College football’s kings are aligning in an effort to pave the sport’s future path.
Amid one of the most pivotal times in college athletics, the SEC and Big Ten, the two wealthiest conferences in America, are creating a joint advisory group of university presidents, chancellors and athletics directors to address the turmoil enveloping the industry, the league’s two commissioners told Yahoo Sports in an exclusive interview this week.
This nameless joint effort, a historic cooperative movement between the country’s most powerful leagues, is an initial step in their intent to steer the future of college athletics — the latest example of authority shifting from the NCAA’s age-old national governance model to its more prominent conferences.
The joint advisory board is tasked with tackling the most pressing challenges before the industry in what Big Ten and SEC commissioners describe as an “urgent” mission to find solutions for issues such as ongoing antitrust lawsuits, most notably the multi-billion dollar House case; disagreements over the NCAA’s new governance proposal, Project DI; and the unsettled landscape of athlete transfer movement, tampering charges and name, image and likeness (NIL) inducements.
Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti calls the joint move a “meaningful step” in an effort to “fix things.” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey described it as a search for “a common-sense solution” that, he hopes, will lead to a “much brighter horizon.”
The commissioners both strongly rebuke any notion that the creation of this advisory board is a move toward a breakaway from the college sports’ governing body. The Big Ten and SEC remain prominent members of the NCAA, both in governance and national competition, they say. The joint board does not hold unilateral authority and they will have “no motivation to simply declare” anything, Sankey said.
“From our perspective, we have a lot that is linked to the NCAA,” he said. “We want to see a healthy national organization. I think that’s very much a need.”
However, “pressures are mounting,” he continued. “We’re going to have conversations about what might a path forward mean for college sports.”
Said Petitti: “You can see the pace that others are getting involved in college athletics is increasing. So the pace of solutions to the problems being identified has to increase.”
While commissioners say their expressed goal is not secession, the creation of the joint board feels like something much more grandiose in the making — college football’s two behemoths sharing ideas, plans and models for the future.
After all, officials from the two conferences hold more authority than any other leagues — they own much of the value, money and historic success. Next year, the leagues will encompass 34 schools in 27 different states. In college athletics’ only real profit-turning sport — football — those teams have won three times as many AP national championships as the other leagues combined. From a revenue perspective, schools in the Big Ten and SEC will soon earn at least $25 million more than the next conference’s media rights deal.
The similarities have brought them together. Their commissioners have grown close. A pair of New York state natives leading rival billion-dollar businesses, one is a longtime media and Major League Baseball executive, Petitti, and the other a lifelong college athletics administrator, Sankey.
In Petitti’s first few weeks on the job last spring, he visited Sankey in Birmingham to start a dialogue that reached a crescendo with this week’s announcement. In between was a golf outing together over the summer and multiple meetings at various NCAA and College Football Playoff events — a relationship that seems to have even surpassed the rivalries of their predecessors, Mike Slive and Roy Kramer in the SEC and Jim Delany in the Big Ten.
Some within college athletics look at this budding bond between the two goliaths as the latest threat on the enterprise. Others describe it as a necessary evil that may generate real, accelerated progress in an era of urgent modernization.
“We thought in the Big Ten that coming together this way to share ideas was the fastest and best way to increase the pace of what we are doing,” Petitti said.
'When are you and the Big Ten going to tell us what you want?'
While circumstances have long pointed toward an affiliation between the two leagues, an event just last month triggered the move. While at the NCAA convention in Phoenix, Sankey participated in meetings of the Division I Council, the NCAA’s second-highest ranking DI governance body.
He left meetings realizing that many of these most challenging issues “reside here with us,” he said of the two conferences.
“I was asked in Phoenix (by administrators), ‘When are you and the Big Ten going to tell us what you want?’ That was a motivating factor,” Sankey said.
In the past, both men have expressed an intent to find a way to expedite NCAA governance and condense the amount of schools making decisions — a concept somewhat foreign to the NCAA’s laborious bureaucratic process.
They believe the joint advisory board, encompassed by like-minded representatives, provides a more streamlined and efficient path to quicker consensus on decisions — a decades-long struggle in a national association that spans three divisions, 97 conferences and more than 1,000 schools, all of them with varying resource levels, missions and goals.
Sankey, however, left open the door for the joint group to grow, possibly incorporating representatives from other leagues.
“We can start it together and I think it can populate itself outward and we can draw people in and work in larger rooms,” he said before pausing, “but having been in a lot of larger rooms, we haven’t seemed to make a lot of progress with bigger numbers.”
Over the years, Sankey has expressed his frustration publicly for the small number of representatives that power leagues hold on NCAA governance bodies. He often points toward the NCAA Division I Council, of which most key decisions are adopted. The group is made up of 40 members, just six of which are representatives from the Power 4 conferences.
“We have to think about how we accelerate our own thinking,” Sankey said.
Sankey and Petitti will hold positions on the joint board, but its membership and exact composition have not yet been finalized. While the group will only include athletic directors and chancellors from the two conferences, leaders are expected to lean on athletes as well, they say.
The leagues choreographed a Friday rollout of the joint move in a subtle and subdued way. There is no specific name attached to the advisory group or the joint operation in general.
There is no logo, no news conference or flashy backdrop.
Such bells and whistles were part of the introduction in 2021 of The Alliance, a partnership between the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 that lasted less than a year and is deemed by many as one of the sport’s greatest failures. The Alliance spectacularly imploded when the Big Ten and then-commissioner Kevin Warren broke what was termed a “gentleman’s agreement” by poaching USC and UCLA.
Nearly three years later, the Big Ten has found a new dance partner.
“I don’t expect we’ll agree on everything,” Sankey said. “We want our teams to succeed. I was hoping the way the (CFP) semifinals played out that it was going to be Texas and Alabama. Tony got to smile more than I did.”
As the 2023 football season played out, their plans were not kept secret within the college athletics world. Over the last several days, in fact, Yahoo Sports learned of a “special project” between the two conferences, the details of which were only known by their commissioners, a select group of presidents and high-ranking league office personnel.
SEC, Big Ten on Project DI
The buzz within the two conferences grew louder last week, when Yahoo Sports published a story ahead of a meeting in Washington D.C. between the five major conference commissioners and NCAA president Charlie Baker — a story that outlined the Big Ten and SEC’s internal pushback of Baker’s proposed new college athlete model, dubbed Project DI.
Project DI will be one of the first topics addressed by the joint advisory group, Sankey said. Project DI, revealed in December, would permit schools to strike NIL deals directly with athletes while also creating a separate subdivision in FBS for high-revenue producing schools. Those schools in the new subdivision will be required to put away into a trust a minimum of $30,000 annually per athlete for at least half of a school’s athletes.
The first portion of the proposal — permissive school-to-athlete NIL pay — is on a fast track for potential adoption as soon as August. However, the joint board is expected to address the project and give feedback to NCAA leaders and/or the Division I Council, which is charged with adopting a framework around the proposal.
Sankey described last week’s meeting with Baker as a “candid conversation” and was encouraged at Baker’s insistence that the proposal is not, in any way, set in stone.
“Charlie seemed open that there is not one predetermined path to accomplish some of the things he suggested,” Petitti said. “There isn’t just one path and he’s open to listening to maybe some other ideas.”
In interviews with Yahoo Sports this week, ACC commissioner Jim Phillips and Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark expressed similar encouragement from the meeting.
“Charlie Baker has a better understanding now of what we need,” Phillips said. “He listened.”
“It was a great meeting. Open and honest,” Yormark said.
Settling on an acceptable athlete compensation model is perhaps the most pressing issue before the Big Ten and SEC’s advisory group, as well as the other FBS leagues. A new model could rectify both the House v. NCAA antitrust case and the current landscape of college football and basketball recruiting — a space which coaches and administrators describe as a pay-for-play, unregulated free agent marketplace.
Many around college sports view the House case as the final wedge between the haves and have-nots, leading to what’s often termed as "The Great Split." Only the high end of college athletic programs can afford to (1) contribute to the settlement (as much as $10-15 million per school) and (2) operate within a system that is deemed “fair” enough to be part of a settlement — in all likelihood, a revenue-sharing model or a similar concept.
The “sharing of ideas” among joint board members is critical to forming a new model, Petitti said, which in turn could calm the rocky seas of college athletics and its many litigation issues.
The NCAA is facing more than a half-dozen antitrust lawsuits challenging its rules. While the House case is likely the most costly — at least $3 billion in retroactive NIL, according to many estimates — at least two more cases could deem athletes as employees.
Most recently, two other cases have targeted the NCAA transfer and NIL policies. They could bring further “chaos” to the landscape, according to one NIL collective manager.
A lawsuit filed by a handful of state attorneys general, of which the Department of Justice is now a plaintiff, threatens to permanently end the association’s policy limiting athletes to one transfer during their pre-graduate career, opening the door for unlimited movement.
A second suit, filed this week by Tennessee and Virginia attorneys general, aims to lift the NCAA’s prohibitions on NIL-related recruiting inducements and tampering.
The landscape, many claim, is a mess that is driving out coaches and administrators from the college scene and into the professional ranks — a “concerning” trend for Sankey and others that served as another motivating factor for the venture with the Big Ten.
Pushed toward a more professional model by exterior forces, college athletics has reached an inflection point. Can the Big Ten and SEC move it out of this space and into the future under a modernized model?
“We are not going to be status quo,” Sankey said. “Who is responsible (for the current state)? We could paint with a pretty broad brush. I actually have the responsibility to look forward. Yeah, we are dealing with a lot. States, congressional interest, litigation. The observation here is we have to start thinking together.”