NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A panel of college administrators agree the NCAA business model has to change to survive.
Three administrators participated in a discussion Tuesday on integrity and the commercialization of college athletics — Ohio Valley Conference Commissioner Beth DeBauche, Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart and former Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe.
Many athletic departments are flush with cash thanks to multi-million dollar TV deals. Conferences have started their own networks, and coaches' contracts continue to soar.
Now, athletes are demanding their fair share.
"The landscape as we know it for Division I is going to certainly change in some form or fashion," DeBauche said.
While DeBauche sees the current crisis as an opportunity to make college athletics healthier than ever, the panel also agreed the question now is how to do that.
"We have to have 21st century solutions," Barnhart said. "We didn't get to this problem overnight."
A regional National Labor Relations Board official cleared the way recently for football players at Northwestern to form what would be the nation's first union for college athletes. Northwestern has appealed the ruling, and the NLRB currently is weighing that appeal. The NCAA and the Big Ten Conference also oppose the ruling.
Northwestern players will vote April 25 on whether to form a union.
DeBauche said difficult conversations loom in the coming months. There's a gap between the top five conferences with the big-money deals, and she said the majority of the 32 conferences in Division I are more like the OVC. Money made by the conference goes back to members to pay bills. The conferences also need to protect non-revenue generating sports and meet Title IX requirements.
"Put on top of that challenges from unionization ... we're going to have to be flexible to adapt to those," DeBauche said. "In fact, if there's so much pressure and we get close to a business model, we will not be able to sustain it."
Beebe believes that the revenue gap can be bridged, although he said the challenge will be giving a quarterback extra money without taking dollars out of a fellow student's pocket.
"How that all makes sense, I'm not really sure but thank goodness I don't have to" figure it out, Beebe said.
Barnhart pointed to the Olympic model.
He said the organization changed from purely amateur athletes to today's system where many, but not all, Olympians earn money without turning off fans. But the Kentucky athletic director said he also wants to protect a system that allows a tennis player on scholarship the chance to attend college.
He said realignment increased students' desires to get their share of the money generated by football and men's basketball. He noted programs like women's volleyball and softball in the Big 12 now fly to games and stay in first-class hotels with the bills paid by the revenue generated from football and men's basketball.
Reinstating the grant-in-aid for student-athletes is an option that should be discussed at the highest levels, said Beebe, who noted that such a grant that was $15 a month 40 years ago would now be about $200.
"We'd be in a better place," Beebe said, "and if it happened a couple years ago it could've held off some of these outside pressures."