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With the future of college sports uncertain, one thing is clear: An official and permanent split of NCAA Division I is here

With the future of college sports uncertain, one thing is clear: An official and permanent split of NCAA Division I is here

NAPLES, Fla. — Inside the beachside Ritz-Carlton resort along Florida’s southwestern coast, leaders of college athletics met in a second-floor conference room to discuss particulars about the industry’s future.

Those in the room were limited to five men: NCAA president Charlie Baker and commissioners from the SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Big Ten.

Not in the room: the other 28 Division I commissioners who milled about on the first floor of the resort wondering the whereabouts of the other four.

“I didn’t even know they were meeting,” said one.

“Of course,” whispered another, “they are cutting us out of it.”

Minutes later, the five men came hustling down the main stairwell to begin what was the final chapter in four days of administrative meetings here: Baker appearing before all 32 commissioners for a robust discussion about the future of the NCAA’s top division.

As evident from their separate meeting, NCAA Division I has never been more fractured, fragile and frustrated. The split between the haves and have-nots in college athletics is becoming more real than ever, in fact.

Unveiled during this week’s meetings of conference commissioners was none other than a new governance model for Division I. Stemming from the NCAA’s landmark antitrust settlement, the model further separates the four power leagues from the 28 lower-resourced conferences in a more formal break.

Though still in the process of development, the governance framework can simply be summed up in five words, says one FCS league commissioner: “Let the big dogs eat.”

(Grant Thomas/Yahoo Sports)

While many details remain unclear, the new governance structure clearly draws a dividing line between the revenue-generating football giants competing in a mostly commercialized, professional enterprise and the more basketball-centric institutions participating in a more amateur landscape.

Historically significant, the governance model segregates the more than 350 schools in Division I, creating what some describe as a separate subdivision for the power schools — similar to a proposal Baker publicly unveiled last December. The power conferences are expected to hold authority to create and even enforce their own rules, many of them related to the antitrust settlement and new athlete revenue-sharing model coming to college athletics.

Power schools are gearing up to share as much as $22 million a year with their athletes.

What does that mean for everyone else? The other 28 leagues of Division I consist of more than 60 Group of Five football programs, 120-plus FCS schools and nearly 100 additional basketball-only universities.

Multiple commissioners of the “Other 28” told Yahoo Sports this week that they do not expect many of their schools to opt into the concept of sharing revenue with athletes. Financially, they cannot support that, they say. After all, most schools in those conferences rely heavily on institutional support and student fees to keep afloat their sports teams, most of which do not turn a profit or generate very little revenue.

That is fine and understandable, as noted in April by Jeffrey Kessler, one of the lead plaintiff attorneys in the settlement.

“Here’s what people have to get in their heads: The Power Five schools are not like everybody else,” Kessler said. “The reason we get tied in knots is because we conflate those schools who have developed these gigantic independent commercial businesses with the schools who are still just educational institutions with extracurricular activities.”

Many of those in the power conferences generate millions from their football and men’s basketball programs. The average power conference athletic budget is around $130-$150 million. Budgets of those in Division I’s bottom 28 conferences are as low as one-tenth of that figure.

That dynamic — the gaping resource chasm between the two groups — is at the center of a years-long tug-of-war between administrators in either group: the smaller, low-resourced programs that want to retain much of the amateurism model and have fought to uphold cost-containment measures versus the football powers that are slowly moving toward a more professional compensation structure and wish to break free of any spending handcuffs.

This simmering battle has reached a boiling point this summer with House settlement terms. The Other 28 are responsible for 35% of the $2.77 billion in back damages to be paid to former college athletes over a 10-year period. That figure, about $970 million, has incited harsh public criticism from their commissioners who say they were not involved in the settlement negotiations and believe that the amount puts them at a disadvantage. One school, Houston Christian University, even filed a legal challenge in court on Thursday over the back-pay distribution amounts.

The power conferences are paying about 23% while the NCAA national office foots 42% of the bill. The confounding part, many commissioners say, is that about 95% of the $2.77 billion in back-pay is intended to be distributed to power conference athletes.

“I am looking at a 10% operating budget cut so that money can go to their former student athletes,” said Tom Wistrcill, commissioner of the Big Sky Conference. “In the system we’ve created, some schools and conferences are doing really, really well. Good for them. Some are struggling.”

The fighting over back pay aside, in meetings this week, commissioners of the Other 28 expressed agreement in granting the major conferences rule-making powers, such as the creation of their own power conference-only committees.

The handcuffs, it appears, are off. But the requests from those in the big leagues do not stop with governance. It extends to (1) access and (2) revenue. As owners of the more valuable brands and talent-laden teams, power conference leaders have made no secret that they want more access in NCAA postseason championships, and they want to keep more of the money from those postseason championships.

That’s what concerns many of those in the Other 28, who feel as if their already slim slice of the pie is shrinking. There is fear that, eventually, it will completely disappear.

The chief worry is over the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, which is the association and Other 28’s primary source of revenue and the one event that truly binds all Division I institutions. While football cash keeps afloat the power leagues, March Madness is the financial lifeblood for the Other 28 as well as their national relevance.

Already, access is in the crosshairs. The tournament is soon to expand, either by four or eight at-large teams, according to NCAA modeling — a move championed by the power conferences to pave the way into the tournament for more of their schools.

So, what now? What’s the next step in NCAA Division I’s transformation?

The new governance structure, as well as NCAA tournament expansion models, are expected to be further explored this week by members of the Division I Council, one of the NCAA’s most powerful decision-making boards that includes representatives from each DI league — a group that, perhaps, is in line for a dramatic change under the new governance system.

Imagine a Power Conference Council of just members from the SEC, Big 12, ACC and Big Ten, for instance.

Already, the four leagues are working in tandem over the particulars of the settlement. While in Naples, commissioners Tony Petitti (Big Ten), Jim Phillips (ACC), Brett Yormark (Big 12) and Greg Sankey (SEC) met to begin the process of finalizing new football roster limits, a hot-button topic that is part of the new model.

No decisions were made, but they inched closer to a roster limit that will likely be more than than 85 but less than the traditional 120 players that teams now carry.

Not in that meeting, of course, were the Other 28.

Though there is much uncertainty about college sports’ future, one thing is clear: A more official and permanent split of NCAA Division I has arrived.

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