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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Opinion: College athletics needs a regional fix

It’s conventional wisdom that college athletics is a mess. I agree and think it’s time for a major reorganization.

My suggestion is for my favorite college athletic programs —  UNC Charlotte, East Carolina and Appalachian State — is to take the offensive. UNC Charlotte and East Carolina should pull out of their existing conference and work with other regional universities to set up an alliance restricted to schools in the Carolinas, Virginia and eastern and central Tennessee.

It’s clear that the ABC/ESPN and Fox networks essentially run college football, in concert with the two big conferences, the SEC and Big 10. And football has overwhelmed the NCAA’s control of collegiate athletics.

Those conferences recently formed an ill-defined collaboration, which some experts expect to morph into an alliance involving the top 50 or so college football programs. The SEC and Big 10 already have 34 members, while member schools of the other two major conferences — the ACC and Big 12 — are expected to grab the remaining spots.

ACC members UNC Chapel Hill, N.C. State and Clemson seem likely to be part of the new club, while it’s more iffy for Wake Forest and Duke. They have huge endowments, great basketball heritages and wealthy, proud backers who have the clout to stick in the big leagues.

The top 50 football programs will mostly play each other, attracting massive TV interest from fans like me.

The need to act is timely because of current discussions by the networks and conferences on changing the college football playoffs. A 14-team playoff format is likely, with all but one slot going to members of the Big 10, SEC, ACC and Big 12 conferences. The other 70-plus top-level football schools, including East Carolina and Charlotte, will fight for one slot.

The new conference would emphasize competition in all sports among regional universities and colleagues, including football and basketball. UNC Charlotte and East Carolina would focus on competition against Appalachian State, Western Carolina, Coastal Carolina, James Madison and others, plus occasional matches with the bigger programs.

App State already does this as part of the Sun Belt Conference’s East division, stretching from south Georgia to northern Virginia. ECU and Charlotte are in the American Athletic Conference, which runs as far north as West Point, New York, and as far west as San Antonio, Texas.

University leaders would have to develop an economic model for athletics that involves less money and less travel than the current system. This would be tough medicine for those benefiting from soaring spending on college athletics, particularly coaches, administrators and a few elite athletes.

But virtually everyone else benefits from a regional approach: the vast majority of athletes, their parents, fans, students, universities and taxpayers. This reorganization would halt the effort by UNC System campuses that aren’t in Raleigh or Chapel Hill to attempt to compete with Alabama, Texas and other football powerhouses. Such efforts are a waste of time and resources that don’t enhance the universities’ critical mission.

Right now, ECU and UNC Charlotte justify their membership in the American Athletic Conference because they each receive several million dollars in annual broadcast rights; their teams may appear a few times a year on an ESPN broadcast; and administrators like to be associated with great schools such as Rice or Tulane. That supposedly boosts the brand.

There’s also a view that having the classic Saturday afternoon football experience draws students to the Greenville and Charlotte campuses. But studies show student interest in football is waning. Moreover, most ECU and UNC Charlotte fans enjoy regional rivalries more than playing Rice or Tulane.

The Big 10 and SEC members receive $50 million or more annually in broadcast rights, with big increases ahead. ECU and Charlotte aren’t on that gravy train but make up part of the difference by charging hefty “student athletic fees.” That increasingly upsets N.C. lawmakers, who pledge to keep college affordable.

For fans who think underdogs can surprise the big cats — App State famously upset Michigan in football in 2007 — the “portal” system enabling athletes to transfer virtually at will makes that more unlikely. Retaining the best players is dicey because my favorite teams struggle to match competing offers from SEC, Big 10 and ACC schools.

This isn’t meant to be critical of the top-notch athletic directors — Mike Hill and Jon Gilbert — at Charlotte and East Carolina.

Charlotte, East Carolina and App State can effectively compete with any U.S. campus in terms of education quality and student experience, while continuing to attract terrific student-athletes. Pulling out of the college sports money chase would be a wise advance.

David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg is editor of Business North Carolina. Reach him at dmildenberg@businessnc.com.

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