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Volume 21 No. 2
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Seen and heard: Commissioners on if esports are sports

From the Learfield Intercollegiate Athletics Forum New York

From left, conference commissioners Val Ackerman (Big East), Larry Scott (Pac-12) and John Swofford (ACC) address hot-button issues as part of the power brokers panel.
Photo by: MARC BRYAN-BROWN
One of the healthiest exchanges on the commissioners panel centered on esports and whether video gaming has a place in intercollegiate athletics. For now, the answer is no, but there’s also a sense that all of the conferences are paying close attention to it.

The Big 12’s Bob Bowlsby was the first to take on the notion that esports belongs in athletics.

“That’s a misnomer. It isn’t sports,” Bowlsby said. “It doesn’t look at all like what we do every day. I can’t think of a single reason to get involved with it, other than the money.”

To which, some in the snide Twitter world responded: Oh, that means they’ll do it.

“I’m lost in the conversation of it,” Bowlsby continued. “I guess if we wanted to just make money, we could get into real estate or other things that aren’t aligned with our core business. But I don’t see it. It’s entertainment, it’s games, but it doesn’t align with what we do day-to-day.”

The Pac-12’s Larry Scott responded: “I hope you have that on tape because we might be here seven years from now and it’s an NCAA sport. … We’ve spent two years studying esports, and where we are on the West Coast, a lot of companies are involved in it. There is some rationale that has resonated on our campuses. It’s competition, there are some competitive dynamics like mental preparation, and it is tethered at a lot of places to academic areas. … It does not fit the traditional definition of sports, but I do think that definition is evolving.”

Scott said the Pac-12 has tabled esports for now.

“There’s the question of whether we want to be promoting video gaming, whether that’s a healthy activity,” he said. “And how do you govern it? It’s not clear how you’d do that. But I do believe we’ll be back at this conference in a few years talking about it.”

Val Ackerman said the Big East is intrigued, even though “these aren’t athletes, these are students, in some cases STEM students,” she said. “This could be a way for them to feel some institutional pride. There is something to it. There’s no question it’s growing, it’s global and we need to be paying attention.”

The SEC’s Greg Sankey drew a few laughs when he said he was part of a stock club in college, “but that doesn’t mean we’re going to start having stock competitions.”

RUNNING WITH THE BIG DOGS: On the presidents panel, Butler University’s Jim Danko explained how his school invested in basketball more than a decade ago as a marketing strategy to enhance its brand. It clearly worked well for the Bulldogs, judging by their back-to-back appearances in the NCAA tournament championship game (2010-11) and a move into the Big East.

But Danko also cautioned that it’s a risky proposition for a small, private school of 5,000 undergraduate students to spend like a power five school on salaries and resources to compete at the highest levels.

“Investing in basketball as a strategy, the odds of success are very low,” Danko said. “It has worked out for Butler as many things aligned. Basketball was a good fit for Indiana. There were a series of good coaches. It’s really an incredible story; one of the few stories out there, in terms of a school like Butler in a David vs. Goliath situation, achieving such results.

“And it’s led to us being in the Big East playing against great competition and being aligned with great schools. It’s not just sports; it’s really elevated the whole university.”

REACHING FOR THE SKY: During a session on the Notre Dame Stadium renovation, the school’s athletic director, Jack Swarbrick, was asked what he’d do differently to the $485 million project.

Swarbrick, known as one of the most creative thinkers in the business, said he’d like to carve out a game-day space dedicated to young alumni who have been out of school from one to 10 years.

“It’d be a way to keep them engaged,” Swarbrick said. “Sure, they’re in a different [giving] category, but they’re our future.”

One other item Swarbrick contemplated but opted not to pursue: taking out a notch of the north end zone so those in the stadium could have a better view of the “Touchdown Jesus” mural. But that would have required the removal of too many seats, he said.

Notre Dame’s AD said he and a contingent of campus leaders visited several historic venues in preparation for the renovation, including Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, Lambeau Field and the Rose Bowl.

The final tally on seats: 5,000 were removed and 3,000 premium seats were added, for a net loss of 2,000 seats in the 78,000-seat bowl.

For more coverage of the business of esports, visit our partners, esportsobserver.com.