Real Power In College Sports? It’s Not With NCAA

Quick qualifier before we get started here: let’s be clear that we’re talking about Myles Brand professionally and not personally. He is, lest you forget, struggling with pancreatic cancer, which is ferociously deadly. We can disagree with his decisions while still empathizing with him and his family during an unimaginably difficult time.

George Bodenheimer
(The man in charge. Hey wait a second, that’s not Myles…)

With that out of the way, it’s safe to say that the NCAA is barely in control of itself anymore. Oh, sure, they can hand out probations and declare ineligibilities and craft arcane and confusing rules, but this is all amateur-status enforcement; the direction of big-money college athletics comes from outside, not from within.

To that end, the ORLANDO SENTINEL ranked the most powerful men in college sports. Not surprisingly, somebody other than NCAA Chairman Myles Brand is atop the list. With all due apologies to ninjas, say hello to the face of real ultimate power:

1. George Bodenheimer, ESPN/ABC Sports president: He oversees a sports-media empire that’s involved in all areas of college athletics; the recent deals to acquire the riights to the BCS and to SEC games were blockbusters.

2. Myles Brand, NCAA president: This former president of Indiana University and the University of Oregon sets the tone for the NCAA and spurred the enactment of the major academic reform package that has made the letters “APR” critical to athletic departments everywhere.

Honestly? It’s really hard to disagree with that assessment. As apt as the ESPN family would be for televising the NCAA tournament (pretty much the only major television rights ESPN/ABC doesn’t hold a substantial share of), CBS is embracing the Internet’s ability to broadcast multiple games and making the most of their deal.

For damn near everything else, though, ESPN calls the shots. Did you know that ESPN has more direct control over not only the BCS, but the entire bowl system than the NCAA does? It’s true. The bowl deals are made outside the purview of the NCAA, as they’re mostly agreements between stadiums, sponsors, and conferences. Oh, sure, the NCAA’s there to make sure the gifts the players get aren’t too expensive, but it was ESPN’s agreement with the BCS that included the clause that a non-BCS team gets to take the Rose Bowl berth vacated by a Big Ten or Pac-10 team (instead of an also-ran from that conference; sorry, Illinois) should they make the BCS title game, not the NCAA’s.

Moreover, this was never a very public business move, but ESPN owns a lot of bowl games. Like literally owns them: they created them, sold the naming rights to companies like GMAC and Emerald Nuts, and kept the television rights for themselves. The proliferation of bowl games where we get teams like Troy, TCU, and Cincinnati playing each other (not all three at once, that would be confusing)? Again, that’s ESPN’s decision, not the NCAA’s.

This, by the way, should be registering as totally ass-backwards in your brain. If NBC offered a large television contract to the NFL with the condition that the league completely overhaul their postseason, hand over naming rights to the title game, and entirely remove home games in the postseason, Roger Goodell would calmly escort them to the nearest flaming death pit, rip their heads off, and toss their lifeless corpses in. But that’s essentially what ESPN has done with college football, with the sole exception that the playoffs never existed in I-A to begin with. That’s all.

In the end, though, it probably all makes sense. Major college athletics have become monetary arms races. That money comes from four sources: donations, tickets, merchandise, and - ever increasingly - television money. ESPN is the source of a whole lot of that money, and there’s no real alternative. Notre Dame has NBC, and the Big Ten has the Big Ten Network, but both of those operations are poorly executed jokes. Meanwhile, the SEC has a cushy deal with ESPN worth $2.25 billion dollars. Money talks, and ESPN has the bullhorn.