Thinking Beyond the Payoff from a Playoff

The Chicago Tribune published this opinion by Knight Commission co-chairs, William “Brit” Kirwan and R. Gerald Turner, on June 14, 2012:

“Major change is on its way to big-time college football after years of debate among fans, sports media, Congress and even President Barack Obama about how the sport crowns its national champion. The conference commissioners, campus leaders and television executives who control the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision appear to be on track to create a playoff to determine a national champion starting with the 2014 season.

The debate has now turned to the obvious issues: how many games will be played, how teams will be chosen and whether current bowl games will survive the transition from the Bowl Championship Series to the new playoff system.

Far less attention has been paid to a much more significant question. How will revenue from the football playoff be distributed, and can it be used to reclaim some of the integrity lost by college sports in recent years?

The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, an independent organization of leaders in higher education and other fields, believes it can.

The playoff will come with a massive new television contract. Experts believe the deal will be worth at least $500 million annually, more than double the current payout for the five-game BCS. This projected payout adds to the more than $1 billion in annual media revenues that the five richest conferences will earn for their 62 member institutions.

The Knight Commission has called on college presidents, athletics directors and conference commissioners to use a significant portion of playoff revenue to reward teams that do a better job of educating and graduating their players.

The NCAA, conferences and institutions already have made some progress in this area. Most recently, the NCAA adopted a long-held Knight Commission proposal that teams must be on track to graduate at least half their players to be eligible for any postseason game, including football bowl games. But with the increasing complexity of the college sports landscape, a regulatory approach alone will not be sufficient. More can and should be done.

The emphasis on winning and increasing media revenues has created a dangerous cost spiral for our universities. Spending on sports has been growing twice as fast as spending on academics. The current method for distributing postseason football revenues fuels this spiral by rewarding institutions for their football success and marketplace value, causing other programs to invest funds needed elsewhere on campus to “keep up with the Joneses.”

Rather than increasing the million-dollar salaries of football coaches and building more opulent athletics facilities, the Knight Commission’s approach aims to use new revenues to reward mission-focused behaviors by rewarding teams that are meeting educational objectives.

For example, revenues might be split such that teams graduating more than 60 or 70 percent of their players earn greater shares of the playoff revenue.

Instead, this educational initiative would be a powerful incentive for making sure that football teams offer the students who play for them a meaningful educational experience and an arsenal of skills to use when they have left the football field behind. More broadly, a portion of the abundant financial incentives flowing to this not-for-profit enterprise of college sports will be aligned with its primary educational mission.

Those of us who serve as leaders in higher education and intercollegiate athletics recognize that our responsibilities must be rooted in the educational pursuits of our students. So we must think beyond the payoff from a playoff and the commercial appeal that this new era might bring to the schools playing major college football.

We must consider an incentive structure that strengthens the educational missions of our universities for the long term.

William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, and R. Gerald Turner, president of Southern Methodist University, are co-chairmen of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.