In 1920, the NFL was formed at a Canton, OH car dealership. The NBA was created out of the merger of the Basketball Association of American and the National Basketball League in 1949. The NHL was formed in 1917 after the NHA folded in 1909. And Major League Baseball in its current form dates back to 1902.
So the fact that the NCAA dates back to 1905 (or 1910) and includes 1,281 different institutions and still exists at all is astonishing. The NCAA is older than all but one of the major professional sports leagues in the United States. Looking abroad, the Bundesliga in Germany has only existed since 1962. Even the English Football League suffered a major shakeup when the top clubs broke away from the Football League and the FA with the creation of the Premier League in 1992.
Thus it is appropriate to think what happens after the NCAA. There are many necessary components that define the NCAA. The NCAA is a 1) membership controlled, 2) amateur 3) educational 4) multi-sport and 5) multi-division organization. Remove any of those components, and what you have left is not the NCAA. You have some other organization, if you have one at all.
There’s a certain part of me that wonders whether the current pessimism about the ability of the NCAA to hold those five components together is a self-fulfilling prophecy. But no institution lasts forever. At some point in the near or distant future, the NCAA will cease to exist. There might be an organization called the National Collegiate Athletic Association headquartered in Indianapolis, but it won’t be the NCAA as we currently know it. If that happens in the foreseeable future (15-20 years), we should be prepared for it.
The NCAA is a big animal. Three divisions, over 1,000 member schools and conferences, and two big missions (regulate college athletics and operate championships). To replace the NCAA with something new even for just the current Division I membership, you need almost 350 schools to agree to new rules from scratch.
That is likely impossible. In fact, I’m not convinced even the 66 BCS institutions could come to a comprehensive agreement on fundamental issues like sports sponsorship and revenue sharing with no existing framework. Thus a single national organization covering multiple sports even amongst just major football schools is unlikely.
If there is a national, multi-sport organization, it is likely to look more like UEFA than the NFL. It would only be able to set very broad rules across the conferences (like “athletes must be enrolled students”) and operate a national championship that takes a backseat or is on equal position to the conference or league championship, like UEFA’s Champions League.
Greater NGB and Professional League Involvement
If the NCAA is gone, the next logical set of organizations to oversee college athletics are national governing bodies like USA Basketball or USA Track and Field and professional leagues. The NCAA functions as a de facto minor league for some professional organizations and as the primary developmental system for many Olympic sports. That relationship would just become explicit.
Some sports one would think would be troubled by an NCAA breakup may profit from this relationship. If college baseball were to be tightly integrated into MLB’s development structure, it potentially could have access to a whole new market of fans. Baseball, soccer, men’s ice hockey, and track and field all could gain by working closer with the top level of the sport in the United States.
Sports without a top professional league or sophisticated development structure could struggle though. Lacrosse, softball, and field hockey are all examples of sports that might need to find a replacement for the strength of the NCAA to keep thriving and growing.
Without needing to be voted in by the NCAA membership, new sports could potentially flourish as college sports. They would be able to grow organically without the stigma of being second-class citizens because they aren’t official NCAA sports or the need to hit some arbitrary amount of support before losing that stigma.
Some sports that might be poised to break into the collegiate ranks:
- Endurance sports like marathoning, cycling, and triathlon
- Action sports like snowboarding, skateboarding, BMX, etc.
Another category with little or no presence at the collegiate level that might be able to break in are motorsports. High costs though could keep them from taking advantage.
More Amateurism, Education, and Title IX Problems, Not Fewer
Odd bedfellows would be thrilled at the end of the NCAA. They include proponents of pay-for-play, those who support both more and fewer academic standards, and people not happy with the current interpretation of Title IX. Many belief that the demise of the NCAA is a major step toward their goals, if not the only step necessary in some cases.
The problem is everything would need to be rethought from the ground up. Like them or not, the current NCAA rules providing a starting point for debate. It’s much easier to think up and justify a change to the rules rather than coming up with a rule and a justification out of thin air.
So rather than just asking for more for student-athletes, pay-for-play proponents would have to argue against those who want to reduce the influence of athletic scholarships. Those who want higher or fewer academic requirements may need to convince decision makers of the need for eligibility at all. And with no national body setting standards that shape how athletics programs are run, Title IX’s interpretations are thrown for a loop.
The Big Picture
Division I athletics can be described as a rough pyramid. One national organization at the top, 31 regional organizations below that, and 340+ individual institutions making up the base. Remove that national organization and you have a complicated web of institutions as members of multiple conferences and conferences interacting closely with professional leagues and national governing bodies.
Regional differences would be able to flourish, with football become even more important in the Southeast and Midwest, basketball being freed from football’s grasp on the East Coast, and the West becoming the leaders in ever more important niche sports. Questions you never thought would come up would be asked, like “Should athletes be limited in how many years they play?”
The entire history of America has a theme of moving from the local to the regional to the national, be it politics, the economy, or tastes in entertainment, food, and fashion. The disappearance of the NCAA would be a major step in the other direction. College sports would become a loose confederation dictated by regional ideas rather than a national institution with a national agenda.
It’s important to think about what happens if the NCAA is not around. If you like what you think college athletics would be without the NCAA, that opens up the options of reform. But the inertia of a very big and very old organization, can be useful even for change if you only want to go so far.
The opinions expressed on this blog are the author’s and the author’s alone, and are not endorsed by the NCAA or any NCAA member institution or conference. This blog is not a substitute for a compliance office.