Big Five Autonomy Will Only Lead To Another College Football Gold Rush

Aug 17, 2014 5:58 AM EST

Good old Clark Stanley had a heck of a run.

The Texas cowboy spent 121 years as the benchmark that all swindlers and charlatans aspired to, thanks to his Snake Oil Liniment that was able to cure all that ails you.

Stanley’s snake oil, of course, was later found to have no curing or healing qualities, but it did give us the term “snake oil salesman” to describe anyone attempting to sell us a bill of goods.

It’s all over for Stanley now. He’s been replaced by that Indianapolis-based cartel that oversees collegiate athletics.

The NCAA board of directors recently voted in favor of providing a little autonomy to the Big Five conferences (Pac-12, Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Big 12) so they could flex their financial muscle.

The board of directors had to make this move. College football and basketball have become such big business that the Big Five conferences no longer need the NCAA to govern them. If Mark Emmert and company didn’t give in, the commissioners of the power conferences would have simply left and created their own governing body that would allow them to do whatever they wanted.

But this isn’t about whether the decision to provide the autonomy was right or wrong.

We’re being fed a load of hooey. The ruling is being billed as a cure-all and a way to improve the lives of student athletes everywhere, while instantly solving the great money divide between the haves and have-nots in college football.

Don’t be swindled. The ruling won’t fix anything. Just like the NCAA's first attempt didn’t fix anything 36 years ago.

In 1978 the NCAA split Division I into Division I A (FBS) and Division I AA (FCS). The split, at the time had more to do with scholarships than anything else. FBS teams were now able to award 85 full scholarships while FCS can only offer 63.

There were a few years of transition immediately following the split with 28 teams stepping down to FCS and only 10 schools moving up, leaving a total of 112.

Things got pretty quiet after that. Only two teams with a deep-rooted desire to offer more scholarships and play in bowl games made the move between 1983 and 1991.

Then Notre Dame had to go and sign a five-year television deal with NBC for $7.6 million per year, making college football more than just a big deal; it was big business now, too.

With the potential of millions of dollars at stake, college football’s version of the California gold rush was on.

Since Notre Dame’s big money agreement with NBC, 25 teams have “graduated” to FBS with another on the way next year; all of them undoubtedly making the move with visions of television contracts — or television networks — and piles of cash dancing in their heads.

Did it work?

Depends on where you play your pigskin.

The most recent financial data provided by the U.S. Department of Education is from 2012, giving us information on 20 of the schools that moved from FCS to FBS (Texas-San Antonio made the move in 2012 as well, but no data was available). Of those 20 teams, eight reported making more money playing football than they spent to play it, giving us a success rate of 40 percent. Six of the schools that wound up in the black happen to be located in states where college football is kind of a big deal: Texas, Florida and Alabama (Marshall and Boise State were the only two that don’t reside in those three states).

Profit margins weren’t enormous either. Only four of the schools reported gains of over $1 million.

The other 12 schools? Four of them reported losses and the remaining eight, amazingly enough, reported their football program spent the exact same amount that they made, meaning one of three things:

  • These institutions have savvy businessmen that can calculate the exact price of tickets and concessions down to the penny all while accurately predicting attendance figures.
  • Either boosters or their conference is covering losses to bail them out; or
  • They’re robbing Peter to pay Paul by reallocating funds from within the institution. 

In other words, 12 out of 20 schools are paying money for the right to play college football.

It’s not some kind of CIA secret that schools need to be in a conference with a massive television deal in order to turn a profit playing football.

Just like the gold rush, the schools that got there first got rich; a few who rushed to join the party found fertile ground and got lucky; and the rest are lucky to strike copper.

But now, the guys who got rich by discovering college football gold feel like the landscape is overpopulated and decided to move on to something new—again.

The problem is, this new ruling allows every conference outside of the Power Five to opt in to whatever new rules are put into place.

If schools were willing to run into financial ruin at the promise of potentially making millions before, what’s to stop them now?

It only takes one school or one conference to break ranks in the name of fame and fortune for the same old college football gold rush to begin again.

And behind it all, will be that old snake oil salesman, the NCAA.

The kind of swindler only Clark Stanley could love.