Power Conferences And The NCAA’s Busy Summer


With the recent ruling in favor of Ed O’ Bannon in his case against the NCAA, the times are continuing to change in college athletics. With expansive media contracts, conference networks, lucrative bowl packages and a huge following, college athletics have mushroomed into an annual multi-billion dollar business.

In what is likely only the beginning, U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken created history by ruling that college athletes can share in the billions of dollars generated from broadcast and other media contracts. There will be an appeal filed by the archaic, monopolistic institution known as the NCAA. For the time being they did receive the ability to cap compensation at $5,000 per year above the value of a full scholarship. O’Bannon has stated that he has no agenda other than to continue to provoke change that benefits athletes, both through educational and commercial benefits.  The NCAA has lived the “rich get richer” cliché for decades and their bloated, self-absorbed behavior is finally getting called into question.

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A recent ruling by the NCAA board allowed the schools in the top five conferences to write many of their own rules. The autonomy measures, which the power conferences had all but demanded, will permit those leagues to decide on things such as cost-of-attendance stipends and insurance benefits for players, staff sizes, recruiting rules and mandatory hours spent on individual sports. The conferences include the Pac-12, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, ACC and Notre Dame. Leagues outside of the Power Five can opt to adopt the same rules, but most of the schools will not be able to afford certain measures and it is inevitable that the divide of the “haves and have-nots” will continue.

Speaking of the “haves”, the Big Ten’s addition of Maryland and Rutgers created a 14 team conference that will play a conference championship game between the East and West divisions, which replaces the misguided “Leaders” and “Legends” division names of last season. The SEC is solid with 14 teams; the additions of Texas A&M and Missouri have had a surprisingly strong impact on the power conference.  The ACC raided the former Big East to get to their 14 and they addED Louisville this season after luring Pittsburgh and Syracuse over last year. The PAC-12 is locked in with Utah and Colorado positioned in the South division but the power has resided up North with the dominance of Oregon and Stanford the last five years. Notre Dame continues its privilege of being able to remain independent, playing five games against ACC teams and has a contract with the Orange Bowl and the rest of the ACC bowl menu. With more power coming their way, the five power conferences are on their way to changing the landscape of college sports.

Jul 23, 2014; Hollywood, CA, USA; Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott talks to the media during the Pac-12 Media Day at the Studios at Paramount. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Financially, the power conferences are changing the way networks do business with the NCAA and it’s schools. The SEC struck a new deal with ESPN which extends the 15-year deal struck in 2008 out to 2034. It is anticipated that the deal is worth more than $300 million annually.

As a reminder, the Pac-12 agreed to a 12-year television contract with Fox and ESPN worth roughly $3 billion in 2012, which enabled the conference to quadruple its media rights fees when it started its own network. The contract is worth approximately $250 million per year guaranteeing each of the 12 teams in the conference roughly $21 million. Although the net annual number per school has been questioned, the Pac-12 as a conference made less than $60 million in 2011.

The Pac-12 did surpass the deals of the ACC ($240 million annually), Big-12 ($200 million) and the Big Ten ($248 million). However, Larry Scott’s decision not to partner with any other networks has created a strong backlash since they have not been able to come to terms with DirecTV and Charter Communications, which leaves out more than 20 million viewers in the Southern California area.

The Pac-12’s new media rights contract definitely leveled the playing field in terms of schools in smaller markets being able to attract some of the best coaches in the country. Washington was able to pry Chris Petersen away from Boise State with a $3.6 million annual contract. Petersen knew it was time to get out if he ever was with the clear-cut division created by the Power Five. Mike Leach is making $2.25 million per year at Washington State while Rich Rodriguez inked a $10 million deal over five years at Arizona after being run out of Ann Arbor. Todd Graham is making a $2.3 million annual salary with Arizona State in Tempe, and Jim Mora’s new contract inked in December earns him $21 million over the next six seasons. He could also receive an additional $930,000 in performance bonuses annually.  The Pac-12 contract has empowered UCLA to afford this type of contract and he is one of the highest paid employees in the state of California. USC and Stanford are both private schools but it is anticipated that Coach Sarkisian and Coach Shaw are in the $3 million range.

The NCAA did get something right when they approved a rule change allowing Division I athletes to receive unlimited meals and snacks. The new guidelines extend beyond the previous policy that limited scholarship athletes to three meals a day or a stipend for food.  The even bigger news was that they finally approved walk on athletes to eat with scholarship players. Gone are the days of walk on players cowering outside waiting for their teammates to bring them to-go bags.  This decision was rendered decades late.

The reality is that big dollars have changed the landscape of collegiate athletics, especially football. With conference realignments, many traditional rivalries are extinct. The exponential increase in cash flow has brought better coaching and more resources to smaller markets and it is putting pressure on lesser conferences to step up or step out. There is little question that the divide will continue and the rich will get richer while the lower and middle classes get left behind. The power conferences and their student athletes will gain autonomy and increased resources and it is the first major step to shifting some power away from the NCAA.

Shane Foley is a former USC Quarterback (1986-1990) and freelance writer for LA Sports Hub. Read more of Shane’s thoughts on the USC Trojans, Pac-12 Football, and Los Angeles area sports at ShaneFoley.com.