In anticipation of the NCAA Board of Governors potentially canceling or postponing fall sports championships, Power 5 conference leaders have begun exploring the possibility of staging their own championships in those affected sports, multiple sources have told Sports Illustrated. This could be seen as a first step toward a long-theorized breakaway from the NCAA by the 65 schools that play college sports at the highest level.
The Board of Governors, comprised primarily of university presidents and chancellors from all levels of the NCAA, has a meeting scheduled for Tuesday. At that time it is expected to make a decision on the fate of fall sports championships other than FBS football, which has a championship outside the NCAA structure. However, the board also could delay action until later in August.
In recent days, Power 5 conference officials began seeking feedback from their members about the feasibility of staging their own championships during the fall, sources told SI. When asked if such a move away from the NCAA championship structure could be seen as a precedent-setting rift between the national governing body of college sports and the Power 5, one athletic director said, “If I were (NCAA president Mark) Emmert, I’d be really worried about it. He’s got to keep the Power 5 together.”
Another Power 5 athletic director said he thinks the chances of breakaway fall championships are remote, but added, “I think this is representative of the poor relationship between the (NCAA) national office and our conferences.”
Multiple sources said part of the motivation for the Power 5 considering hosting its own fall Olympic sports seasons is to justify playing football, the revenue-driving sport for all athletic departments at that level. If all the other sports are canceled but football perseveres on its own, the optics would open up the schools to severe criticism. Thus, playing all fall sports would allow those schools to say that they are not uniquely subjecting football players to any risk.
Sources described the discussions about breakaway championships as preliminary in nature, the first steps in gauging both interest and feasibility. An Atlantic Coast Conference administrator said the concept is “hypothetical” in nature and not mature yet, but “if the NCAA does something, it could shift it from neutral to first gear.”
Given the P5 incentive to justify football, the Board of Governors’ decision—and rationale—will be critical. If it decides to cancel fall sports championships for COVID-19 health and safety reasons, it would be difficult for the Power 5 to justify going its own way without a plan that they can definitively protect their athletes. But if the board says that the cost of safely conducting championships is prohibitive, the Power 5 could have an avenue to play all its fall sports—football included.
“We’re all trying to think, hey, what can we do for our kids, so they have a season and a chance to compete for a championship,” one Power 5 athletic director said. “And, quite frankly, how can we justify playing football?”
The cost of trying to create a bubble of sorts at NCAA championship events like the volleyball tournament, with regionals and a Final Four would be significant. With rapid testing for all participants, secure lodging and transportation, sterilizing the event and practice venues, the bills would add up. Multiply that across eight sports and three different levels of NCAA participation, and this would easily be the most expensive series of fall championships the association has funded—and it comes after the NCAA just took a huge financial hit with the cancelation of the 2020 basketball tournaments.
That is where the Power 5 could step in and collectively foot the bill for its own fall championships, which would be one-third or less of the total cost outlay to the NCAA. A source within the Olympic sports community said it would be “very easy” for the P5 conferences to contract out to established event management companies to hold their own championships.
The Board of Governors could make separate rulings for Divisions II and III, where a number of leagues already have postponed or canceled fall sports. Several Division I schools from FCS conferences, such as the Ivy League and Patriot League, have postponed fall sports as well. Sources told SI they are expecting a cancellation or postponement at the DII and DIII levels, but are unsure what will happen at the DI level.
If the NCAA board again delays action, it might further inflame a membership that has an increasing urgency for certainty about the upcoming seasons. One athletic director described the limbo as “mentally unhealthy” for his fall-sports athletes. The NCAA’s non-football fall sports are men’s and women’s cross country, men’s and women’s soccer, women’s volleyball, field hockey and men’s water polo.
For decades, the Power 5 conferences—the Atlantic Coast, Big 12, Big Ten, Pacific-12 and Southeastern—have continued to amass power and revenue at a rate that has separated them from the rest of college athletics. That separation led those leagues to gain their own autonomy at the NCAA legislative level, crafting rules that fit their specific needs.
Football has been the driving force behind that, as media-rights deals for those leagues have skyrocketed over the last decade. The FBS Group of 5 conferences—the American, Conference USA, Mid-American, Mountain West and Sun Belt—have struggled to keep up as the revenue gap has widened.
The schools in those conferences, plus independent institutions, may want to try to join the proposed Power 5 fall championships, a source theorized. If the NCAA sees more than one-third of its 350-plus Division I members basically ignore a postponement or cancelation, the undermining of the association’s power would be immense.
Already, the NCAA’s lack of influence at the Power 5 level has never been more glaring than in 2020. Since canceling winter and spring championships last March, the NCAA has largely been on the sidelines watching the individual conferences grapple with the pandemic. It issued return-to-sport guidelines in the spring and updated them recently, but behind the scenes, college administrators have grown increasingly critical of Emmert and the entire NCAA for a perceived lack of leadership.
“It’s almost like they’re frozen,” one athletic director said.
One veteran college administrator described the NCAA and Power 5 as having long been embroiled in an “existential crisis,” and wondered whether this fall sports gambit could be “the crack in the armor” that leads to an eventual split.
“Is this the final break?” The source asked. “You could have two championships: one from the (Power 5) and potentially some Group of 5s joining them, and a second one for everybody else in the spring. … It’s going to be real strange.”