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The Big Ten is On The Clock: Amid Massive Change the Conference Can Lead Again

In the next few years, big-time college sports will settle into a far more stable environment than the NCAA is allowing right now. Players will participate in revenue sharing, transfer rules will settle, NIL will fall under agreed-upon uniform rules nationwide and skyrocketing spending on coaching salaries, and facilities will moderate as the reality of a new financial model takes hold.

Privately across the country, many ADs and coaches readily admit this. But many fans are not happy.

I get that, we all get that. College sports has a long history of things being done a certain way. Universities and their media partners have capitalized on the intense loyalty of fans. No one can afford to see any erosion of that passion.

But the capitalization of the sport has reached levels that are forcing massive change. Whether we like it or not, Universities are now in the sports entertainment business. We know our souls are for sale, we’re just trying to settle on the terms.

But looking at how the revenue sharing scenario plays out, those who come out ahead in a new arrangement are the student-athletes in every sport. It also ensures stability for the television networks who fund this whole college sports spectacle. As for perspective on the TV haul, keep in mind that the TV revenue in the new Big Ten contract may be double the gate and revenues for PSU games.

The people who will have to sacrifice to make this a reality are coaches, athletic directors and administrators who will have to adjust to tectonic shifts in the financial landscape. But with the Big Ten’s new TV contracts coming up, this is the time for the Big Ten to take the lead. As the rest of the country is looking for someone, anyone to take charge, this is the Big Ten's moment.

Earlier this week, CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd uncovered a story about a covert organizational meeting among Penn State players. The word union was part of that discussion and demands were discussed—including revenue sharing.

At a time when the word “union” has become politically charged, some reaction was fast and furious. In a world where old-timers think that these kids are already getting a great deal and should be happy they get to play football at Penn State, negative reaction was not unexpected.

It is easy to react one way or another to Sean Clifford and the Penn State players for having that meeting. But everyone should breathe, understand that we are in a very different world. This new world order in college sports is neither better nor worse, it is just different. Young men are trying to understand their place in a multi-billion-dollar system that relies on their talents, performance and risk-taking.

2020 was a turning point. As covid threatened to shut down the 2020 football season, the realization was that a massive loss of TV revenue was in the cards. So, conferences made players undergo rigid criteria, played in empty or nearly-empty stadiums and made sure that the show went on to fulfill the TV contracts.

At that moment everyone knew that the players were the stars of that weekly TV show. No players, no games and no games, no TV money.

That remains the case today and the players know it. If USC opens their first Big Ten conference game on the road at Michigan and the players walk out, will any of us stick around to watch Jim Harbaugh and Lincoln Riley square off in a game of Corn Hole or Bocce? (That is in no way intended to denigrate the lawn game skills of either coach)

Even after the 2020 awakening and NCAA legal setbacks, the pace of change accelerates. Limitless transferring makes every player a free agent every year. In the last nine months football players have seen the first $80+ million coaching contract, the first $90+ million coaching contract and the first $110+ million coaching contract.

Very soon the players in the Big Ten will be part of a conference TV contract that will eclipse $1 billion annually. By contrast, that Big Ten contract is likely to exceed the NCAA governing bodies’ entire annual revenues ($1.15 billion 90% of that from March Madness).

And if that isn't enough, a new expanded College Football Playoff is likely, one extending the season by two or more games. More money, more physical demands on the student-athletes. It's easy to see why players are looking around.

So what is the Big Ten to do?

Embrace the change and take the lead. Horse trade and make changes that will stabilize the sport. Hold the line on ticket prices for your fans for a couple of years. Stabilizing rosters, competitive balance and stable pricing for your fans will help keep many fans in the fold during massive change.

The timing works out because the big jump in TV revenues can cover the revenue-sharing costs. Conservatively, if the Big Ten goes from $55 million a year to $85 million a year for every team, and revenue sharing comes in at 35% the revenue share comes in at $29.75 million. So, the new TV money will be paying for the revenue sharing.

In the world of Title IX, revenue sharing will have to be evenly distributed. For example, at Penn State that would mean every student-athlete would get a $35,000 share annually. But to make this work across the conference the revenue sharing would have to be done conference-wide to ensure that every athlete at every Big Ten school gets an even share—maintaining a competitive balance within the conference. It would replace the ambiguous “cost-of-attendance” payout and Alston money.

Because the overwhelming majority of student-athletes are on partial or no aid these $35,000 checks would be life-changing for that walk-on left tackle, the National champion wrestler on a ¼ scholarship or a back-up setter on your women’s volleyball team who is one of the 12 or 13 women on the roster who did not get a full scholarship.

Penn State provides maximum scholarship funding for all 31 sports. That means the equivalent of 377.1 scholarships for 850 student-athletes. Revenue sharing changes the game for hundreds of athletes to compete in the sports they love.

And for the Universities, a lot of those athletes and their families will use all or part of that money to help pay tuition. That is money that will come back to the school and lower the student debt for thousands of athletes across the conference every year. And as fewer student-athletes need less financial aid from the school, that frees up aid for other students to tap into.

Taking this bold move would make the Big Ten a leader again. The Big Ten led the way in conference realignment grabbing Penn State over three decades ago. Penn State spurred the Big Ten to start instant replay in college football in 2004. And The Big Ten Network blazed a new trail for college sports. Even the SEC took a few years to catch up to that one.

The Big Ten can lead again. And that leadership will give the conference an edge in attracting the top student-athletes from across the country.

But for this to succeed this must be a two-way street.

In return for revenue sharing, student-athletes would agree to transfer limitations, uniform NIL rules and would grant the university and networks the ability to use their names and images to promote the program and broadcasts.

That protection for the television networks may help avoid future litigation. If ESPN runs a promo stating: “Saturday night CJ Stroud leads the Ohio State Buckeyes into East Lansing for a primetime showdown against Michigan State on ESPN” whose to say that a future court may not consider that an unauthorized use of CJ Stroud’s Name, Image and Likeness?

And taking the lead on this issue and coming to a written agreement with Big Ten athletes also ensures that a future walk-out does not happen before a big game. While that possibility may seem remote, it is not without precedent.

In 1964 the NBPA threatened to boycott NBA All-Star game just prior to a National TV Broadcast at a time when that league was on the verge of getting its first national TV rights package. The players saw change coming.

College sports' foundations are rocked almost daily by massive change. Arrogance will not work. Clinging to an outdated amateur model will not work. Bold visionary action is vital.

If honest leadership emerges to create stability for the good of the game, college sports fans will adjust and remain loyal through this all.

There are details to be sorted out. Complex issues about how to award revenue sharing and taxation issues and health care issues are out there. But at some point, someone takes a bold step and starts to address and solve these issues and commands the change rather than reacting to it.

No one is better positioned to do it right now than the Big Ten. The Big Ten is on the clock…….


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