SBJ/December 17-23, 2012/Opinion

Signing off on 2012 with blunt talk and top stories

We closed the book on our 2012 conferences with the Intercollegiate Athletics Forum in New York City, and I found the panelists to be among the most provocative and frank that we’ve had all year. These executives didn’t pull any punches when it came to the state of college sports. Here are a few examples:

> WHITHER THE NCAA?: Easily one of the biggest questions of the two-day conference was the future of the NCAA. SEC Commissioner Mike Slive said, “The issues that need to be thought about are, ‘What should the NCAA be doing?’ and ‘What should the NCAA not be doing?’” He added, “It certainly needs the value of championships, the value of umbrella legislation, the value of infractions and compliance. Whatever organization exists is going to have to do those kinds of things. I think that the issue, at least from my seat, is whether or not in certain areas we can be accurately accommodated for those issues that we believe are good for us, and often times good for student athletes. … At some point it’s going to be very important that Dr. [Mark] Emmert be able to continue to find a way to accommodate us in those areas. Whether changing an organization is the answer ... I think the answer more is accommodation.”

Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany didn’t offer a rousing endorsement of the NCAA’s future when he said, “I think the NCAA can survive; it’s always been a little bit of a lightning rod for schools and conferences who really have a hard time governing themselves.”

Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick also hit on it when talking about the biggest changes in college athletics in the next few years: “The big one is, as the difference in business models, on a university-by-university basis, increases, whether membership in a single association continues to make sense. Time will tell.”

> ALWAYS BEEN A MATTER OF TRUST: NCAA President Mark Emmert expressed concerns of trust eroding among peers due to conference realignment: “The unintended collateral damage is an erosion of the trust that used to exist between presidents of institutions and fellow ADs. When you run a conference, you have to have some level of trust. If you make a commitment to [stay], and you suspect that the person you just made a commitment to is now in the hallway trying to get out of a conference, that’s a tough relationship. This has cost people’s friendships and congenialities and I’m really concerned about that.”

N.C. State AD Debbie Yow seemed to concur when she said, “The presidents of the ACC trust each other and had an agreement that they would be contacted [by any school considering leaving the conference]. That’s the trust factor, and that didn’t occur. I know [ACC Commissioner] John Swofford was trying diligently to get in touch with people and they didn’t respond for two days. Not cool.”

More Yow, on Maryland leaving the ACC: “They’re going to be missed, there’s no question about that. But they’re going to be on a plane going to Madison, Wis., to play men’s basketball in the middle of winter. Good luck. I hope the money is really good.”

> COULD CONGRESS ACT ON COACHES SALARIES?: Nebraska Chancellor Harvey Perlman said the rising salaries of college coaches is the biggest issue he sees in college sports: “We know the antitrust laws prohibit us from agreeing to cap coaches’ salaries, so there’s really two options. One is to figure out a creative way to do it within the antitrust laws. Or, second is to get the antitrust laws changed. I know there’s great reluctance, but there’s been conversations within the NCAA about going before Congress and doing something about this.”

Emmert countered, “It’s been discussed for years, but the notion right now of going before Congress and trying to figure out a highly complex, highly political bill, or an antitrust model for intercollegiate athletics, would probably have more unintended consequences.”

> SOFTNESS IN STUDENT SALES?: A theme quietly discussed in private during the two-day conference was concern with in-venue attendance, the in-game experience and even the length of time of sports events. Swarbrick was one of the few who publicly said that today’s college students find games too long and that he’d like to increase the pace of action. Others I spoke to expressed real concern in the softness of ticket sales among today’s students and a real need to improve the stadium experience, something discussed in depth at the pro level. A story in the Birmingham News seemed to validate such concerns, as regular-season attendance at Football Bowl Subdivision schools dropped to 45,274 fans per game in 2012, the lowest average since 2003. It marked the second straight decline, and while the data shows that college football drew more than 35 million fans, the average regular-season attendance has dropped 3 percent since peaking at 46,739 in 2008.

> SOMETHING CHANGES ON NEW YEAR’S EVE: One of the more progressive steps taken this year was the 12-year deal to establish a four-team college football playoff. There is still a lot to figure out — revenue split, game sites and, oh yes, a name, anyone? But the accomplishment of bringing together disparate views and agendas to get a system enacted will remain one of the biggest legacies of 2012. It’s already resulted in ESPN paying more than $5 billion over 12 years to carry this new playoff exclusively. What I’m interested to see is how it changes the sports culture in the U.S. BCS Executive Director Bill Hancock told me, “We will change the nature of New Year’s Eve in this country with our playoffs.”

> LOOSE ENDS OF 2012: Stories from this year that have legs — in addition to the ever-increasing rights fees marketplace: One can argue the sale of the Los Angeles Dodgers was just a team transaction, but I believe the deal represents so much more. It reset the entire marketplace, not only on team and real estate valuations, but on media rights and even the pool of potential ownership groups. And the team’s aggressive free agency foray sends a clear message that it will spend what it takes to be competitive. This deal changed the financial landscape of sports. … It may seem far in the rearview mirror, but the success of the London Olympics can’t be overlooked. I was struck by the strength of the Olympic movement this summer and how it captured mindshare. In addition, NBC’s success in both the traditional TV broadcast and digital and mobile production will be a blueprint for other big-event media strategies. As I wrote after the Games, I have doubts about Sochi, and Rio is a big unknown. But the success of London should fuel growth for the Olympics overall. … We all have lockout fatigue. But coverage of the NHL lockout ranks among the top stories in each issue of SportsBusiness Daily. People in the industry are fascinated by the personalities and leadership of both NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director Don Fehr. Once a deal is reached, the future of these two executives will be one of the main stories to watch in 2013. … An NHL Stanley Cup and two MLS Cups in 13 months makes for a pretty good year for AEG’s Tim Leiweke, which segues to the two biggest stories I’ll be watching early in 2013: Who buys AEG and what that means for the sale of IMG. Here’s something not to overlook: That Phil Anschutz doesn’t get the price he’s looking for and decides not to sell.

This is our final issue of SportsBusiness Journal for the year. SportsBusiness Daily and SportsBusiness Daily Global will continue to publish an abbreviated schedule in the next two weeks, and SBJ will return on Monday, Jan. 7. Thanks to all of you who continue to support SBJ, SBD, SBD Global, our Resource Guide & Fact Book and our conferences and events. During the last year, we’ve sought to improve our news service by bringing you on-the-ground coverage from the London Games, introducing a Sunday edition for SportsBusiness Daily and launching our SportsBusiness Daily Global edition. We hope that you find all our products valuable and essential to your day-to-day business needs.
All of us wish you a Merry Christmas and a safe, happy and healthy holiday season.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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