It’s Time For A Sustainable Model For Non-Power 5 Conferences

December 9th, 2016 | by CollegeAD
It’s Time For A Sustainable Model For Non-Power 5 Conferences

Non-Power 5

In conversations with my associates from around the country, it becomes clearer every day that the current financial model and governance structure in Division 1 has created a de facto bifurcated system that provides an environment that is great for the Power 5 conference members but very challenging for everyone else. The tremendous revenues that Power 5 conference members generate just naturally provide them the ability to have substantial advantages that make it extremely difficult for the rest to compete on a continuing basis.  On occasion, a non-power 5 program can make a run and create some buzz, however, it is almost impossible to maintain that success, particularly in the sport of football.  

The one thing that perplexes me is that the non-Power 5 schools have never really developed an agenda that meets their needs and allows them to deal with all the challenges they face now and in the future. Reality is that in today’s environment and down the road, the financial model for non-Power 5 programs is not very good.  The goose that laid the golden egg (student fees) will not keep up with rising costs.  Student fees are going to be very carefully scrutinized and in some states like Virginia, politicians are enacting legislation to control the amount of student fee that can be used for athletics. Additionally, with the increasing focus of online education and the emergence of for-profit universities (like the University of Phoenix), enrollment is decreasing and taking student fee support down with it.  

To further complicate the issue and make the current paradigm that much more challenging, departments are being saddled with rapidly increasing costs such as:

1) The cost of FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act)

2) The NCAA’s newly allowed Cost of Attendance award

3) Employee benefits. Health care in particular, has skyrocketed.  At ETSU our annual benefit line item has more than doubled from $900,000 in 2013 to $1.95 million today

4) Tuition has significantly escalated to compensate for declining enrollment, therefore raising the cost of scholarships.

5) Facility costs increase both in construction and maintenance. As you build more facilities to keep up in the facilities arms race, you need to make sure you have established repair and reserve budgets to maintain them.

6) Travel, equipment and technology costs all continue to grow.

7) Salaries, particularly coaches’ salaries, grow as a geometrical progression and become a significant line item in the arms race.  We have done this one to ourselves.


Many university administrators and governance boards would say “generate more income” and while most programs work hard to do that, the reality is that incremental revenue cannot keep up with rapidly increasing costs.  Therefore, the only way to sustain competitive programs at non-Power 5 schools is to develop a model that allows for “sustainability.”  I always tell folks who work for me that I can identify problems, but what I need are solutions. So here are a few solutions to help develop a model for the non-Power 5 conferences.

1) The NCAA should reduce the number of required sport sponsorships to 12 and eliminate the pool of dollars that are distributed based on sport sponsorship.  Substitute the sport sponsorship pool of money with a formula that would award conference success in 12 pre-determined (by the institution) sports based on conference finish. This pool would reward quality rather than participation.

2) Eliminate all non-traditional seasons to include team practice.  The unintended costs that accompany non-traditional seasons has a major impact on athletic training, facilities management and equipment management.  With the impact of FLSA, we have to minimize the time of non-exempt employees.  This proposal deals with the time commitment of student-athletes and reduces travel, cost of competition and human resource investment.

3) Adopt the European model of sport and develop a system of “relegation and delegation.”  Can you imagine the bottom team in the SEC sliding into Conference USA and the CUSA conference winner jumping into the SEC. The late season games between the bottom finishers would generate a great deal of interest.  You could generate additional revenue by playing an end of season competition focused on the bottom teams of the conference just like you do for the championship.  I am pretty sure coaches in the Power 5 conferences would not be thrilled with the concept.  (I know this one is pretty extreme, just wanted to see if people were still reading.)

4) Establish pools of service consortia where regional offices would be established for compliance, creative services, technology, etc., so programs could pay a fee for services rather than hire full-time staff.

5) Excluding the sports of football, men’s and women’s basketball, volleyball and women’s soccer, make scholarships include tuition, fees and books.  The remaining costs could only be funded by financial need as determined by the completion of the Federal Financial Aid form (FAFSA).

6) Return to the days of simple initial eligibility guidelines. If we want to develop a process that facilitates graduation, focus on continuing eligibility. After the fall semester, require freshmen to have earned 12 hours at a 2.0 GPA.  If they can achieve that benchmark, I would think they have a good foundation to have academic success their entire career. Additionally, universities would determine initial eligibility in the admissions office. Eliminate standardized scores and require a simple high school GPA. Schools across the country (i.e., Wake Forest, Delaware, NYU, George Washington) are dropping standardized tests as requirements for admissions as there is very little validation that standardized tests predict success in college, not to mention the racial bias. By allowing each school’s director of admissions to certify initial eligibility based on high school GPA, you would do the following:

– Eliminate the NCAA clearinghouse and all the bureaucracy surrounding it. You could return the savings back to the institutions.

– Eliminate about half the time your compliance staff invests on initial eligibility to free them up to accomplish productive results. (Most programs could eliminate at least one full-time position— #eliminatebureaucracy).

– Put the onus on university presidents who have continually said they want to ensure integrity in college athletics. Have the presidents manage the admissions process based on their university’s academic standards and hold the admission personnel accountable for accepting students that meet both the NCAA and the University standards.  Presidents would need to demonstrate from the top to all their staff, that the university is serious about academic integrity.

If you are looking for a way to advance your career, check out ETSU’s Doctorate in Global Sport Leadership.  You can complete this degree and keep your current job and location.  Contact Dr. Brian Johnston at [email protected] for information.


Richard Sander About Dr. Richard Sander

Dr. Richard Sander, led Virginia Commonwealth’s athletic program for 20 years, and was introduced as ETSU’s  Director of Intercollegiate Athletics in 2013. Prior to his time at VCU, Sander served as Assistant Athletic Director and was responsible for athletic fundraising at Memphis State University (now The University of Memphis). Sander earned a B.S. in Business Administration from the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga in 1968. He received a M.S. in Physical Education from Xavier University in 1974, and a Ph.D. in Education from the University of Cincinnati in 1980.

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