Do College Sports Really Need the NCAA? – Wall Street Journal

Will the Michigan State mascot be showing up at more club sport competitions?
ENLARGE

East Lansing, Mich.

For all the abuse heaped on the NCAA for its handling of big-budget college athletics, the group’s leaders have always had a ready retort for critics: Most of the institution’s efforts are focused on servicing smaller sports like volleyball and gymnastics that allow legions of fame-less student-athletes to compete at the highest levels.

But what if universities began to back away from that service? Would they still need the NCAA?

At Michigan State University, President Lou Anna Simon is eager to explore the possibility of providing students with NCAA-quality sports outside of the NCAA. Simon, in an interview, said the school is working on a pilot program in which so-called “club” sports at the school, like lacrosse and fencing, could be staffed by medical professionals, as is the practice for sports governed by the NCAA. Club sports don’t participate in any NCAA championship structure, are run entirely by students, and are managed out of the school’s student life department, not its athletic department.

“It’s an experiment,” Simon said, adding that, if successful, such a program could give the school an idea of what athletics sans the NCAA could look like.

Amid the growing commercialization of big-budget college sports and legal battles over whether those athletes should get paid, many college administrators are concerned about the costs of lesser-known “nonrevenue” sports. Most of the expenses a college athletics department incurs are related to the costs of labor, equipment, travel and scholarships for the hundreds of varsity athletes who compete in NCAA sports that produce little or no revenue. Athletes in club sports, by contrast, largely pay their own expenses, with highly limited contributions from their schools. Michigan State’s 28 club sports—an array ranging from highly competitive, established sports such as lacrosse to more wonky contests such competitive cheer and dodgeball—cost the school $990,000 in the 2014-15 school year.

By contrast, Michigan State’s athletics department overseeing the school’s 23 NCAA sports had a $95.4 million budget for the 2014-15 school year.

Michigan State University President Lou Ann K. Simon advocated giving outsiders more influence inside the NCAA, to no avail.
ENLARGE

Despite a reputation as recreational, club sports can be a venue for fierce competition among great athletes. USA Triathlon’s top-ranked American male, Olympic hopeful Ben Kanute, is a former member of the University of Arizona’s triathlon club. But club sports can still suffer from a lack of respect, and one reason is lack of required medical oversight. Changing that could be a big step toward erasing the perception that club sports are far inferior to programs aligned with the NCAA.

None of this means Michigan State is anywhere close to relegating any of its varsity sports to club status. The last sports at MSU to lose NCAA status were men’s lacrosse in 1996 and men’s gymnastics in 2001, and both decisions were met with resistance on campus. It isn’t a controversy the school wants to wade back into anytime soon.

But, over time, if the university is able to beef up the profile of its club programs, the idea of removing sports from roster of NCAA programs might not be so painful for the players and prospective recruits, particularly if more schools followed suit.

That would mean savings for the school because being part of the NCAA’s Division I requires extensive travel, big budgets, elaborate facilities and a minimum number of scholarships.

Adding potential financial pressure to schools, a federal court ruled last year that men’s basketball and football players in the most prominent programs could begin receiving a limited portion of the millions that universities make on broadcasting deals for those sports. The NCAA has appealed the ruling.

On top of that, a new NCAA rule allows schools within the richest athletic conferences—including Michigan State and its Big Ten rivals—to offer players scholarships that cover the full cost of attending college beyond just tuition, room, board and books. Michigan State’s athletic director, Mark Hollis, frets openly that such supplements will cost Michigan State $1 million to $1.5 million a year. “That money has to come from somewhere,” he said.

Schools in major conferences like Michigan State rake in millions from men’s basketball and football, largely because of the rich television contracts. But they lose money on almost all other sports.

Simon has been a big supporter of athletics including men’s basketball and football in her 10-year tenure at MSU, signing off on multi-million-dollar contracts for coaches who have made their teams national contenders.

But for as much as she values having Michigan State’s teams in the national spotlight, Simon, who spent last year heading the NCAA’s board of governors, ended the term frustrated with the organization’s insular nature and concerned about the future of the college sporting model. While heading the board, Simon said, she advocated for allowing outsiders on the board, now comprised of university presidents and athletic directors. The idea never took off.

In the last couple of years, some big names in college sports have begun to question the NCAA’s dominant role.

NCAA’s so-called Power Five conferences discussed splitting off into their own division unless they were granted more independence. Months later, the NCAA’s Division I complied, giving the conferences freedom to make their own rules on matters such as stipends, scholarships and insurance for players.

Last week, Notre Dame President Rev. John Jenkins told the New York Times that the school would consider leaving the NCAA if college athletes started getting paid substantial amounts, teaming instead with “like-minded universities” who believe athletics are meant to serve an educational purpose.

NCAA President Mark Emmert is aware that the upheaval has created an existential dilemma for the organization.

“If the landscape should change, people are asking, ‘Should we find a different way to participate in college sports?’” he said to a group of faculty liaisons to the NCAA gathered this week in Texas. “I hear that again and again.”

University presidents, Emmert said later, “want to define their future. They don’t want it to be defined for them by a legal process.”

Write to Sharon Terlep at sharon.terlep@wsj.com

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