FCS, Division I-AAA working group aims to 'chart a path for the future'

On3 imageby:Eric Prisbell02/09/24

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Amid unprecedented disruption in college athletics, Football Championship Subdivision members and Division I-AAA leaders from non-football-playing schools are ramping up discussions in a relatively newly formed working group intended to empower like-minded stakeholders to begin formulating a sustainable path forward.

The working group – whose existence has not previously been reported – was created in late fall as the pace of change in college sports accelerated. Since then – on the heels of the NCAA unveiling its reform proposal and numerous developments in the courts and with the National Labor Relations Board – the frequency of meetings has increased to almost weekly, with its smaller subcommittees conversing daily.

The working group consists of more than 200 leading stakeholders at the FCS and Division I-AAA levels. 

“There is change coming, and we know we can’t continue to operate in the status quo,” Ryan Ivey, the working group’s co-chair and Stephen F. Austin athletic director, told On3 on Thursday. “We’re trying to be proactive … I don’t think there is any question that the urgency has picked up. Hence the frequency of meetings.”

What are FCS, DI-AAA working group’s goals?

The working group is drafting what is being called DI-AAA/FCS Collaboration: Division I Position Paper – expected to be finalized in June – to clarify and gain consensus on distinguishing factors of both subdivisions’ financial models and operational philosophies.

The goal: “Create specific actionable strategies to help the subdivisions chart a course forward to play a distinctive role and actualize the important value within Division I athletics,” according to an email sent to members Wednesday. 

A working draft of the position paper states the paper proposes concepts that will help DI-AAA and FCS leaders “redefine and actualize their distinctive role and value within Division I athletics and to chart a path for the future centered on education.”

The creation of a FCS/I-AAA working group predates the announcement of the much-publicized “joint advisory board” by the SEC and Big Ten, two super conferences confronting vastly different challenges in the upper echelon of the industry’s financial hierarchy.

A new financial model that works for the Power Four conferences won’t necessarily work at the FCS/I-AAA level.

Ivey was blunt when he said a revenue-sharing model won’t work at this level.

“There’s no revenue to share, my friend,” Ivey said. “When I’m sharing nothing, it’s still nothing. And at the end of the year, do I get to send everyone a bill for the debt we have?”

Although the NLRB likely will have the final say, the working group will try to ensure, as best it can, that an employee model does not encroach on their level. If it does, Ivey said, it would force many schools at that level to cut sports, reduce them to club level or move to a lower division.

‘Fundamentally different than Texas A&M’

Many FCS/I-AAA leaders took note when NCAA President Charlie Baker said during the 11th NIL-related Congressional hearing that all of college sports – not merely the named defendants, the Power Five and NCAA – would likely absorb a potential multi-billion-dollar damages bill if the NCAA loses the House antitrust case.

“You can come to Nacogdoches and try to get some money out of us,” Ivey said. “But I don’t know where it’s coming from. I say that very lightheartedly. I would argue that institutions at the FCS level, we’re not the institutions causing the major issues. This is not meant to be pointing fingers and saying, ‘They’re to blame.’ But we are fundamentally different than Texas A&M.”

Asked to characterize the overall sentiment among ADs and conference commissioners at the FCS/I-AAA level amid the industry’s disruption, Ivey said “a lot of anxiety,” referencing both the uncertainty and the dizzying flurry of developments that change the dynamic “by the hour.”

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He later added that FCS/I-AAA leaders need to have the ability to be able to govern their subdivisions in a way that the FBS leaders can’t.

Their pursuit stresses, in many ways, trying to maintain and enhance their current financial model. They don’t have a desire for a new subdivision. And they need to ensure they have meaningful access to championships, as well as access to meaningful championship events. 

As whispers of a possible Power Four breakaway continue – despite SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey publicly tamping down that possibility – FCS/I-AAA leaders are also mindful of the possibility of, in that scenario, the power conferences taking their basketball and staging their own lucrative postseason championship tournament – keeping out schools from traditional one-bid leagues.

“There is a value in that David versus Goliath first weekend” of the NCAA tournament, Ivey said. “And there is a desire to maintain that opportunity.”

‘There is a place for all’ in college sports’ Big Tent

In the most recent working draft of the position paper, leaders spell out that, on average, more than two-thirds of DI-AAA and FCS athletics budgets are funded to a substantial extent through institutional subsidy, government support, and student fees, and nearly 30% of their expenses are allocated to student-athlete financial aid. Although they generate revenue, it states, none generate an annual profit through athletics.

Regarding governance, stakeholders later add, it’s time to “proactively rethink NCAA Division I governance by first determining the level of conference-based autonomy that would more likely withstand antitrust scrutiny than collective national action. In other words, thought must be given to what areas of athletics should be governed nationally and what rules and policies can be adjudicated at the conference and campus levels.”

Additionally, the draft states, the collaboration between DI-AAA and FCS can “transform and reestablish college sports as a key pillar of, and not an obstacle to, higher education.”

“We manage a social sector enterprise; it’s not a business sector one at our level,” Ivey said. “Our responsibility to the institutions is not about financial means and entertainment value. There is an education nexus to what we do. It’s not about how much money we are getting from TV contracts.”

But when asked whether FCS/I-AAA should continue to operate alongside the FBS under one proverbial Big Tent, he stopped short of saying it’s time for some parties to leave the tent.

“I think there’s value to it, I truly believe there’s value – college sports is uniquely American,” Ivey said. “There’s a place for all of us. The question becomes, ‘How do we begin to articulate and carve out that space? And how are we going to be able to move this forward in a manner that’s going to create and continue to stabilize the opportunities we have for student-athletes?’

“That’s what we’re all trying to figure out. I still believe there is a desire and a need for us to be under one tent. I just don’t know what that tent is going to look like.”