent to match them stride for stride, or dollar for dollar, in future decisions.

“I don’t think anyone is concerned about that,” he said. “You can always scale back if you have to, and you can always decide you can’t do certain things if it reaches that point.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.