Are The Power Five Conferences And NCAA Headed For A Split

As the pandemic continues to wreak havoc across the nation, it seems that college football fans are having to sit on the edge of their seats as new information regarding the 2020 season is coming at an astronomically fast rate.

This past week alone Clemson fans got news that the instate rivalry game would not be played due to the SEC playing only conference games. Then the good news about the release of the fall camp plans by Clemson, and the announcement that the band would not be allowed on the field to greet the players when they run down the hill.

Now, according to multiple sources, it is looking like the NCAA Board of Governors, who is expected to meet on Tuesday, plan to make a decision that would involve cancelIng or postponing fall sports championships other than football. There is also the possibility that the board also could delay action until later in August. The NCAA’s non-football fall sports are men’s and women’s cross country, men’s and women’s soccer, women’s volleyball, field hockey and men’s water polo. 

In response to this, leaders of the Power-5 conferences have started looking at the possibility of having championships of their own for the sports that would be affected by this decision. There have been talks of what would be a long-theorized breakaway from the NCAA by the 65 schools that play college sports at the highest level. If this is true, then this could be seen as the first step towards that.

The Board of Governors is made up mostly of university presidents and chancellors from all levels of the NCAA. The reason this decision would not affect Power-5 football is because that sport has a championship outside the NCAA structure.

In recent days, Power-5 conference officials have started getting feedback from their members about the possibility of having their own championships during the fall. When asked if such a move away from the NCAA championship structure could be seen as a precedent-setting rift between the NCAA and the Power-5 conferences.

“If I were (NCAA president Mark) Emmert, I’d be really worried about it,” an anonymous athletic director said. “He’s got to keep the Power-5 together.”

Multiple sources have stated that part of the motivation for the Power-5 considering having their own fall Olympic sports seasons is to justify playing football. Let’s face it, that is the revenue driving sport for all athletic departments at that level.

If all other sports are canceled but football stands on its own, it would likely open up the schools to major criticism. So playing all fall sports would at least allow those schools to say that they are not uniquely subjecting football players to any risk. 

The major key here will be the Board of Governors decision and their reasoning. If they decide to cancel fall sports championships for health and safety reasons then it will be really difficult for the Power-5 to justify going its own way without a plan that they can definitively protect their athletes. Though, if the board says that the cost of safely conducting championships is prohibitive, then the Power-5 may have an avenue to play all its fall sports including football.

Another key factor will be the cost of trying to create what would be a bubble of sorts at NCAA championship events like the volleyball tournament. With regionals and a Final Four for example, it would be significant. With rapid testing for all participants, secure lodging and transportation, and even sterilizing the event and practice venues would become really costly.

Multiply that across eight sports and three different levels of NCAA participation, and this would easily be the most costly series of fall championships the association has funded. Then add in the fact that it comes after the NCAA just took a huge financial hit when all of the 2020 basketball tournaments and spring sports had to be canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

This is where the Power-5 conferences could step in and collectively cover the bill for their own fall championships. This would be one third or less of the total cost to the NCAA. A source within the Olympic sports community also stated that it would be “very easy” for the Power-5 conferences to contract out to established event management companies to hold their own championships.

The Board of Governors could make separate rulings for Divisions II and III, where a number of leagues already have postponed or canceled fall sports. Several Division I schools from FCS conferences, like the Ivy League and Patriot League, have postponed fall sports also. Sources have also stated that they are expecting a cancellation, or at the very least, a postponement at the DII and DIII levels, but are still not sure what will happen at the DI level.

Another thing that could add gas to a fire that already seems to be heating up on its own would be if the NCAA board again delays action. That could really affect a membership that has an increasing urgency of certainty about the upcoming seasons.

For many years the Power-5 conferences have continued to gain power and revenue at a rate that has vastly separated them from the rest of college athletics. That separation has led those leagues to gain their own autonomy at the NCAA legislative level and helped to craft rules that fit their own needs.

Football again has been the driving force. Media rights deals for the Power-5 conferences have shot through the roof. Especially over the last decade. Meanwhile, the FBS Group of 5 conferences (the American, Conference USA, Mid American, Mountain West and Sun Belt) have had a hard time keeping up as the revenue gap has grown.

This brings us to another thing. The schools in those conferences and independent institutions may decide that they want to join the proposed Power 5 fall championships. If this were to happen and the NCAA sees more than one third of its 350-plus Division I members basically ignore a postponement or cancellation, the undermining of the association’s power would be huge.

This would be another huge hit to the NCAA, whose lack of influence at the Power-5 level has never been more glaring than this year. Especially since the cancellation of winter and spring championships last March. Following that, the NCAA has largely been on the sidelines doing nothing more than witnessing each individual conference deal with, and handle issues due to the pandemic.

They did issue a set of return to sports guidelines in the spring and recently updated them, but behind the scenes college administrators have grown increasingly critical of Mark Emmert and the entire NCAA for what appears to be a lack of leadership.

Is this the final straw between the Power-5 and the NCAA? There are so many questions at this point surrounding the meeting that will take place on Tuesday and it appears to be a situation that has the ability to light up college athletics like a Fourth of July fireworks display.

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