Groundbreaking Knight Commission Survey Finds Division I Leaders Overwhelmingly Support Major Reform

The vast majority of NCAA Division I campus and sports leaders believe that college sports reform should be focused on “big solutions,” a new survey from the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics shows. The groundbreaking survey reveals far-ranging dissatisfaction with current Division I governance.

The survey, conducted June 18 — July 14, 2020 for the Knight Commission by Shugoll Research of Bethesda, Maryland, found that nearly 80 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “Division I reform should look for ‘big solutions’ rather than incremental changes.”

“The Division I model has needed an overhaul for many years now, and our survey shows that most college sports leaders recognize the need for fundamental change in the structure and governance of college sports,” said the Commission’s co-chair, Arne Duncan, former U.S. Secretary of Education. “The work ahead is much broader than adopting a few new policies.”

In addition to widespread dissatisfaction with how D-I college sports are run, the survey found an openness to consider reforms that would either reorganize competition within the current structure or even radically restructure Division I’s most competitive levels – such as creating a new division for Power 5 sports, in all sports except basketball, or separating Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) football from the NCAA. However, nearly 8 in 10 of all respondents believe it is “essential” to keep all current Division I schools in the same men’s basketball tournament.

Across Division I, the survey found, college sports leaders are troubled about the growing divide between the have and have-nots athletic programs, with almost four in five respondents (79 percent) saying that there is too much financial resource disparity among schools. About three in five FBS leaders (59 percent) acknowledge that they spend too much on FBS football “to keep up” with other schools – including half of Power 5 campus leaders and about two-thirds of their Group of 5 counterparts. A similar sentiment is found with spending on men’s basketball, with more than half of all respondents (53 percent) stating that they spend too much to keep up with other schools in that sport.

The survey continues the Knight Commission’s long record of research into college sports, which has influenced policy to prioritize the education, health, safety and success of college athletes. The survey was conducted as part of a larger examination announced by the Commission in December 2019 to consider an overhaul of the current NCAA model. Public forums and other work related to this examination can be accessed here.

Survey respondents included Division I officials responsible for the governance of intercollegiate athletics: college presidents, conference commissioners, athletics directors, college athlete leaders, and institutionally-designated faculty athletics representatives and senior woman administrators.

Reforms sought by leaders differ among NCAA Division I’s three subdivisions — the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS); Football Championships Subdivision (FCS); and Division I schools without football. Additionally, the survey analyzes FBS respondents by their affiliation in the Power 5, made up of the five richest conferences that control the College Football Playoff (CFP), and the Group of Five, which includes the other five FBS conferences.

A September 2020 Knight Commission public forum on Division I finances detailed the vast difference in financial resources among the division’s 351 institutions. Last year, for example, Division I athletic department budgets ranged from $4 million to more than $200 million, with the vast majority of schools relying on institutional funding and student fees to subsidize their athletics programs.

The survey found surprisingly widespread support for sweeping actions to contain athletic spending, such as:

  • An antitrust exemption to control athletics costs (67 percent), with more than 80 percent of the Power 5 respondents supporting such an approach.
  • Conference-level agreements to cap sports’ operating budgets, including coaching salaries (62 percent).
  • Three in 4 of all Division I presidential respondents supporting both of the above measures.

These findings are particularly timely, as all athletics programs face financial shortfalls caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The survey also found dissatisfaction with the current model of governance for NCAA Division I sports. Fewer than one-third of all respondents indicate satisfaction with governance, including 30 percent or less of key decisionmakers (presidents, athletics directors, and commissioners).

Nearly 80 percent of respondents believe that some members of the NCAA governing board should be selected to explicitly represent the health, safety and well-being of college athletes. Notably, these responses were expressed before the splintered decision-making in August that led some FBS conferences to cancel their fall football seasons in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, while others decided to play with differing protocols.

“It’s clear from our survey that college leaders acknowledge that the status quo is no longer acceptable,” said Knight Commission Co-Chair Carol Cartwright, president emeritus at Kent State University and Bowling Green State University. “This survey demonstrates that broad support for a new model for Division I is even more pressing after the pandemic, as college athletics leaders realize their business models must change – and radically.”

Revenue Distribution (NCAA and College Football Playoff)

Division I institutions collectively receive more than $1 billion in revenues annually from the NCAA and College Football Playoff (CFP) distributions. [Watch the Knight Commission’s virtual session explaining revenue distribution and access materials shared in that session here.]

College leaders expressed clear dissatisfaction with the ways in which both the NCAA and CFP distributions are shared:

  • Only 25 percent of respondents think full absorption of FBS football expenses by the NCAA is appropriate since the NCAA does not receive any revenues from FBS football or the CFP.
  • Fewer than one in four respondents are satisfied with the NCAA’s current revenue distribution formula, and both presidents (24 percent) and athletics directors (25 percent) share that critical appraisal.
  • By contrast, nearly 70 percent of the Power 5 respondents are satisfied with revenue distribution from the CFP. But satisfaction drops precipitously from there, with almost half of the Group of Five respondents expressing dissatisfaction with CFP revenue distribution and 60 percent of all respondents dissatisfied with the current CFP distribution.

Alternative Models

The survey asked about several major reorganizations of the current Division I model by presenting the following alternatives:

  • Completely separating FBS football from the NCAA into a distinct entity, with all other sports remaining in the NCAA Division I as presently organized.
  • Creating a new NCAA Division for Power 5 conferences.
  • Allowing for new geographically based competitive affiliations by sport instead of the current multisport conference structure.

All potential reorganizations maintained the current Division I basketball tournament format, which as noted earlier has overwhelming support with 77 percent of all respondents agreeing with the statement that it is “essential” to keep this element.

The survey found an openness to alternative structures; however, the support differs significantly by competitive classification.

More specifically:

  • Almost two-thirds (65%) of respondents from Division I institutions without football were in favor of separating FBS football from the NCAA and creating a new entity to solely manage that sport. However, 42 percent of FBS respondents oppose such a change.
  • Roughly 60 percent of Power 5 respondents were very or somewhat likely to support the creation of a separate new division within the NCAA for the Power 5 conferences to compete in sports other than men’s and women’s basketball. By contrast, nearly 60 percent of respondents from non-Power 5 institutions (i.e., Group of 5, the Football Championship Subdivision, and D-I No Football) oppose creating a fourth NCAA Division.
  • Just over 60 percent of all respondents support competitive structures that would allow for sport-specific geographic federations, other than basketball, instead of the current multisport conference approach in order to reduce costs.

The complete report and appendices as well as survey highlights can be found on this resource page. A video presentation of the highlights presented on Oct. 13, at 1 ET, can be viewed here.

The Knight Commission will hold it fourth session in the virtual series “Transforming the D-I Model” on Nov. 19. Registration for the webinars and review of the recorded seminars can be found at knightcommission.org.

About the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics

The Knight Commission was formed by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in October 1989 to promote reforms that lead transformational change to prioritize college athletes’ education, health, safety and success. To preserve the Commission’s independence, the foundation continues to be its sole supporter, but does not control, or attempt to control, the Commission’s opinions or pronouncements. The Commission recently launched an important review of college sports, “Transforming the NCAA D-I Model: A 4-Part Series.” Over the years, the NCAA has adopted a number of the Commission’s recommendations, including the rule that requires teams to be on track to graduate at least 50 percent of their players to be eligible for postseason competition. The Commission provides financial data about Division I college sports to enhance financial transparency and accountability. For more, visit www.knightcommission.org.

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Knight Foundation is a national foundation with strong local roots. We invest in journalism, in the arts and in the success of cities where brothers John S. and James L. Knight once published newspapers. Our goal is to foster informed and engaged communities, which we believe are essential for a healthy democracy. For more, visit kf.org.

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