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What’s next for college sports in 2023? Realignment, NIL and the search for stability


Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker speaks during an interview at the Massachusetts State House Tuesday Dec. 27, 2022, in Boston, Mass. (AP Photo/Reba Saldanha)

College athletics changed incrementally for a long time. And then, in the past couple of years, it has changed all at once. Name, image and likeness rights, better known as “NIL,” have entered the college sporting lexicon. So has the phrase “the transfer portal.” A couple of years ago, neither were much a part of college athletics. Now they’re dominant forces.


Meanwhile, conference membership continues to change, and evolve, with two dominant leagues emerging. The very foundation of college athletics is under siege. The ACC is suddenly vulnerable, or at least more so than it used to be. The past year brought us no shortage of change, and events that will lead to more and more change. What will the next year hold? Here are five things to watch in college athletics throughout 2023:


1. NCAA’S CHANGE IN LEADERSHIP, AND WHETHER IT MAKES A DIFFERENCE


Goodbye, Mark Emmert and hello, Charlie Baker. Baker, the outgoing Republican governor of Massachusetts, will become NCAA president on March 1. He’ll succeed Mark Emmert, whose 12-year run in the same role will be remembered for its fecklessness and ineptitude. During some of the most transformational moments in the history of college sports — some might argue the most transformational — Emmert often took a passive approach and watched, instead of led.


Here’s the thing, though: The NCAA is not a monarchy, where the president (or king, in this metaphor) has absolute power. It’s a convoluted, bloated organization that represents more than 1,000 schools across three divisions, and its members (and the presidents and chancellors who lead those institutions) are most responsible for leading the change they want to see. But the model doesn’t serve anyone all that well, as the past several years have shown, and Emmert failed to provide leadership when leadership was most needed.


The question is how soon, and to what degree, Baker provides that leadership. Clearly, the university presidents and chancellors at the heart of the NCAA valued a leader with political expertise and experience, and Baker has that. He also has experience leading a large healthcare company (Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare, which is a leading provider in New England) and if there’s one industry filled with unnecessary bureaucracy as much as college sports, it’s healthcare.


For the NCAA, the stakes are enormous. Baker enters his position at a time when the foundation of college athletics — the notion of “amateurism” — is crumbling. At the highest level, schools are switching conferences at will, and the Big Ten and SEC have clearly consolidated power and money. NIL has become pay-for-play by another name. The transfer portal is essentially free agency, without many rules or regulations. And, oh yeah, then there’s all the other stuff that dominated the conversation before all of these massive changes — important things like attempting to maintain academic integrity throughout the enterprise, and the more banal, nitty-gritty topics related to conference autonomy and governance and sport-specific rules changes and leadership.


How does Baker handle it all? We shall see. He’s stepping into what has to be one of the most difficult jobs in America.


2. EROSION OF AMATEURISM, AND THE “TRADITIONAL COLLEGIATE MODEL”


There are two legal cases to watch closely in 2023. Both will play a large role in the future of college sports.


One is the National Labor Relations Board against USC and the Pac-12. In the other, a former college football player has sued the NCAA, claiming that athletes should be classified as employees and paid by schools.


In the first case, the NLRB has directed its Los Angeles chapter to pursue an unfair labor practices case against USC and the Pac-12, essentially charging that the university and the conference have restricted the rights of football and men’s basketball players, and that they should be considered employees. The case originated with a petition from the National College Players Association.


If it’s ultimately successful, it will be an enormous victory for the NCPA, which for years now has been fighting for college athletes to have the right to be classified as employees, and to unionize. A final outcome is unlikely any time soon, given the NCAA’s right to appeal — and to keep appealing — any decision it’d deem unfavorable.


The second case, Johnson vs. NCAA, deals with the same topic. Trey Johnson, a former Villanova football player, filed a suit under the Fair Labor Standards Act claiming that college athletes are school employees who should be paid for their service. As with the NLRB case, it’s unlikely that a final outcome will become clear any time soon. There will be appeals, if the NCAA loses, and, besides, court cases often take forever even when they go relatively quickly.


These cases, though, are being pursued in a time when the NCAA’s power is at an all-time low. Its traditional arguments, most all built upon the so-called sanctity of amateurism and, to a lesser degree, on the value of a college education, just don’t hold water the way they used to. Sooner or later, it seems, college athletes will be considered employees. They’ll be paid. They’ll be able to unionize. Of course, that will result in a completely different set of challenges to ponder.


3. TAMING “WILD WEST” OF NIL DEALS, TRANSFER PORTAL


A fun exercise is to go to Google and search “wild west” and “NIL” and read up on all the hysteria surrounding name, image and likeness deals — which, yes, have become pay-for-play by another name. Indeed, athletes have the ability these days to get paid to play and, indeed, a lot of them are doing it under the guise of NIL deals, often in which an “NIL collective” is offering untold sums for a player to pick this school, or that one, even if it means transferring.


This has all led to much consternation from coaches, and even some fans, who are decrying the thought that athletes can (gasp!) get paid for their services, and that schools (gasp!) might get outbid. Why should only middle-aged football and basketball coaches be able to make a lot of money and move about freely in pursuit of that money. And as for being outbid, let us not pretend that there was ever much equality to begin with. If you hadn’t checked in a while, the football facilities at, say, Clemson, are a lot nicer than the football facilities at, say, North Carolina or N.C. State — and their facilities are a lot better than ones at schools with less resources. And so on.


But now athletes are getting money, and it’s a huge problem. Now, granted, there is a need for some kind of regulation. The professional sports leagues in America all have versions of regulation related to free agency and compensation. It’s only the “wild west” in college sports because those in charge of running it allowed it to reach this point. Instead of being proactive, the powers that be ignored the headwinds that made clear NIL rights were inevitable, and then those in charge pretty much threw up their hands in implementing a system with rules in name only.


Now coaches and presidents and chancellors are begging for Congressional intervention to clean up a mess that the NCAA created through its own inaction. (Does it make more sense now that the NCAA is turning to Baker, a career politician?) There are only two outcomes that will solve this “mess,” if you believe it’s a mess: One, the NCAA receives an antitrust exemption allowing it to place hard caps on what athletes can earn. The second, more likely outcome: athletes will be granted the right to unionize, and negotiate their own compensation structures.


Until one of those things happens, and we’re probably a ways off from either, expect the “wild west” to endure. Giddy up, cowboy.


4. THE WAIT FOR THE NEXT CONFERENCE REALIGNMENT SHOE TO DROP


The past two summers have delivered bombshell conference realignment news, the kind that tests the limits of Internet servers powering college football fan message boards. In the summer of 2021, news broke that Texas and Oklahoma would leave the Big 12 for the SEC. In the summer of 2022, news broke that USC and UCLA would leave the Pac-12 for the Big Ten.


What will the summer (or winter, or spring, or fall) of 2023 hold? Maybe nothing? Maybe something?


It’s important to remember that news of both of the past two major waves of realignment mostly came out of nowhere. There were no real rumblings. No real warnings. All of a sudden, it just happened. If you believe what Greg Sankey and Kevin Warren, the SEC and Big Ten commissioners, have said (a risky proposition), then it seems like both leagues are done expanding.


For now. But their moves have increased the vulnerability of the other three members of what previously was known as the Power Five (now more like a Power Two). The Pac-12, Big 12 and the ACC would all like to solidify themselves and reduce the likelihood of further defection. In the case of the ACC, its grant of rights has held strong (for now?) and it likely will — though certainly the league is in a precarious spot over the long haul.


Barring additional poaching by the Big Ten/SEC — and again, you never know — the next major move might just be some sort of merger among the other three major conferences. Or maybe even a merger among the ACC and either the SEC or Big Ten. The ACC is much more ideologically aligned with the Big Ten — and, remember, that ACC Commissioner Jim Phillips has Big Ten roots — but the question is what would be in it for the Big Ten, which is in a much more powerful position. The ACC needs to do something, though, to enhance its position.


Which brings us to ...


5. THE ACC’S QUEST FOR LONG-TERM STABILITY


What can the league do? In a football-first world, the conference has fallen woefully behind its conference peers, in a financial sense, and there’s little hope of catching up. The league’s television deal with ESPN runs through 2036, at which time the financial gap with the SEC and Big Ten will be even more considerable than it is today.


There seem to be a couple of paths forward for the ACC, over the long term. The easiest is for the conference to become much, much stronger in football, and to reap the presumed financial rewards that would come with that ascent. In that scenario, Florida State and Miami become national powers again, joining Clemson as dominant forces in the sport. Virginia Tech returns to Frank Beamer-like form. North Carolina reaches its potential. N.C. State remains good. Boston College, Syracuse and Pittsburgh, or at least two out of three, become relevant more often than not.


If Miami and FSU become dominant again, that would bolster the league’s television ratings — and that, in turn, would lead to much stronger negotiating leverage with ESPN. The ACC needs its brand names to play up to their potential. That’s the easiest, and clearest, way out of the financial pickle in which the league finds itself.


Another option is the aforementioned merger idea. Would the Big Ten consider joining forces for some sort of mega-league with the ACC? Would the SEC? Would either of those conferences want to pursue the thought, or are they content to try to crush a rival conference and poach the pieces of it (North Carolina, Miami, Florida State, etc.) that might hold some value?


Clearly, major college athletics is headed toward a two conference super-league model. There’s just too much momentum behind that reality for it to slow down. The ACC needs to get a lot or better in football and hope that pays dividends, or the old saying “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” becomes more and more relevant. There won’t be answers to the league’s problems in 2023, but there could be hints as to what the conference is trying to do. Assuming, of course, that the grant of rights continues to hold strong.


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