With college sports at key juncture, what does the future of the NCAA tournament and CFP look like?

DALLAS — Within Big 12 headquarters on a Tuesday morning, the place is buzzing.

Phones are constantly ringing. People are milling between window-lined offices and rows of cubicles. A lobby monitor scrolls through highlights of each Big 12 member — four of which are ranked inside the top 12 in the latest AP basketball poll.

And the conference’s leader, sports entertainment executive-turned-league commissioner Brett Yormark, is pacing through the hallways in a tailored suit and shiny black shoes while carrying his normal air of confidence.

The Big 12 doesn’t look or feel like a conference that’s being left behind. And that is because, Yormark says, it isn’t.

“We are the No. 1 basketball conference in America,” he told Yahoo Sports in an interview last week. “We’re showing up as a conference in places that we haven’t been before, and we’re partnering with third parties that no one has ever considered. We are facing challenges but that’s not new to me. There’s a lot of possibility and opportunity.”

The joint venture that the Big Ten and SEC announced Feb. 2 creates a ripple felt in every pond of college athletics, from Division III and up. But perhaps the move’s most impacted entities are the two conferences, the ACC and Big 12, that reside alongside their richer counterparts within the most elite rung in the hierarchy of college athletics dubbed as the Power Five, or soon-to-be Power Four.

The gap between the major conferences and all others has existed for years, if not decades, but with the two wealthiest leagues teaming up, the chasm now emerging within the four power leagues themselves has never felt so tangible.

And yet, in the aftermath of the Big Ten and SEC announcement, leaders from the Big 12 and ACC contend that they will very much be part of the significant change lurking on the horizon — a tidal wave of transformational developments that can be viewed in three distinct yet intermingled parts:

– the creation of a new athlete compensation model and further deregulation from NCAA governance.

– the expected overhaul of the College Football Playoff revenue-distribution model, governance structure and, perhaps, even format.

– the inevitable expansion of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

“We discuss these things individually, but they are all interconnected and one influences the other in many respects,” ACC commissioner Jim Phillips told Yahoo Sports. “We are in the middle of massive change in our industry. We are working together to eventually come up with a sustainable model for college athletics and we believe that both the CFP and NCAA men’s basketball tournament needs a holistic look.”

ACC and Big 12’s role

Starting his fourth year as ACC commissioner, Phillips chairs one of the most important groups in college athletics: the twice-a-month gathering of the five — soon-to-be four — commissioners of the major conferences.

Phillips says the four leagues have been working as “closely” as he’s seen in his time as commissioner. That’s why the SEC and Big Ten’s announcement to create a joint advisory board led to a question from many within the industry.

“I was a little surprised that the ACC and Big 12 weren’t included. That’s typically been the M.O.,” said American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco.

In an interview with Yahoo Sports, commissioners Greg Sankey (SEC) and Tony Petitti (Big Ten) underscored the need for the advisory board to be as small as possible to quickly reach solutions for urgent matters such as the multi-billion dollar House antitrust lawsuit; the NCAA’s new governance proposal, Project DI; and the unsettled recruiting landscape, where the NCAA’s transfer and name, image and likeness policies are at risk of being eliminated by the courts.

Sankey insists that whatever solutions the joint board reaches are (1) an effort to “benefit everybody in the ecosystem” and (2) not an attempt to secede from the NCAA or CFP, although such decisions seem to remain viable, some believe.

“I trust Greg and Tony and what they’ve said,” Phillips said. “I’m not paranoid about this, that it’s a sinister movement.”

The NCAA tournament could be expanded beyond 68 teams in the coming years. (G Fiume/Getty Images)

The NCAA tournament could be expanded beyond 68 teams in the coming years. (G Fiume/Getty Images)

Minutes before the SEC and Big Ten’s announcement, Sankey reached out to Phillips, Yormark and NCAA president Charlie Baker to alert them of the news. Yormark described his initial reaction as “benign,” and he and Phillips both expect collaboration among the four leagues to continue.

“If Tony and Greg want to go into a deeper think tank with their key stakeholders about the future of collegiate athletics, there’s no pride of authorship here as long as that communication continues at the rate it’s been,” Yormark said. “I really don’t think about this as an opportunity for them to move in a different direction.”

That said, the financial gap between the two leagues and the Big 12 and ACC has created an obvious, well-reported separation — highlighted by Florida State’s attempt to exit the ACC.

Within three years, projections show Big Ten and SEC schools earning nearly double ($80-90 million) in annual conference distribution as those in the ACC and Big 12 ($45-50 million) — a gap attributable mostly to football-related TV revenue.

But leaders from the ACC and Big 12 believe they pack enough of a resumé punch — off and perhaps even on the football field — to represent a voice on impending change.

The Big 12, for instance, is arguably the country’s most competitive basketball conference, soon to grow even better with additions of Arizona and Arizona State next year. The ACC is arguably the most historically successful hoops league, with the most NCAA tournament wins and Final Four participants over the last decade.

In his 19th month presiding over the Big 12, Yormark has led a rebranding and outreach effort never quite seen in college athletics — a blueprint, maybe, for the industry’s future move into a more professionalized sports-business model.

The Big 12 is playing a basketball game next December — Kansas vs. Houston — in Mexico City, Mexico, in what is the first in an annual attempt to hold international competition. The league’s football title game last year featured a halftime show from Nelly and the game itself was streamed live in New York’s Time Square. The conference partnered with the NFL for a combination pro day and with WWE for marketing and branding.

In fact, according to those familiar with the situation, the conference is holding its 2024 football media days in Las Vegas at Allegiant Stadium, home of last weekend’s Super Bowl.

Phillips, meanwhile, led an expansion effort last year to add SMU, Stanford and Cal with the goal of long-term security in a conference that must hold at least 15 members for its contract with ESPN to remain intact. He also spearheaded the implementation of a success-incentive initiative that will distribute revenue unequally with the goal to appease his bigger brands.

His league boasts plenty of football success behind the SEC, such as holding the second-best CFP record and winning the second-most national titles since 2013.

But football aside, these two conferences believe that they are entitled to, at the very least, a strong say in the future of the men’s basketball tournament — an event destined for change.

“The industry is going through a reset,” Yormark said. “Everything is on the table for consideration.”

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NCAA tournament and CFP future

Over the last three weeks, at two separate meetings, high-ranking college leaders took the initial step in exploring significant change to both the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and the College Football Playoff.

In a meeting in Washington D.C. on Jan. 25, commissioners of the SEC, Big Ten, ACC, Big 12 and, yes, even the Pac-12 opened dialogue with Baker about their wish to examine NCAA tournament expansion. Separately, in a meeting of the CFP Management Committee in Dallas on Feb. 5, Big Ten and SEC leaders opened dialogue with the other eight FBS commissioners and Notre Dame on their intent to see the CFP’s revenue-distribution model and voting structure change.

While the power leagues together team up to push the NCAA to grow the basketball tournament, the two richest leagues are joining forces to modify its football counterpart.

A seasoned New York businessman and former talent agency executive, Yormark views the moves as the next phase of college athletics’ evolution into a more robust business. In the business world, it is referred to as the value equation.

“If you contribute more, you want more,” he told Yahoo Sports. “I think that spirit came into both rooms and I think it’s very appropriate.”

The basketball tournament is the NCAA’s largest and most vital revenue stream, keeping afloat the organization itself as well as helping subsidize hundreds of small-college athletic departments. As part of a tournament television deal with CBS and Turner running through 2032, the NCAA distributes annually around $700 million to its schools, both in base amounts and in units earned through advancing in the event.

The five major football conferences, plus basketball power Big East, normally earn most of the more than $200 million worth of incentive units for wins in the tournament. For instance, those six conferences were responsible for winning around 70% of the available units last year.

However, discussions between the commissioners and NCAA go beyond the topic of revenue and also include the growing wish for more access in the form of at-large spots. In the meeting with Baker, commissioners were transparent about their desire for more access in a 68-team field that includes 32 automatic qualifying spots — 27 of which go to non-power leagues.

“I want to see the best teams competing for a national championship, no different than (the Big Ten and SEC) want to see in football,” Yormark said. “I’m not sure that is currently happening.”

How to expand the tournament is a lingering question, Yormark and Phillips acknowledge.

Do you eliminate automatic qualifying spots to small-conference champions? That move is sure to backfire politically at a time when congressional help is sought.

Do you simply add more at-large spots to the field? That complicates an already crammed schedule.

And if you expand the men’s event, wouldn’t the women’s tournament need expansion, too?

Commissioners describe Baker as “understanding” and “receptive” to their points, paving the way for future modifications.

“We talked with President Baker specifically about the basketball tournament and that we do expect and want a holistic review of the tournament,” said Phillips, whose league has won more basketball titles (8) in the last 22 years than any other conference. “As it relates to value and contribution, I think we all believe that’s important and should be considered.”

In many ways, the CFP situation is a microcosm of the debate transpiring around the NCAA tournament. It involves fewer leagues (10), more money ($1.3 billion annually) and a different dynamic (the Power Two vs. the other eight).

In an interview with Yahoo Sports two weeks ago, Sankey and Petitti, perhaps for the first time publicly, questioned their commitment to the CFP beyond the final year of the current contract in 2025. The two conferences will swell to 34 members in 26 states next year while incorporating, arguably, 12 of the top 15 football brands in America.

Will the College Football Playoff be expanded further in the coming years? (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Will the College Football Playoff be expanded to 14 or 16 teams in the coming years? (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Referring to impending changes to the model, Sankey said the SEC and Big Ten’s commitment “is we want to see this get right.”

During the Feb. 5 CFP meeting in Dallas, leaders began to address the future as it relates to the CFP revenue-distribution model and decision-making structure — two items that may need solving before the playoff inks a reported extension with ESPN through 2031. Inside the meeting, figures were used to make points, such as the SEC accounting for nearly 40% of playoff spots in the CFP era and only earning 17% of the revenue.

In the current structure, the Power Five splits about 80% of the CFP’s annual $460 million, followed by the Group of Five’s 20% and then a small fraction is distributed to independents and the FCS.

Commissioners are expected to hold more CFP meetings next week in Dallas.

“The real question on the revenue is how much is going to be concentrated in a handful of conferences,” Aresco told Yahoo Sports. “It’s 80-20 right now to the so-called P5, but there are only going to be four of them. And then the question is how much? The SEC and Big Ten are probably going to want more. It’s understandable. That’s going to get worked out.”

While serious discussion about expanding the 12-team playoff format has not arisen inside CFP meetings, many believe it eventually will. Petitti has privately discussed with commissioners expansion models that include 14 and 16 teams with multiple automatic qualifiers to major conferences, sources told Yahoo Sports. Sankey and his corresponding representative on the CFP Board of Managers, Mississippi State president Mark Keenum, have suggested in the past that the model incorporate only at-large selections.

Aresco, who is set to retire this summer, says that a move to a 16-team playoff could very well be in the future and that such a tournament would “probably” be under a “5+11” format with five automatic berths to league champions and 11 at-large spots. “The truth is, if you went to 16, you’re not going to fundamentally change the playoff,” he said.

Yormark acknowledges that on the heels of the latest realignment change, “we need to think about” the distribution model and possibly the format “differently.” Phillips believes that any format change needs to protect conference champions. “If you don’t have a reward for winning your conference championship, then what’s the point?” he said.

In an interview with Yahoo Sports, Phillips and Yormark joined the growing movement among commissioners who are in favor of moving from a “6+6” 12-team format to a “5+7” model for 2024 and 2025. Two years ago, CFP leaders adopted a 6+6 format to start this year that grants automatic berths to the six highest-ranked conference champions and at-large spots to the next six highest-ranked teams. The 5+7 format decreases the automatic berths to five and adds an at-large spot in light of the Pac-12’s realignment situation.

The 5+7 format satisfies one of the original intentions of the 12-team expansion — to give the Group of Five one automatic berth, not two as would be the case with a 6+6 model.

“It should be 5+7,” Phillips said. “That’s the right thing to do.”

However, to change the model, a unanimous vote is needed from the CFP Board of Managers, made up of one president from each FBS league and Notre Dame. Washington State president Kirk Schulz, the Pac-12 representative, has delayed any decision while pitching a proposal to commissioners for long-term guarantees presumably in exchange for his vote.

The situation remains in limbo as the clock ticks. First-round playoff games are 10 months away.

A new model

On Tuesday, the NCAA returned to the courthouse, this time in Greenville, Tennessee.

The association is defending itself in a lawsuit brought by attorneys general from the state of Tennessee and Virginia seeking an injunction of the NCAA’s policy governing NIL inducements and tampering in the recruiting space. If the injunction is granted, booster-led collectives and boosters themselves are free to induce and tamper with athletes in an effort to recruit them to their affiliated school.

It would be another blow to the NCAA’s bedrock of amateurism, a century-old façade left crumbling in the wake of court decisions — no more excessively than over the last several weeks. It’s been an avalanche.

Last December, a judge granted a restraining order in a suit brought against the NCAA by several attorneys general over the association’s transfer policy, at least temporarily permitting athletes to transfer an unlimited amount of times and play immediately.

Last week, the National Labor Relations Board deemed Dartmouth men’s basketball players as employees and granted them the authority to unionize. More antitrust cases, like House and Hubbard, could cost the NCAA and conferences billions in retroactive payments while further deteriorating the association’s policies.

The legal entanglements served as the impetus for the SEC and Big Ten’s joint venture, the leagues’ commissioners told Yahoo Sports in an interview. They plan to work to explore a new athlete compensation model and regulatory framework to avoid future litigation, bring stability to the recruiting landscape and potentially settle antitrust cases.

But while the SEC and Big Ten examine the issues, the NCAA is doing the same on a parallel track with Baker’s proposed new model, Project DI — a concept with which the power leagues took issue and one that needs congressional involvement, something Phillips acknowledges seems to be “dwindling.”

Project DI 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, Baker is expected to re-examine the subdivision portion of the proposal and presumably re-introduce a modified version, according to those with knowledge of the plan.

“There isn’t just one path to achieve what he wants,” Petitti said of Baker. “He’s open to listening to maybe some other ideas.”

However, speed is of the essence. The clock is ticking.

College athlete unionization and employment are on the cusp of reality. The House case goes to trial next January. And hovering like a dark cloud over college athletics’ two marquee events is what seems to be an unsaid threat:

(1) Will the major conferences break away to start their own NCAA basketball tournament?

(2) Will the Power Two break away to start their own CFP?

“They could, but I don’t think they would,” said Aresco. “They’d create a lot of controversy. I think they would invite tons of congressional scrutiny.

“Could they do it? Yes. But they’re going to have plenty of revenue out of the CFP and plenty of revenue out of the NCAA tournament. Everybody needs money because of what’s happening: You might have to pay players. I get all that, but do I see it as a possibility for them to break away? Yes, but I really don’t believe it will happen.”

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