It is good to hear that NCAA President Mark Emmert will form a council of 10 athletic directors who will meet regularly with him and his senior staff starting next month. This is a much-needed move coming from the NCAA offices, as I’ve heard repeated frustration from ADs who feel left out of the communication and decision-making process affecting their roles and responsibilities.
Starting with Emmert’s much-publicized presidential retreat in August 2011, there has been a shift away from the participation and input of ADs, a move that seems misguided. But over the last few months, there have been signs that the frustration of ADs is at least being heard. There was a private breakfast during the Final Four in Atlanta where Emmert spoke of a need to re-engage practitioners who had been marginalized. Privately, many in the room were skeptical, but a group was proactive in following up with the NCAA president about what type of suggestions and feedback he was open to, and that was followed by Emmert announcing plans for the new council at the NACDA Convention in Orlando earlier this month. This is a positive first step that should facilitate immediate interaction, and it comes after two panels at NACDA endorsed greater AD involvement within the NCAA inner sanctum.
“When there are issues in college athletics, and you bring 50 presidents together to talk about the issues in college athletics — and don’t have enough involvement with the athletic directors in those conversations — I think you miss some things that are critical to the conversation,” said Georgetown AD Lee Reed. “We need to come together as a group and discuss these issues, because right now, it’s happening in silos, it’s happening in leagues, and there is no cross-pollination and there is no conversation. It’s really a lack of leadership of our group in terms of where we are headed. … We have to be more involved in the process.”
Duke AD Kevin White concurred. “If there was an AD on the executive team in Indianapolis,” he said, “that would be really helpful. That person could then interpret the campus to Indianapolis and, conversely, interpret Indianapolis back to everybody in this room.” He then spoke of the frustrations among many ADs with the current system. “Our profession is in earnest and is working really hard to take it to the next level,” White said. “But at this point, I don’t think we have a blueprint in place. We are a little bit lost, and that is where the consternation, if not the frustration, comes from. If we had someone in on that executive team, on that senior team, that understood the landscape [of athletics on campus] on a day-to-day basis, it would be incredibly helpful. And we haven’t had that, quite frankly, really since Cedric Dempsey [ran the NCAA from 1994-2003].” He noted the benefits of having an AD in the room at Indianapolis. “Interpreting what we all do, every day, the reality of running an athletics department,” he said. “What does it look like? If you haven’t been on a campus, I don’t think you really know.”
During an earlier panel, Yahoo Sports college reporter Dan Wetzel said the initial move for more presidential control of athletics “was done with good intentions,” but it hasn’t worked. “You see it in the backlash now,” he said, “from presidents saying, ‘We’re not equipped to handle this; we’re losing our jobs over things we are not capable of dealing with.’” USA Today college reporter Dan Wolken agreed. “Sports have turned college presidents into pseudo-celebrities,” Wolken said. “I don’t think that’s productive for their campuses. Sports is an important part of what they deal with every day on campus, but it seems to overwhelm them when they get into a crisis.” Both agreed ADs need to have a stronger voice. “Athletic directors who are on the ground, every day, who understand the issues, who understand what student athletes deal with, they need to have a voice,” Wolken said.
The AD council created by Emmert is not a decision-making panel, so it bears watching how it develops. But it’s a positive step that seems to continue the recent effort by the NCAA president to listen to the executives who are “on the tarmac” of today’s college campus. It’s a start.
> GRADING THE PRESIDENT: Emmert’s tenure and leadership was the focus of a discussion by Wetzel, Wolken and ESPN’s Jay Bilas, who has been very critical of Emmert in the past year, especially in the area of enforcement. Bilas said Emmert “has done some good things,” but he added, “Any leader should be expected to run his own office well, and I don’t think that’s happened. I think there have been some significant mistakes made. I think he talks too much. I think enforcement is a gigantic problem that the NCAA has, and will continue to have, until the structure is changed.”
Bilas called for an “attitude” adjustment in Indianapolis and noted Emmert’s State of the NCAA press conference during the Final Four, when he confronted members of the media who called for his resignation, saying, “All you have to do is keep your cool for 45 minutes, and he decided to go after reporters that called for his job. … I didn’t think that was befitting of a leader in that position.”
Wetzel noted surprise that Emmert hasn’t been able to deliver on his agenda. “He’s done a good job with certain reform. He’s certainly trying to be ambitious,” Wetzel said. “But it’s obviously being shot down dramatically back at him, and one of the reasons you hire a university president to be president of the NCAA is, presumably, he would know that road map a little bit better.”
Wolken also noted a lack of political capital. “Emmert’s ideas have never been bad,” Wolken said. “The problem is, if you’re going to undertake such a broad and aggressive agenda as he tried to undertake, you have to have credibility and control in the legislative process as you try to push your reforms through.” Asked if Emmert can get his agenda back on track, Wetzel sounded doubtful. “He’s a smart guy, he means well, but I don’t think there’s a will to change,” he said. “What needs to happen is dramatic change, and I don’t think there’s any interest in dramatic change out there.”
|At NACDA, DePaul’s Ponsetto, TCU’s Del Conte and Georgetown’s Reed
But TCU’s Chris Del Conte suggested the economics on campus have changed so drastically that it’s not realistic anymore. “We have presidents saying, ‘Hey, I’m not going to be told what to do by Bowling Green. My program is here, and here is where we are headed,’” Del Conte stressed. “I just don’t see us going back. That’s part of our problem. You can’t run the big, global body and expect everyone to be happy.”
Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To be sure, NBC’s investment in pro soccer is unprecedented, in effect treating the EPL like a big four U.S. sports league — except, of course, it’s not American. While the EPL will be the first soccer league to have regular coverage on both network and cable, NBC’s focus on match highlights and analysis is the more impactful development — in particular, its emphasis on soccer education and nuance through biweekly “Match of the Day” programming. By way of contrast, MLS has yet to have equivalent programming to introduce and endear fans to its players and teams.
And it may get more troubling for MLS should the EPL, independent of NBC, get truly serious about the U.S. market by proactively targeting the expansive youth soccer demographic or having a local presence through lower-division pro leagues.
While MLS has a distinct advantage in marketing to fans within driving distance of an MLS stadium, it’s an open race for the significantly larger group of soccer fans with no local allegiance. To quantify, MLS teams are located in 15 U.S. metropolitan statistical areas that total less than 30 percent of the U.S. population, arguably leaving more than 200 million potential neutrals unable to regularly attend an MLS match and left to therefore base any affinity largely through TV and digital factors, such as access to top players and teams, league perception, compelling programming, and broadcast quality.
|Premier League CEO Richard Scudamore (second from left) and NBC’s Jon Miller, Mark Lazarus and Sam Flood discuss the multiyear contract between the league and the network.
The reality is that come August, the EPL will, for the first time, truly challenge MLS to become America’s league of choice, in the process competing for the hearts, minds and eyeballs of the next generation of U.S. soccer players, coaches and fans.
So what can MLS do?
While there’s a host of micro-measures MLS can continue to take to improve its product and business, the focus must now firmly be on the broader value proposition to domestic soccer fans. MLS may never be able to compete effectively with the EPL, with annual broadcast revenue alone approaching $3 billion; other global soccer leagues face the same challenge. So it must therefore differentiate and accentuate its product, especially outside of local MLS markets. In light of 600-plus hours of NBC dedication to the EPL each season, what’s good for soccer in the U.S. is by no means beneficial to MLS, notwithstanding improved TV ratings tied to EPL lead-ins on NBC.
As a first step, MLS has publicly stated its desire to become a top global league within 10 years, citing such metrics as quality of play, passion of fans and success of its business. A variation on that objective — and one that’s more definitive, measurable and fan-focused — would be to become the de facto best league in the Western Hemisphere. (That title currently belongs to either Mexico or Brazil.)
To become the undisputed king of the region, MLS must be creative and consider bold changes to various aspects of its current DNA, including:
■ A clearer focus on developing American and Canadian players (creation of a true MiLB or AHL equivalent?)
■ Embracing a near-term policy of signing only young players with future resale value (MLS as the recognized regional gateway to Europe?)
■ A more-formal relationship with the Mexican Primera Division (interleague play to capture the U.S.-Mexico rivalry?)
■ Participation and leadership in Copa Libertadores (adding lucrative U.S. market to provide a legitimate rival to UEFA Champions League?)
■ Re-evaluating its schedule (a more meaningful and globally conforming regular season?) and business structure (continued advantage of single entity?).
While there’s no shortage of practical, political and financial issues to work through, it’s imperative that MLS tailor and announce an effective EPL response, one that incorporates its strengths while acknowledging where MLS can and should fit within the broader soccer landscape. With its ESPN, NBC and Univision deals expiring next year, a compelling strategic plan is particularly important.
MLS is a strong league with good players; its annual highlight reel rivals any league in the world. From a business standpoint, it will have doubled its number of teams, built impressive stadiums, inspired local fans and otherwise created a solid league in less than 20 years. But MLS must make some significant changes to capture broader interest from an increasingly sophisticated U.S. soccer fan. Otherwise, it risks being increasingly marginalized by the EPL in the important race for national relevancy.
Jeff L’Hote (email@example.com) founded LFC International in 2006. The New York City-based consultancy focuses exclusively on the business of global soccer with an emphasis on the U.S. market.