Using the English Premier League to Divine the NCAA’s Future

Chelsea FA Cup

By Chuck Burton
Publisher/Managing Editor
College Sports Journal

BETHLEHEM, PA. — Media Day season, in FCS as in FBS, has been all about dramatic change.


It’s about a group of five conferences – the Big 10, Pac 12, Big XII, SEC and ACC – trying to start a conversation about changing how the NCAA does its business, and succeeding at that task.


Their rumblings about opening a discussion of radial change has conference commissioners everywhere talking about it.


Never before have conference commissioners had to talk about the very nature of their levels of competition, justifying where their place in the world might be – needs to be – once the Big 5 have decided what they want to do.


In my conversation with the executive director of the Patriot League this afternoon at their media day, I tried to come up with a picture of what a new collegiate athletics order might look like.



I didn’t set out to talk about English soccer when I talked to Carolyn Schlie Femovich, the executive director of the Patriot League who speaks for the academic-focused league’s presidents.


But as I asked the question that is on, most likely, any fans’ mind – um, where is this conference going to be in a couple of years? – I kept on thinking of the example of English Soccer.


“I think what’s absolutely certain is that change is coming,” she told me.  “What that change is going to be has to be determined yet, but I think we’re going to see some change in governance, for Division 4, Division X, whatever they’re calling it will come into play.”


From my perspective, a tempting name for any new construct for the “Big 5” teams might be the “Premier Division”.


The reason for calling the “Big 5″‘s motions for change the “Premier Division” becomes clear when you look at the history of the English Premier League.


In 1986, teams like Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal competed in the highest level of English Soccer, Division One. 


Division One was the top level of the four-division league structure, run by one entity, called the Football League.


The Football League, who managed four divisional levels of soccer called League One, League Two, League Three, and the Conference, controlled the TV contracts to every single level of soccer games, and the size of those contracts were exploding.


By 1988, the League negotiated a TV package that literally multiplied their income nearly four times.  As the TV money ballooned from £3.15 million annually to £11 million annually, suddenly the League was flush with cash.


But the most successful clubs came to the conclusion – with some justification – that League One’s TV value was mostly generated by the largest clubs, specifically the “Big Five” of Arsenal, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur.  Teams like Arsenal and Liverpool were getting the bulk of the TV viewership, not Millwall.


As a result, the “Big Five” and five other League One clubs banded together and threatened to form a “super league”, free of the management of the Football League. 


While they remained in League One after their first attempt at change, two years later, they were successful, and the Premier League was born.


The questions those teams posed then undoubtedly parallel the questions being posed now in the highest reaches of Division I athletics. 


Questions like: Is it a good idea for the “Big Five” conferences break away from the NCAA, in order to have more control over, say, TV rights?  Is it better for them to stay within the structure of the NCAA?  Is it a good idea to form their own division?  Is it sufficient to simply make a new subdivision in football?


Femovich acknowledged to me that these questions are being asked everywhere in collegiate athletics, and to her, she feels like the “Big Five” most likely will stay within the confines of the NCAA.


“I don’t think there’s any desire [for the Big Five Conferences] to segregate or break off,” Femovich told me.  “I think there’s a desire to stay together and a strong will to try to find a way to keep everybody in the family.  That means, though, that we may see some things that are different than the way we have been doing business.”


It does make sense to me.  A breakup would mean writing a whole new rulebook, hiring all-new administrators, and duplicating most of what the NCAA already does today, among a host of other new costs. 


There’s another reason why the “Big Five” conferences probably don’t wish to break completely free of the NCAA – credibility.


When the “Big Five” soccer clubs of England met with TV executives in 1991 to try to break away from League One, they had to think about the exact same sorts of issues in regards to breaking away from the Football Association, which is the rules governing body of English soccer.


Questions like: Should they disassociate from the Football Association in order to control more the revenues?  Would they still be able to qualify for lucrative international soccer competitions without it?


Ultimately the English Soccer “Big Five” came to the conclusion that their new league would not have sufficient credibility free of the rules structure of the Football Association, so they worked to make sure they still operated under their framework.  In return, the Football Association would have a seat at the table in the governance of the Premier League, but would have less control over the TV money, which would be more concentrated on the Premier League clubs.


Could the NCAA’s “keeping things in the family” in a similar way?  How would such an arrangement look?


Would it mean keeping things exactly the way they are in terms of Division I, but simply forming a new “Premier Subdivision” just for football?  Would it instead mean making a brand-new “Premier Division” for all sports? 


How would either construct be organized?  Who would have seats at that table?  How many teams will be a part of this subdivision?  And are there enough teams there to mount credible, interesting competition?


“The devils going to be in the details, and how it plays out I think will involve lots of conversations yet to come,” Femovich said.  “Football clearly distinguishes itself because we have two subdivisions in Division I.  Is a third subdivision coming in football?  I don’t know that, but everyone needs competitors, so whether we continue to play only at the FCS level, or those top five conferences will tend to play only amongst themselves… they’re all trying to create winning programs, so I think they need the rest of the membership, whether it’s in football or other sports.  To me, that’s one of the more compelling reasons to stay together.  There is value in having different levels of competition as you build your schedule.”


Femovich acknowledged there are tons of unanswered questions that need answers in regards to what’s coming in Division I athletics, especially about how things might be run.


“We tend to think about it on the competitive side, but governance, though, that’s the other side,” she said.  “Who’s making the decisions?  Who has the seat at that table at the board level to make the final decisions?  Where our input goes into that process is what I think is important to us, where we have a voice presidentially as well as with athletic directors.”


These are fundamental questions being asked by Femovich, questions that everyone hopes will be answered in January, 2014, when NCAA president Mark Emmert will call a summit to discuss the potential of making changes to Division I.


“There’s a need to recognize there are Division I schools with $5 million athletic budgets and $155 million athletic budgets,” he recently said, “and trying to find a model that fits all of them is the enormous challenge right now.”


One of the more enormous challenges is how the NCAA can preserve the fun (and lucrative) men’s basketball tournament, yet still undergo some fundamental change.


Membership in the NCAA men’s basketball Tournament, as in other Division I competitions, is set by Division I membership. For example, D-III Moravian just can’t offer full hoops scholarships and declare themselves Division I – they would need to transition their entire athletics department to Division I in order to participate, a lengthy process that would take over a decade to complete before even thinking about it. 


(Some Division II and III athletics departments have some individual Division I sports, but they are teams that have been grandfathered in for historical reasons, like Johns Hopkins’ lacrosse team.  Today, a team cannot start a Division I lacrosse team but still have a Division III athletics department.)


If the “Big Five” conferences break off and form their own brand-new full-blown division with their own rules, as the rules appear to stand right now they’d have to have their own men’s basketball tournament, because they would be their own division with their own rules. 


Current Division I schools then, presumably, could not participate in a Premier Division men’s basketball championship.


This rupture of schools from the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament is precisely why Ms. Femovich thinks the “Big Five” wouldn’t break up the tournament.


“Let’s just say the ‘Big Five’ just decided to go off and run their own basketball tournament,” she said.  “It would be a high level of play, the premier league of play, but you don’t have the upsets that you have now, no Cinderella teams.  That’s what creates great public interest, great media interest, and I think that’s what makes that sport so dynamic.


“I think the most important thing is that you play against competitors that have some similarity to your competitive quality.  Some competitors might be a real stretch, others might be more of a 50/50 tossup, and the others might not be a guaranteed win, but one where you might expect to win.  I think that’s good in any sport and any program.”


Interestingly, English soccer also offers a potential new model for the NCAA to look at in terms of a revamped men’s basketball tournament.


While the FA Cup is a parallel competition to the Premier championship, it is a competition in English soccer, it encompasses all levels competition, from semi-professional teams to all-pro squads like Chelsea.


Like the NCAA tournament, it gives the tiny teams with part-time players the chance to compete against international soccer superstars.  With soccer teams at all levels invested at some level in the FA Cup, it’s an incredibly popular competition.


With some changes to the rules – admittedly, big changes – something similar could possibly happen with the NCAA Tournament.


Picture a men’s basketball tournament where, in each Division, each conference tournament winner and a certain number of at-large teams win preliminary round games to compete against the next division up.


For example, let’s say D-III Gettysburg College wins the Centennial conference championship, and faces, say, and at-large team Augustana in Round 1. 


Round 1 would have winners of those games, with the winners then taking on a pool of Division II autobid and at-large teams in Round 2.


Those winners could then enter a pool to play Division I teams in Round 3, perhaps even having two rounds in Round 3, before introducing the Premier Division teams in Round 4. 


The end product could even be the classic, 64-team bracket in March that all men’s college basketball fans know and love, but potentially with a much larger group of schools that are not household names.  Imagine D-II Alaska-Anchorage playing UCLA, for example, or D-III Mount Ida College playing Indiana.


But using this idea would see a lot of resistance – exisiting Division I conferences, like the Patriot League, would almost certainly see diminished access to the NCAA Tournament.  Schools that had automatic bids to the tournament might now need to be convinced that playing “play-in games” isn’t a step in the wrong direction.  (Perhaps the idea of “tournament shares” might help – more tournament wins could result in more money from the NCAA.)


The logistics, too, of a tournament might be difficult to manage.  Division III’s championships, for example, might need to be completed by mid-January to allow them to participate in opening-round games.  That may be a non-starter.


An even bigger issue, though, would be that such and idea would change the fundamental nature of NCAA divisions today, where, essentially, divisions are like gated athletic communities with their own championships.


To me, the nature of divisions itself is in question.  Once you need to find a solution for preserving the NCAA tournament as-is with Premier Division and Division I teams, you open up the question, “well, why shouldn’t Division III teams be allowed to participate, too?”   Should they still be gated championship communities?  Should cross-division participation be OK for some sports, and not others?


Also, if the “Premier League” is its own, distinct league, what happens in football competition if basketball-first conferences like the Big East are included in this new league? 


After all, there’s no option to play a mega-tournament in football with proper access to every division.  Strict competition segregation by division in football would have serious impact, more so than in other sports.


Would schools like Villanova and Georgetown, who compete at the FCS level at present, be forced to play at the FBS level or fold their programs?


“I don’t think there would be an impact, but that needs to be resolved,” Femovich said.  “I think it’s worked well to date that schools like Villanova and others that have very high quality basketball but also want to support football, but the rest of the Big East might not want to support football.  For Villanova, FCS is the perfect match – I don’t see that going away, at least not in the immediate future.  But I think anything’s possible and everything’s on the table.”


In an effort to solve this avalanche of questions, intense discussions will probably continue from now until the NCAA summit on January 14th, with the Patriot League very much a part of that process.


“Clearly, leadership at the presidential level, the president of the NCAA, the board, and the executive committee have to play a critical role,” Femovich said, “but ultimately we, as members of the NCAA, need to play a role in figuring out how to make this work, and our voice is as important as any other the other 31 conferences out there.”


Despite the changes, Femovich didn’t forsee any big changes as to how the Patriot League does business.  “We’ve always been very clear about what our priorities and commitments are,” she said, “and how we want to manage our programs, whether it’s about scholarships, academics, not redshirting – none of that is going to change for the Patriot League.  But we may see some of our competitors change, either because they have access to different resources, or decide to spend their money differently.  I think that’s yet to be seen, but I think we’ll continue to adhere to our core values.”


But the only thing that’s clear is that change is coming to Division I, and that what’s coming will challenge what we think about collegiate athletics, divisions, governance, and competitions.  And if that’s the case, I think it would be very instructive to look at the English Premier League.