The funny thing about the theory that the most-powerful Division I conferences will eventually break away from the NCAA to form their own governing body, is that the move will be driven by basketball. Yes, football is driving the bus in realignment as the power consolidates into four or five conferences that will possess most of the brands, television money and exposure in college sports. These power conferences already have a firm grip on the FBS title in football and even with the coming playoff, it would be hard to expect that the Sun Belt champion would ever get a shot at the big money.
The NCAA doesn't have much control over the FBS postseason. They determine who is eligible to participate (you need to be .500 and have at least 5 wins against FBS competition), and they license the bowl games -- but the governing body doesn't get a piece of the FBS television pie, not for the regular season and not for the postseason. That money belongs to the bowl games themselves and to the BCS system.
The NCAA's operation is funded largely by the revenue from the $10.8 billion, 14-year agreement, selling the television rights for the blockbuster Division I Men's Basketball Tournament to a combination of CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting. About 90% of the NCAA's annual revenue is projected to come from media rights payments from the basketball tournament, with a smaller amount coming from an agreement with ESPN to broadcast the championships for 24 other NCAA sports (including the I-AA postseason).
Division II and Division III sports generate very little revenue for the NCAA, but receive subsidies from the association, covering planning costs for their postseason tournaments, travel subsidies for the participating schools and other expenses.
By breaking away from the NCAA, these power conferences could pocket the money previously spent by the governing body on those lower divisions. While their basketball tournament would lose some of the "cinderella" stories, it would easily still generate big money and big viewership — in other words, they would be willing to hedge their bets on America not tuning out because Wofford and UC-Riverside aren't invited to the party.
To a lesser degree than the financial considerations, but still importantly, is the issue of NCAA governance. As the WAC conference prepares to shutter its football operations after this season and the continued existence of the Big East remains in threat, the balance of power in NCAA governance is sliding away from the college football power leagues.
So much business in the NCAA is conducted at the conference level, so the fact that the power conferences got bigger won't necessarily give them more power in the NCAA board room, where the recent moves actually tilt the Division I power balance to FCS and non-football conferences. Want to pay players? You better hope that the Atlantic 10 and CAA think that move is prudent as well, despite having significantly-lower revenues.
These conferences could petition the NCAA to create a new division, above Division I, to accommodate their desire for more self-determination and to recognize the diverging institutional goals from the rest of Division I. Functionally, that result would be the same as a split, except that they would still potentially have to chip in for the administrative costs of the three lower divisions.
Creating a new division would also face the problem of having to be approved by the entire NCAA membership, through it's 16-member Executive Committee. That committee has four members from non-FBS schools or conferences, two from Division II and two more from Division III; perhaps not a line-up that would feel much sympathy for the plight of the Big Ten or SEC.
Will they split?
That all really depends on how badly the superconferences want to run the show and how much the NCAA can give up to keep them on-board. Will the lesser Division I conferences eventually accept their place and spend money to keep up with the superconference's whims (or accept their place in a lower division)? Will the NCAA perhaps be willing to operate the lower divisions on a substantially smaller budget?
It isn't clear that the superconference split is inevitable, but it looks more and more likely as the rapid-pace of conference realignment has exposed the business motives of these leagues.
What happens to the C-7?
While the superconferences have some motivation to be exclusionary in this process, there really isn't much reason to limit membership in a new association beyond the schools and conferences with similar objectives and financial power. To a major extent, that determine would be based on the will and ability to play football at an elite level -- the Sun Belt or MAC need not apply, and while the Big East, CUSA and Mountain West may have big time aspirations, their ability to contribute with big time finances are more in question than ever.
The Catholic-7 are more likely than not to find themselves on the outside looking in at the new association, with their non-football existence potentially putting them at odds with the power-football ethos of the superconferences. That said, there could be an argument to make room at the table.
These basketball schools wouldn't eat into any football postseason revenue, and a new association could be structured to limit those schools' influence in governance -- especially related to football.
Why let them into the party though? The Catholic 7 could become the strongest of the non-football conferences and might be stronger in basketball than any of the football conferences outside of the power leagues. With the superconferences looking to generate revenue from their men's basketball tournament, the more strong programs that can be added to the breakaway association, the better. The question becomes: Can the C-7 operate their basketball programs on the same level, financially and in terms of on-court success, as the superconference teams programs.
A television contract that would pay as much as $3 million to each school annually would go a long way toward that goal, but programs will still likely need to generate successes on the court and in the stands to a greater extent than they currently have.
They would also likely have to be able to encompass every big time hoops program that is currently without FBS football (and maybe some that have it but are not up to par in football) in order to offer the level of access that would add value.
Even with that, the C-7's argument to be included as a boost to superconference basketball could fall on deaf ears. They would need to argue that the benefit they add to the superconference association's basketball revenue is greater than the additional difficulties of dealing with a non-football conference in the mix. Those benefits may include greater shared tournament revenue, better regular-season scheduling opportunities, and a more "inclusive" outward appearance.
How much will that matter with hundreds of millions already likely on the table? We will have to wait and see, but the juice is worth the squeeze for the C-7 if it pays off.