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BCS breakaway unlikely, but new "Premier" division creeps closer

The Big XII commissioner is talking about restructuring the NCAA's divisions in a move that could see a major shift in college sports.

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The NCAA has three divisions that it classifies schools into; Division I is for the quote-unquote big spenders, while Division II and Division III schools have different athletic and academic priorities. Changes in the NCAA's structure aren't unusual, however, and there have been a few changes over the history of the organization. From 1906 until 1955, all schools were treated the same and there were no divisions; in 1956, the association split into two divisions for "Universities" (major) and "Colleges" (small school); as of 1973, the NCAA felt the need to further divide into the current three-division set-up; and in 1978, the NCAA partially split Division I into the "subdivisions" now known as FBS and FCS for football purposes.

Now, the commissioner of the Big 12 Conference, Bob Bowlsby, is suggesting a "transformative change" in the college sports landscape — specifically, a new division that would cater to big-money athletics. The ACC's leader, John Swofford agreed with him, adding that the next six months will be very important.

"It's probably unrealistic to think that we can manage football and field hockey by the same set of rules," Bowlsby told reporters at media day. "I think some kind of reconfiguration of how we govern is in order."

The commissioners of the five biggest football conferences have apparently been talking among themselves about this sort of change. While the talk in the media largely revolves around a new division for the "BCS" conferences, there seems to be some confusion over how that could all be structured. A "super division," being called "Division 4" by some already, would be preferable to these conferences than a system where they might fully separate from the NCAA.

The impetus for the change would be for these major athletic programs to achieve the freedom to change the rules governing things like whether or not athletes can be paid, for example. While the five powerful conferences wield a lot of influence, the have-nots in Division I can hold up changes, such as a proposed rule to allow athlete stipends, which has caused concern fo the five commissioners.

"Northern Iowa and Texas aren't much alike," said Bowlsby, explaining how the financial gap between the haves and have-nots in Division I athletics demands a change. That gap will likely only grow with the College Football Playoff adding to the revenue of the biggest conferences.

"It's virtually impossible right now to configure legislative proposals that have any chance of getting through the system intact that would accomplish anything in the way of meaningful change," Bowlsby said. "I think all of us are feeling that."

The format of the change could simply be a new subdivision of Division I football with a different set of rules governing that sport, or practical concerns (including some that might raise questions about the tax-exempt status of college athletics) might force all of their sports into a new division — potentially leaving the basketball and olympic sports programs of the rest of Division I out to dry.

Football is the biggest revenue generator in college sports, while basketball is second and no other sport comes close. The two revenue sports are also the targets of a tremendous amount of athletic spending at D1 schools. The top earning conferences are also the top-spending conferences and as a general rule, the most successful athletically across-the-board. A football-only change would potentially allow schools moving to that subdivision greater financial resources to spend in their other programs creating an even greater advantage in sports like basketball, but it would also leave the rest of Division I intact, and the cinderella dream alive for hundreds of "have-not" programs.

Working within the NCAA framework, the five "superconferences" would not be able to specifically eliminate other leagues from the new division or subdivision. They would simply create a new set of rules and raise the bar for schools to qualify for membership in the new division. Conferences like the American or the Mountain West could tag along, though potentially at great cost, if they were willing to spend more to offer stipends and comply with the rules that the new framework would entail.

If it were an all-sports division, leagues like the new Big East would potentially be able to move in as well, so long as the powers-that-be chose to allow non-football leagues into the mix. If playing football became a prerequisite for qualification, then the basketball-first schools would be left behind. Of course, that isn't a clear prerogative of these BCS commissioners, who recognize the value of the NCAA tournament as well, but it could become one if the ability to generate revenues were a concern of the rule-makers.

For the new Big East and other conferences without FBS football, a new football subdivision would be the best outcome of this sabre-rattling.

In football, the Sun Belt and MAC might be out of luck, but the AAC schools (particularly UConn and Cincy) and MWC schools (particularly Boise State) have been trying much too hard to get to the top of the heap to up-and-quit over this. Expect a strong push from inside the membership of both leagues to comply with the new regime's rules and spend their way into the new subdivision.

For the football conferences, decisions will have to be made if a new divisional structure comes to bear. If the MWC and AAC don't move with the five power conferences in their entirety, the decision to be made could force further changes in their landscape. For the non-FBS leagues, this is a time of uncertainty, where the biggest basketball brands outside the FBS will be left to hope that the change is structured in a way that doesn't affect them.

How real is the threat to the highest levels of college basketball? Real enough that Big East commissioner Val Ackerman felt a need to speak on the issue. She told the Indianapolis Star that, "it would be a mistake in my mind to imperil the inclusivity of the basketball tournament."

Most talk has this change affecting only football at the moment. The AD at Purdue has suggested that maintaining the status quo in basketball would be preferred, but the debate has just begun. Even given a football-only change, how long will it be before the same schools push to make changes to maximize their financial advantages in other sports as well?

Meanwhile, even a football-only change could signal a change for Villanova.

With the lowest-rung FBS conferences potentially stranded, a new subdivision would require reinforcements. The CAA football conference is a lot closer to the MAC and Sun Belt in football spending than it is to the Pioneer League, for example. Could this rearrangement cause the bottom of FBS and top of FCS to merge into a middle-tier of college football, leaving the rest of FCS to settle on a low-cost format that could make programs like the one at Georgetown more happy.

That change would perhaps be only a nominal one for the top FCS schools, but it would allow them to shed the smallest-time FCS programs that have little chance of contending for titles under the current arrangement.

Update 7/25: The American Athletic Conference commissioner, Mike Aresco, noted that his conference would likely seek to join the new subdivision.