SBJ/June 9-15, 2014/In Depth

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The NCAA is moving toward a new governance model that will give the five power conferences more autonomy over the rules that affect them. And with that comes an escalated sense of angst for athletic directors on the front lines, especially those at the lower levels of Division I who fear that their schools will be adversely affected in the new model.

That was largely the sentiment expressed in an exclusive survey of Division I athletic directors, administered by Turnkey Intelligence and jointly endorsed by NACDA and SportsBusiness Journal. NACDA — the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics — is the trade group that represents ADs at all levels.

Athletic directors acknowledge that like it or not, change will continue to be the order of the day in the NCAA.
Photo by: Getty Image
In the survey, conducted May 8 through May 21, more than half of the ADs predicted that the NCAA will move to this autonomy model, which will enable the five power conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC) to put more resources toward their athletes. But there remains an undercurrent of uncertainty among ADs that don’t have the resources to provide those same benefits, leaving them skeptical of how changes might affect them.

SBJ Podcast:
College writer Michael Smith and editor Tom Stinson give their thoughts on SBJ's Division I athletic director survey, as well as on Duke's Kevin White winning Athletic Director of the Year.

In fact, 21 percent of ADs surveyed still believe that the power conferences will break away from the NCAA and create their own entity. SEC Commissioner Mike Slive suggested last week that the five power leagues could form their own NCAA division, commonly known as Division IV, if they don’t get the autonomy they require from the NCAA.

“I hope the power conferences do leave the NCAA so that we can return to the values of educational sport,” one AD wrote in the comment section of the survey. “Their missions have become so far removed from the original purpose of intercollegiate athletics and they have such a negative influence that it impacts the rest of us.”

Another AD, however, disagreed, saying, “My fingers are crossed that we all stay in the NCAA. I support the big five doing what they need to do. I hope we all continue to play each other in the regular season and in NCAA tournaments.”

Such mixed viewpoints were evident throughout the survey, which was made available to all 351 Division I ADs
and generated more than 90 responses. Most questions offered ADs the opportunity to write anonymous responses, in addition to selecting from the answers that were provided (Click here for results of the survey).

The high anxiety surrounding the NCAA’s autonomy model was just one of the survey’s revelations. And that didn’t surprise Missouri AD Mike Alden, NACDA’s president.

“None of us know the definition of autonomy yet and that causes a lot of anxiety,” Alden said when commenting on the survey. “If autonomy means more support for the athletes, that wouldn’t come as a surprise. But if it impacts scholarship numbers and access to NCAA championships for the rest of Division I, well, that’s going to cause concern. We’ll start seeing some definitions this summer, but until then, there are going to be a lot of questions.”

Autonomy is generally considered a way for the five leagues with more resources to do more for their athletes, like pay them a full-cost-of-attendance stipend, which could range from $2,000 to $4,000 a year. Other conferences outside of the five could opt in if they decide to.

“We’re not going to try to keep up with the Joneses. We won’t do a stipend,” said Peg Bradley-Doppes, NACDA’s Division I-AAA president and the AD at the University of Denver, a Summit League member that doesn’t play football. “We don’t pay a stipend to our doctoral students, so how could we justify it for athletes? It would create a caste system within the student body.”

Brian Hutchinson, the AD at Morehead State and NACDA’s president of the Division I FCS division, sees merit in all of Division I staying under the NCAA tent.

“We share championships and competition with schools in the five conferences, but I don’t see why we can’t grant them the autonomy to use the resources they have,” Hutchinson said. “I think it’s just the fear of the unknown. This model is going to be new for all of us.”

Among the other findings in the survey:

AD bonuses should not be tied to an athlete’s individual performance, respondents said. Ohio State AD Gene Smith was criticized recently for receiving an $18,000 bonus when a Buckeye wrestler won an NCAA championship.

Just under half of the ADs said it was OK for their peers to receive bonuses for team performance, while 30 percent advocated for bonuses tied to academic achievement. Many could live with both.

No one, however, thought it was appropriate for an AD to receive a bonus for individual performance, like the Ohio State wrestler.

“Bonuses should not be paid for performing basic duties of the position,” one AD wrote. “The salary assumes the AD will create an environment for individual, team and academic success.”

Another AD, clearly affected by the recent media focus, wrote: “I will be removing all bonuses from my contract outside of academic and Directors’ Cup performance.”

While there seems to be a lull in conference realignment, ADs still anticipate the next round of movement. Fifty-five percent said conferences will not look the same in five years.

“Those five [power] conferences will reshape the entire appearance” of Division I, an AD wrote.

The O’Bannon case, the unionization movement at Northwestern and other ongoing litigation have the ADs’
attention. More than 44 percent said those court cases pose the greatest risk to the intercollegiate athletics model as we know it.

The other 56 percent provided a variety of answers. Twenty percent fear a potential burst of the huge TV bubble that’s driving up revenue.

Among the written comments, one AD cited “a lack of leadership at the top of the industry” as the chief threat, which wasn’t the only shot fired at NCAA President Mark Emmert. Another lamented the drift “from a collegiate model to a competitive model.”

A handful of ADs also pointed to the rising cost of scholarships and the general cost of doing business that threatens the role of athletics.

If the five power conferences split from the NCAA, one AD wrote, “it would cause a previously unforeseen arms race in operating budgets. The model is not sustainable.” Several others echoed that view, including one who claimed that a lack of trust and an abundance of greed were the NCAA’s greatest threats.

The new governance model will likely include a cost-of-attendance stipend for each scholarship athlete. Most ADs — 76 percent — agree that, 10 years from now, athletes will be paid a scholarship plus a stipend.

Another 14 percent think college athletes will be able to negotiate their own endorsements and autograph signings, like Olympic athletes. Very few, just 7 percent, said athletes will be paid a salary as a university employee, despite the potential formation of a union at Northwestern.

“They will clearly be professional athletes, competing completely outside of the current NCAA structure,” predicted one AD. “In many ways, this will develop into a farm system for the pros,” although it could be argued that college athletics already are a farm system, particularly in football and basketball.

Outside of the governance debate, ADs clearly showed an interest in improving the fan experience at their games. A solid three-quarters characterized the fan experience as being at or near the top of the to-do list.

“The best way to improve the fan experience is through improved facilities,” an AD wrote. “Therefore, raising money for facilities is at the top of the to-do list.”

In addition to revealing the ADs’ sentiment on issues of the day, the survey provided some insight into the day-to-day lives of chief administrators.

Most ADs work 60-69 hours a week, but 37 percent work 70 hours or more.

When they’re not in the office, ADs mostly attend sporting events at their own school. Seventy-one percent go to four to six events a week.

Fundraising and budgetary issues take up most of their time during the week, followed by issues related to their coaches.

And interestingly enough, when asked what they could do better to control expenses, 64 percent of them cited coaches’ salaries.

Reflected throughout the responses, however, was the sense that administrators must adapt to a changing landscape in college athletics. Whether that means a new governance structure, compensation for athletes, or forging new relationships with agents, ADs are being challenged in new ways.

“We understand that there are a lot of questions out there about our future,” Missouri’s Alden said. “There is an evolution taking place and with that comes some angst.”

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