As leaders create plans for future, NCAA faces countdown clock on House case

Nakos updated headshotby:Pete Nakos04/05/24


Why Big Ten, Sec Are Incentivized To Spoil 'Super League' Single-entity Approach | 04.04.24

College sports as we know it is facing a countdown clock running out of time.

The House v. NCAA class-action lawsuit is slated to begin trial on Jan. 27, 2025, less than 300 days away. Simply put, if the NCAA and Power Four conferences lose, they could owe thousands of athletes some $4.2 billion in retroactive NIL pay and broadcast revenue. And NIL rule changes could take hold that would permit schools and conferences to pay NIL dollars to athletes for any reason, including athletic performance.

Every administrator in college athletics is thinking about this lawsuit on a nearly daily basis. Multiple news items grabbed headlines this week. On Wednesday, The Athletic reported about a project called “College Sports Tomorrow” (CST) which is being led by several college presidents, Roger Goodell’s top lieutenant at the NFL and Len Perna of TurnkeyZRG, who is serving as the group’s leader.

The plan calls for a 70-team “Super League” with a 50-plus second division to create a promotion system. The idea pulls structural components from the NFL, Premier League and MLS and attempts to answer questions about the transfer portal and employment.

Leaders and stakeholders openly discussing this is a step forward. But the plan does not have any legs at the moment, with multiple collegiate leaders pushing back on the subject. The Big Ten and SEC joint advisory group are surely working out a plan. Multiple sources told On3 that their ideal “Super League” would consist of 30 teams.

A SEC head football coach told On3 that he discussed the “Super League” idea with his athletic director Wednesday night, and he agreed the idea has a tough road ahead.

“It’s nothing,” the coach said. “My AD told me that it’s DOA. There’s no way the SEC will go with the idea.”

Legalities could also hold up the CST plan, including antitrust issues. Plus, power conferences are locked into long-term TV deals. ESPN and FOX won’t just make way for a new college football model. Multiple stakeholders believe the easy solution to the NCAA’s current problems is a revenue share model and collective bargaining agreement that can be standardized across the FBS.

Direct NIL pay on pause

As Yahoo Sports reported Thursday, and On3 later obtained, a new piece of meeting material has been floated by the NCAA’s NIL working group to the Division I Council that would permit schools to provide “assistance and services” to their athletes in pursuit of NIL opportunities, including facilitating deals with third parties. It’s a refined version of NCAA President Charlie Baker’s Project D-I proposal, which was first floated in December.

Notably, the new material does not include language that would permit schools to directly pay NIL to athletes. That was a key piece of Baker’s original plan and is on pause because of House v. NCAA. Baker has been lobbying Congress for federal assistance for more than a year. No piece of legislation regarding college sports has even made it past committee rooms.

Among Baker’s top requests are a a registry of NIL deals, a certification process for agents, a uniform NIL standard and a preemption of state laws. The NCAA has also been tirelessly lobbying for antitrust exemption and codifying that athletes are not employees.

The list of state laws pushing back against the NCAA’s power to govern continues to pile up. The House and Senate in Virginia passed legislation that allows institutions to pay athletes compensation in the form of NIL. This could begin as soon as Nov. 15, 2024, before House v. NCAA even begins.

The bill would prevent the NCAA and conferences from preventing institutions from compensating college athletes for their NIL. The language also includes protections for the school from the NCAA halting the facilitation of deals. Mississippi also has a bill that has passed through the state Senate that would allow schools to create NIL opportunities and permit deals to be contingent on attendance.

House case continues to loom

As the NCAA, leaders and think tanks attempt to create future plans, private equity groups continue to circle college football. The ACC is in litigation with two of its most powerful members: Clemson and Florida State. The Dartmouth men’s basketball team voted to become a union in March, another landmark moment in college sports.

U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken’s will oversee House v. NCAA. She’s the same judge who ruled against the NCAA in O’Bannon and Alston – the landmark cases that opened the door for NIL in college sports – at the trial court level. Clearly, she is not averse to ruling that NCAA compensation rules violate antitrust law.

Arguably, both the NIL meeting material and College Sports Tomorrow are refreshing ideas that would push forward NIL and college sports as we know it. Neither is likely to save the NCAA.

The clock is ticking. Big ideas will need to come together quickly for college sports to stave off a potential economic crisis because of litigation.