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NCAA Power 5 Autonomy Is Bad News for the MAC…Well, Mostly

The gulf that exists between the elite programs in college football and basketball will likely grow with the decision by the NCAA Board of Governors to grant autonomy to the Power 5 conference schools. But maybe there is hope for the mid-major schools.

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Jamie Squire

On Thursday, August 7, 2014, the NCAA Board of Governors voted to grant autonomy to the five biggest revenue producing conferences (ACC, Big 10, Big 12, SEC and Pac 12) in the FBS, and of course, Notre Dame. The decision will likely have far reaching implications for the sports world.  But given the complexity of collegiate athletics as a whole, it’s hard to state with any precision the magnitude of Thursday’s decision.  After all, not every school plays at the same level of competition for every sport.

For example, Georgetown plays in one of the major conferences for basketball, but in the lower FCS division for football. How this would affect the Hoyas is anyone’s guess. So saying that the autonomy ruling spells doom for collegiate athletics is a bit hyperbolic.

Still, the ruling does signal that the gulf between the "Power Five" conference ("P5") schools and the "Group of Five" or "G5" conference schools (AAC, MAC, Conference USA, Sun Belt and Mountain West and non-Notre Dame independents) -- is likely to grow. Moving forward, P5 schools will have the ability to provide more in the way of financial resources to student-athletes. This is obviously an awful development for the MAC. Where this may lead is unclear, but there may be an answer. To understand just how this may all work out, we need to take a look at the state of college football – the straw that stirs the proverbial drink – to help us better understand how last week’s events could lead to a brighter future for G5 schools.

But first, let’s start out by pointing out one obvious fact: there is a significant difference in financial resources between the haves and the have-nots in college football. Take the MAC as an example: there is already a significant difference in the amount of resources spent on football by MAC schools, compared to schools in the P5.  A look at the Equity in Athletics Data Analysis report released by the U.S. Department of Education reveals a few eye-popping statistics from last year that put this all in perspective:

•Average expenditure for football by a MAC school in 2013: $6,600,033

•Average expenditure for football by the four schools that spent the most in 2013: $35,512,220

•Amount the University of Alabama (No. 1 on the list) spent on football in 2013: $41,558,058

•Difference between Bama’s Football Expenditures and the TOTAL of the top four MAC Schools in 2013: $5,082,713

Not convinced yet? Consider this: it’s not just the highest spending NCAA athletic departments that are dishing out the dollars. The highest rated G5 program on the list is the University of Central Florida, which spent $15,076,308 on football last year.  That’s still significantly more than the amount that MAC schools spend on football.

And of course, the financial differences between the haves and the have-nots may grow even larger with this autonomy decision. There has been talk of P5 schools playing more division games ever since conference expansion began a few years ago. But this ruling may ultimately turn these rumors into a certainty. If that were to happen, it could be disastrous.

MAC schools in particular rely on big paydays from P5 schools to fund football operations and pay coaches. This season, Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska will each pay at least $1 million for a single game to G5 schools. If P5 schools played more conference games, or worse, played P5-only schedules, MAC schools would struggle to fund football operations.

But it’s not just money. In terms of recruiting, the difference between P5 schools and the MAC is also substantial. Using CFB Matrix analysis of recruiting rankings – unscientific as they may be – we see that the highest rated MAC school in terms of national recruiting classes is Toledo, which ranked 77th nationally over a four-year span. Given the relationship between financial resources and recruiting this is hardly surprising, but unpleasant nonetheless. But maybe, just maybe there’s an answer: enter SMU head football coach June Jones.

Spring football worked for the USFL. For awhile.

In July, Jones suggested that G5 schools take up playing football in the spring as a separate stand-alone league, in the tradition of the USFL. I don't expect any athletic directors or university administrators from any of the G5 schools to embrace this radical concept, but it is an idea that deserves some consideration.  Here’s why: much of what led to this autonomy decision had a lot to do with the O’Bannon decision that came out the next day.  In that case, a federal judge ruled that college athletes could share in the billions of dollars generated from broadcast and other media contracts.

The ruling held that compensation would be limited to $5,000, per student-athlete.  Thus, colleges and universities – P5 or not – were going to have to move towards some form of compensation for student-athletes anyway. Since allowing schools to compensate student-athletes likely means a greater advantage for the P5, spring football may be just what the doctor ordered. After all, it worked for the USFL— well, for a while.

The United States Football League existed from 1983 to 1985 until it imploded under the weight of Donald Trump’s ego. It was created to serve as a counterweight to the NFL. The seasons took place in the spring, and the teams were able to fill their rosters by drafting high profile collegiate players like Herschel Walker, Craig James and Jim Kelly. Of course a league of this kind wouldn't have the same panache as the USFL. But it would satisfy that craving most of us have for football, once March Madness ends and the sports world becomes obsessed with NFL draft predictions. Heck, if it was popular enough, the league could generate money in the way of television revenue.

Okay, okay, maybe Jones’ suggestion is a tad pollyannish if not unworkable. But then what is the alternative? A chasm already exists between the haves and the have-nots in college football.  Given the rash of lawsuits against the NCAA regarding student compensation, things are only going to get worse, not better.  Spring football could create a financial opportunity by filling a void that exists in those spring and summer months.