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The next era of college sports

NCAA vote will widen big-small school gap

49ERS_SPRING
TODD SUMLIN - tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com
Schools like UNC Charlotte face a more difficult climb if they aspire to reach the highest levels of college football.

Not long ago, you never would have heard the words that University of Texas athletic director Steve Patterson blurted out Wednesday.

Patterson was a member of a Big 12 Conference panel in New York that was discussing the “state of college sports.” Specifically, panel members were debating an impending NCAA measure that would give the five biggest sports conferences more ability to make their own rules. That measure, which was approved Thursday by the NCAA Board of Directors, could result in less revenue and more struggles for smaller universities and colleges.

Said Patterson of those revenues and those schools: “Why should we share it if they’re not generating it?”

It’s a remark that explains what’s behind Thursday’s monumental decision, one that both affirms and cements the gap between big college programs and everyone else. That gap is already clear in major college football, but less so for now in basketball, where smaller schools can compete at a higher level.

The NCAA measure will allow the five biggest conferences – including the Atlantic Coast Conference – to change rules in several areas, including recruiting, expenses and financial aid. One noteworthy change is that Power 5 schools can and likely will pay student-athletes a stipend of $2,000-$5,000 a year on top of their scholarships.

Non-Power 5 conferences are welcome to adopt the same changes, but doing so would place a greater burden on smaller schools with smaller athletic budgets. Those schools would have to decide to either give up that chase, which would mean losing the revenue that big-time sports bring, or make cuts to other sports to pay the bills.

For now, smaller conferences will likely go along with the changes, mostly because they have little choice. Power 5 conference officials have subtly threatened to leave the NCAA altogether and take their TV money – some of which gets distributed to all NCAA schools – with them.

You can bet that revenue gap will continue to get larger, anyway. On Thursday, an ESPN survey revealed that football coaches at Power 5 schools would prefer to play only other Power 5 schools at some point. If smaller schools lose those games – and the big paydays they bring – their budgets will take a hit.

To which big schools would say: That’s not our problem. But once upon a time, it was. The NCAA was once a non-profit venture, at least theoretically, with a shared-revenue model designed to help student-athletes in all schools reap the dual benefits of sports and education.

Hardly anyone is starry-eyed enough to believe that’s still the model, or the goal, for many schools. But Thursday’s decision clarifies that the Steve Pattersons among us don’t really care about the larger notion of college athletics – and all that used to mean. They care about their own athletes – or at least the dollars they can bring.

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