The NCAA has called for a constitutional convention of its membership in January, with its president Mark Emmert saying that it’s the “right time” to consider a “decentralized and deregulated version of college sports.”
Amid reforms to the Name, Image, and Likeness rules, which we’ve already seen used by a few college swimmers to partner with swimwear brand Speedo, as well as constant shifts in conference alignment, the NCAA is at a precipice where some dramatic change is going to happen that will reshape collegiate athletics forever.
Whatever comes out of this, it’s unlikely to be small. It’s unlikely that in 10 years, collegiate athletics will look anything like what we’re used to today.
At a minimum, 4 big conferences wielding outsized power will replace the current 5 and will dominate decision-making. For the rest, it might be time to let those schools go and re-evaluate the purposes of their own athletics programs.
But this shift has been coming. The prior model wasn’t sustainable – the ability of schools to fund an increasing arms race in football and beyond, while simultaneously meeting athletes’ call to be compensated for their work, was eventually going to collapse the system.
Remember that the NCAA, while discussed as a big ogre-ous body, is actually just a non-profit organization made up of its member institutions. So it will be those member institutions that drive this dramatic shift in collegiate sports and what the future will look like. Those different schools all have different agendas, different visions, and different goals for their athletics programs. The NCAA’s management itself actually seems to be advocating for taking power and authority away from the NCAA.
There has been a lot written about what the outcomes of this constitutional convention could be, but not much written about swimming. Funny that, because sports like swimming are, essentially, just along for the ride. But we’re here for you to lay out what this could look like for swimming.
The timing of the convention in one regard is good for the so-called “Olympic sports.” It will come right after the Summer Olympic Games and during the period of the Winter Olympic Games, which might drive some passion to maintain the NCAA as the lifeblood of the United States Olympic program, which is not directly funded by public dollars, unlike most countries of the world.
In my mind, the best possible outcome, for swimming, in this world, is that the top tier of college football splits off to become its own entity with its own conferences and the freedom to deregulate and grow even further.
I’ve been cynical for a long time about college athletics and “Jumping the Shark.” Specifically about how far collegiate athletics can push its professionalization before it loses the cachet of students and alumni feeling a kindred spirit to fellow students of their university, who happen to be really good athletes. If the NCAA opens the curtain and becomes more blunt about college football and basketball just being a minor league riding the back of universities, that could take a hit at funding, donations, ticket sales, television ratings – all of the things that have driven the unbridled growth in college athletics over the last 30 years. When we have hard conversations, we already know that to be true, but the less we ‘pretend’ that the football and basketball players are ‘just like the rest of us,’ the less we’ll all stop believing it to be true.
That being said, if it works, and this split of football allows them to operate more efficiently and generate more revenue, that is a positive for Olympic sports in a lot of ways.
For one, those profits could help fund budgets and facilities upgrades of swimming programs. Even if football moves out of the auspices of the NCAA, it is still bound by Title IX rules that will require schools to fund, at least, women’s athletics.
But the bigger piece of this puzzle is that it will disillusion the “Group of 5” schools that they have to try to compete with the Alabamas and Texases of football and spend themselves into $40 million-per-year deficits. We’ve seen some of these schools cut swimming programs to bail themselves out of bad football decisions (UConn).
This would allow Group of 5 programs to perhaps regulate their own internal spending to try to create a more sustainable model, with all of the schools being able to continue to compete as a unified division in other sports, like basketball and swimming.
The NCAA could really thrive without football. Football, contrary to popular belief, makes up a very small percentage of the NCAA revenue – the FBS National Championship Playoff for example, is not an NCAA championship. The NCAA makes most of its money on basketball, and while basketball could in theory split off too, at present there is less incentive to do so. College basketball as a system is functioning much better and much more healthfully and sustainably than college football.
There is a nightmare scenario for Olympic sports at the collegiate level. It sounds like a slippery slope, but it’s one that’s being discussed by the top collegiate swim coaches in the country.
This scenario involves college football becoming a standalone entity, segregated from the rest of collegiate athletics, and that Olympic sports programs are left to states and private institutions to fund – basically as a pure Olympic play. This could lead to a dramatic contraction of varsity Olympic sports at the college level, with a dozen or two “Olympic centers” opening up at different colleges to try to main American prominence at the Olympics
The rest of the athletes would have then move into a club system, if they chose to do so, but that would be a system that would look very different than what we have today.
In reality, while there are very-occasional ‘out of nowhere’ swimmers (like Andrew Wilson) who wind up making Olympic Teams, in general, the vast majority of athletes who wind up representing the United States at that level come from the top 100-or-so high school swimmers in each class.
So if the argument for saving Olympic sports at the college level is to save the Olympic team, the calculation for administrators will be if it’s worth sacrificing those 1 or 2 gems-in-the-rough in favor of concentrating those resources at a smaller circuit of training centers where there would be more of a concentrated push to give them the best training possible, if the outcome could be the same. The idea of a smaller set of training centers is certainly a more efficient way of training the United States’ Olympic Team than expecting 100+ Division I institutions to maintain swimming programs with the hopes of picking out that generational talent.
But we know what this would do to the swimming industry as a whole. Club registrations would dry up, coaching opportunities would pass by, and fewer schools (at the university and club levels) would use public funding to build and maintain pools.
Swimming as a sport in the United States needs the NCAA to continue to thrive at the level where it is currently thriving. There is no way around that, even for the most optimistic reamers among us.
So cheers to football, may they continue to find ways to profit and continue to be benevolent with those profits.