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A New Power Five Model

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Relegation still seems unlikely, but this is the future of the Power Five

NCAA Football: Missouri at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

This is the third part of what I like to call the Relegation Series. Here are Part 1 and Part 2. It’s a series in the shadow of a disappointing season that explores the idea of Universities like Vanderbilt (high cost, low enrollment, high academics) have a place in major college football.

Author’s Note: Because this is the internet, I feel the need to say this. This is a general model. Details have not been worked out. For details of this nature to be worked it out, it would have to be a legal document hundreds of pages long. This is a broad proposal, so if you have a suggestion or objection about a detail not present, I apologize. Please add in the comments.

“I wish conferences were just connected more to their geography, like they used to be,” my dad told me during this past rivalry weekend. Like any good boomer, he has a fondness for nostalgia and the halcyon days of a Post WWII economic boom that lasted a score and a half. It was also the time when big money flowed into universities across the US to allow for expansive growth, travel, and competition in athletics.

What was old once is new again. As expressed in Part 2, the growth and change of college football conferences are unique to their histories. Now, at a time with mass media dollars and 65 programs playing at the Power Five level, there seems to be a slow movement towards realignment for these institutions. As stated previously, I think we’re in the endgame for the stratification of Division I football.

Essentially, the ACC (+ND), BIG12, BIGTEN, PAC12, and SEC are competing in football at a level that is unsustainable for Group of Five and lesser FBS schools. As stated in Part 1, the money is greater, the recruiting bases are better, and the top coaches follow the money and players.

Toss in the growing movement to legitimize paying players, the Power Five conferences are best to reassess how they do business, if they want their business model to have long term success.

I suspect the 65 schools will develop a single NCAA division with their own rules, and most importantly, their own singular media contract. Cable and media dollars are down, but live sports still draw exceptional numbers. TV contracts might not be the complete windfall we saw in the early part of the 2010’s, so TV companies that are part of much larger media companies can be judicious on how much they pay out. Conferences may not have all the bargaining power they used to.

Additionally, there is a new oligarchy in CFB. The Haves and Have Nots. The Haves are those with money, recruits, and a coach. The Have Nots are everyone else. In the last 20 years, 11 programs have won a National Title; 10 years, 5 programs; 5 years; 3 programs. In the 5 years of the College Football Playoff, 10 programs have participated. That is between 3-20% of teams to win during that span, and 15% of teams to participate in the playoff. Those aren’t good odds for the rest of the Power Five.

It is increasingly harder for lower tier or historically disadvantaged programs to compete. That’s not some anti-competition statement, it’s a reality that if the Power Five conferences and NCAA want to maintain the health of their sport, they will need to increase parody. Better competition means more teams with chances to win, means more fan engagement, means more dollars.

The 15% of teams that have a shot may not like bringing in the other 85% who don’t, but those 85% may agree to a new system, and if the 15% want to play, they’ll have to go along.

So combine into one single division and doll out contracts from a place of leverage like the NFL. Be the only game in CFB that matters. Combine all five conferences and redistribute programs based on historic/geographic lines into subdivisions. Keep the conference names if you like, but realign the teams.

This serves several significant purposes:

  • Gives leverage over media contracts
  • Increases gate receipts in increasingly disparate geographic conferences
  • Potentially increases Power Five footprint into new media markets
  • Brings significant regulations to Power Five programs to create competitive parody

It’s a huge time suck to redraw geographic subdivisions based on historic conference alignments for each potential number of member institutions (not that I spent several hours playing with it or anything), so have at it in the comments. Here is a handy map from Wikipedia.

But here is a chart to break down the numbers of teams, subdivisions, cross division games, and requirements for playoff.

Power Five Model

Total Number of Teams Number of Divisions Teams per Division Cross Divisional Games Entrance into Playoff
Total Number of Teams Number of Divisions Teams per Division Cross Divisional Games Entrance into Playoff
60 6 10 2 Division Winners + 2 Wildcards
65 6 10-11 2-3 Division Winners + 2 Wildcards
70 7 10 2 Division Winner + 1 Wildcard
72 6 12 1 Division Winners + 2 Wildcards

So when the Power Five conferences realize that they may lose large sums of money without making significant reforms to their business models, member institutions will be allowed to decide their commitment to major CFB.

This is where relegation could occur. Schools like Northwester, Vanderbilt, Duke, or Wake Forest could decide they don’t want to continue at that level. Or even the likes of Kansas or Rutgers- schools that don’t have the same regulations that private schools may but don’t value CFB as much. That’s how you get to 60.

Obviously the status quo could be maintained at 65. It would require divisional realignment and a recommitment by some schools to be competitive. Member institutions would most likely prefer this because institutions don’t like change, but also because it keeps the money to the places it is already going without sharing.

Adding five to ten more teams would be ideal for numbers in each division, gate receipts, and media market expansion. It would draw in the likes of Memphis, App State, BYU, Boise State, SMU, UCF, or Cincinnati. These are important media markets to open up for advertising revenue.

Separating the current Power Five (plus or minus a few schools) into a new division would bring new regulations to promote competitive balance, maintain “amateur athletes,” open new markets, and create a unified negotiating power against media companies.

Then every 7-10 years (the lengths of media contracts) member institutions can reassess their place in the division and determine if it is worth it, while schools in the lower division can appeal to be brought into the upper division. In other words, relegation. But instead of it being mandatory solely based on play, it will be based on if football is beneficial to the university.

It’s a more flexible model that allows for the changing landscape of media, universities, and the game itself.