Uncertainty can cause a great deal of anxiety. The rapidly changing environment of collegiate athletics spurred by changes in conference members; escalating television agreements; lawsuits against institutions, conferences and the NCAA; and the changing structure of the NCAA and its attitudes toward athletics, in part due to the public and media critics, will make conducting future athletic business more challenging. With this in mind, let’s examine a trend I believe will occur in the next 10 years — the trend of “fewer and smaller.”
The deregulation of NCAA rules and the opening up of benefits for athletes, focusing on the sports of football and basketball, but possibly extending to all sports, will challenge individual athletic departments and universities to maintain their current commitment to athletics. We have seen state institutions reduce this commitment significantly in the past decade. We have also observed a general decline in fan attendance, especially among college students. This decline does not bode well for future financial support for athletics programs. The 65 institutions that form the Power Five Conferences plus Notre Dame are seeing empty seats that used to be filled. The other Division I universities who are not part of the Power Five are determining to what degree they wish to participate in the autonomy efforts pursued by these 65 institutions.
Eventually, expenses will exceed revenue and a general reduction in athletic offerings will occur. That reduction will manifest itself in a number of ways. The most obvious will be the elimination of sports. Although the factors in determining which sports will no longer be a part of the athletics program will vary, the movement toward a professional/business model will no doubt focus on return on investment (ROI), but will also include Title IX considerations and traditional/historical importance. More subtle ways to maintaining a program but limiting the financial commitment will include reducing or eliminating scholarships, cutting operational and travel budgets, and reducing coaching, support and administrative staffs. In the end, athletic departments will offer fewer sports, a diminished quality of the experience and perhaps even fewer roster spots for those sports that remain in a department.
I believe that conference membership will also decrease. The conferences formed recently with large memberships will settle into finding institutions that are more geographically, budgetary and philosophically aligned. On the horizon will be a new wave of realignment, which may also include either a downward movement toward Division II or another separation within Division I (as has occurred with the Power Five conferences). That movement would not be exclusive to the 285 or non-Power Five institutions, but would also include institutions currently included in the Power Five. Each of these five conferences has institutions that struggle monetarily and are consistently found near the bottom of conference standings in football and other revenue sports. Those at the top of the budget pyramid for a conference, and especially traditional conference powers, could easily question the importance and relevance of a lower-level university athletics program’s worth, and perhaps even view them as a resource drain. It will be interesting to see how this dynamic plays out in the years to come. The number of conferences will increase, but the average number of schools within a conference will decrease.
The final downsizing I see is a reduction from the Power Five to Four. Five is an odd number and does not work well in many respects. In years past, the talk centered around four super conferences with 12-16 teams in each. If the rationale was valid in splitting the 10 Division I major football playing conferences in half, it becomes even more valid to eventually justify four conferences with fewer institutions. Whatever that final number may be, it will certainly be fewer than 65.
The face of college athletics is changing and the future is certainly unclear in many respects. However, it is difficult to imagine a scenario where resources are not re-allocated to programs that achieve an institutional objective. That re-allocation will result in fewer Division I athletic opportunities for students, as well as a re-balancing of membership and conference alignments resulting in smaller conference memberships.
Dr. William S. Husak has been the Vice President and Director of Intercollegiate Athletics at Loyola Marymount University since 1998. He is a graduate of SUNY-Cortland and Texas A&M University and has 35 years of higher education academic and athletic experience.