Ranking the 10 most powerful people in college sports
Ranking the 10 most powerful people in college sports (cont.)
As I pondered this list of the 10 most powerful people in college sports, I sent a batch of names to colleague Stewart Mandel to make sure I didn't have any glaring omissions. He added a few suggestions and also sent along his list of college football's 10 most powerful people from 10 years ago.
Only one name remains the same, but the entries fall into similar categories. Television, because of its outsize influence on the entire enterprise, is heavily represented. So are conference commissioners, who exert influence on university presidents. You won't find any coaches on this list, because while they are the wealthiest, most famous group, they don't have a lot of real power. Take Alabama football coach Nick Saban, for example. Saban is probably the most powerful coach in America, but when other SEC schools wanted to make rules to curb Saban's roster management practices, Saban got steamrolled. The people on this list tend to get what they want almost every time.
The 72-year-old former judge barely edges Big Ten counterpart Jim Delany. Why? Both hold in their hands the power to destroy other conferences. If either the SEC or the Big Ten decides to expand again, another league could crumble. Slive and Delany each either have created or will create huge revenue streams with a cable network. Delany's Big Ten Network -- a partnership with Fox -- has been up and running since 2007. Slive's SEC Network -- which must be a partnership with ESPN because that network already owns most of the SEC's broadcast rights -- will debut in 2014. Both have helped snatch control of the bowls away from bowl directors and put it squarely in the hands of the conferences. The Big Ten has long had a hand in the Rose Bowl, and Slive partnered with the Big 12 during the past year so the vast majority of the money from the Sugar Bowl went to the conferences. In the next few years, Slive and his league will grab control of the SEC's other bowl partners, too. "This is a very good time to take a hard look at how we do our bowl relationships," Slive said in January, "and see if there's a better way." Translation: Our teams are what people tune in to see. So now you work for us.
So why, when they seem relatively equal, does Slive get the nod over Delany? Seven consecutive national championships in football, and Slive got everything he wanted in the negotiations for the format of the four-team playoff. Remember, Slive proposed this very idea in 2008. Delany opposed it until he saw no other option. Had we made this list two years ago, Slive would not have finished so high. A TV deal that looked like a Whopper in the post-crash world of 2009 looked like a junior cheeseburger in 2011. So Slive changed the game. The most important move so far in this round of realignment has been Texas A&M's switch from the Big 12 to the SEC. No matter what Slive actually said about fit and culture when the Aggies joined, the move was always a land grab to enlarge the SEC's footprint. Adding the nation's second-largest state made a cable channel feasible and will allow the SEC to significantly increase its revenues. No other move in realignment has had such a profound impact on one league.
After I just spent all those words explaining why Slive beat Delany by a nose, Delany probably could flex and put himself atop this list. While the SEC could expand if it wanted to, Slive's position has been that any expansion beyond 14 members would be a defensive move. The Big Ten has been more proactive, and if Delany decides he wants to push to take Virginia, North Carolina or Georgia Tech from the ACC, he probably can do it. Most likely, he'll wait until dueling lawsuits in North Carolina and Maryland over the ACC's $52 million exit fee play themselves out. If the exit fee holds up, it might not be financially wise to take any more ACC schools given the huge up-front cost -- something those schools probably would ask the Big Ten to help pay. If the exit fee gets tossed or negotiated down, game on. Because of the Big Ten's established network and its coalition of mostly academically elite schools, it would be the first choice among the presidents of the ACC's old guard.
Meanwhile, Delany also plans to exert more control over the bowls. Like Slive, he has said the conferences need to examine their relationships with postseason games. Delany's wish is flexibility that would allow leagues to create attractive matchups instead of sending the same eight teams to the same eight places every year. (Except Pasadena. Everyone in the Big Ten always wants to go to Pasadena.)
Emmert checks in this high on the list because of a decree from upper management that our lists jive with the master list in this week's magazine. But his power is eroding so quickly that had the list been formulated today, he would have fallen below the next few entries. Still, Emmert is a fascinating study. He inherited a position that had been largely administrative since Walter Byers left office and tried to turn it back into a powerful executive branch. He used a handpicked group of presidents to ram through reforms that, while needed at the big-money level of college sports, weren't wanted below that level. Emmert has continued to fight for reforms -- such as the recently passed and soon-to-be-overturned deregulation of recruiting -- that attempt to reconcile a bloated, antiquated organization with the real world. Ahead of an escalation in the Ed O'Bannon case (more on that later), Emmert tried to give athletes more money by offering schools the option to give fixed stipends. The schools fought back because the least wealthy athletic departments labor under the delusion that if they gin up enough new NCAA rules, North Texas and Alabama will someday become peers on the football field. In another age, Emmert would be lauded as a progressive, pragmatic leader.
Unfortunately for Emmert, a few missteps combined with circumstances beyond his control have made him toxic and eroded the confidence of the leaders of the schools for which he works. First, Emmert licked his finger, stuck it in the air and decided to circumvent his own organization's democratically created judicial process to punish Penn State's football program after the Jerry Sandusky scandal in spite of the fact that the program didn't actually violate any of the NCAA's rules. It wasn't the act of punishing Penn State -- plenty of people were in favor of that. It was the way Emmert went about it. He used underhanded, back-channel negotiations of his own design. The schools had already set up a system of underhanded, back-channel negotiations to mete out NCAA discipline (the Enforcement department and the Committee on Infractions), and many in college athletics would have preferred Emmert stick to the system the schools voted to put in place. Meanwhile, Emmert was in office when a member of the NCAA's Enforcement team hired convicted Ponzi schemer Nevin Shapiro's attorney to hijack a federal bankruptcy deposition and gather dirt on Miami's athletic program for the NCAA. The NCAA's admission of its own malfeasance in the case may have been the tipping point in which public perception of the organization turned from borderline mistrust to universal hatred. This was going to happen eventually no matter who was in charge. The people in charge of major college sports can't keep signing ever-larger TV contracts and making coaches millionaires -- all while not giving the work force a raise -- and expect the public to be dumb enough to buy that football and men's basketball at the highest level are still amateur sports. Fair or not, the blame for all of this will fall on Emmert, whose power grows more faint by the day.
As I wrote above, this entry should be above Emmert. Come June, it might also need to be moved above Delany and Slive. By himself, O'Bannon, the former UCLA forward who has spent the past few years working at a Las Vegas Toyota dealership, isn't that powerful. But as the named party in a lawsuit that could change the way the business of college sports operates, the mere mention of O'Bannon's name makes administrators around the country quake. Either because they don't want to divulge their legal strategy or because they don't actually have one, the NCAA's leaders have dodged athletic directors' questions about what might happen as a result of Ed O'Bannon v. the NCAA.
When federal judge Claudia Wilken ruled in January that the O'Bannon plaintiffs could proceed with the class certification process, the panic level among the people who actually run college sports on a daily basis -- the athletic directors and commissioners -- rose to DEFCON 2. The plaintiffs have altered their legal strategy so that this case isn't just about the use of former athletes' likenesses in video games and DVDs. Now, it's about whether the NCAA and its schools have the right to market the likenesses of former and current athletes for big money. If the class is certified in June, the NCAA would be fighting for its life in an antitrust trial that, if won by the plaintiffs, could bankrupt the NCAA. The other option is to settle, but that would also require a paradigm shift. To get the plaintiffs to drop the suit, the NCAA would have to allow athletes to get a chunk of the massive television money now flowing into college sports. That probably would require the big-money conferences -- at the moment, the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC -- to at least form their own division within the NCAA and could force them to break away and form their own organization. Even at the top of the food chain, schools would have to change the way they budget. Instead of building a new weight room, a school might need to hold back on capital improvements to meet payroll. Such a settlement would get messy, but it would finally stick a knife in the NCAA's sham notion of amateurism in major college sports.
Did ESPN really need to outbid NBC for the League-Soon-To-Formerly-Be-Known-As-The-Big-East's football and basketball rights? Of course not. ESPN already has plenty of college content, and broadcasting the games played by Conference USA 2.0 won't move the meter much. But given the network's massive wealth, why not try to choke off a competitor for the low, low price of $20 million a year? Magnus, who began his career as an unpaid intern at CBS Sports when that network was first waking up to the drawing power of college sports, understands that in today's media universe, the rights to broadcast games are the most important properties an entity can own. NBC wants to mount a challenge to ESPN? Good luck doing that with no games. Games drive everything.
I'm not one of those black helicopter people who believes ESPN employees drove realignment. Why? Because realignment will ultimately cost ESPN a fortune in new rights fees and shrink its profit margin. That said, ESPN remains an incredibly powerful force in college sports. Even as the landscape shifted and other bidders entered the marketplace, Magnus managed to keep a hold on most of the prime rights to ensure his network remains the one people turn to when they think of college football and basketball. Whether he remains this high on this list will likely depend on whether the Big Ten decides to remain in business at all with ESPN when its first-tier rights come available in three years.
NBC tried to challenge ESPN's Goliath in the college sports sphere, but Fox might actually have a chance to succeed. The network owns rights to quality football games in the Big 12 and Pac-12, and its 51 percent stake in the Big Ten Network should give it leverage when Delany begins negotiating that league's next big deal in a few years. If Shanks could land that whale, Fox would be a major player in college sports.
Fox announced plans Tuesday to transition existing channels into 24-hour sports networks, and given the fact that the network owns rights to quality college football and basketball as well as the NFL, NASCAR, Major League Baseball, the UFC and the World Cup, it might draw enough viewers to challenge ESPN if its programming is good enough. At the very least, it would give viewers a viable second option and provide ESPN with some much needed, creativity-boosting competition. College sports are a huge part of that equation. Fox has helped drive up television revenue for schools in the latest round of rights negotiations, and its significant investment in college sports suggests it will be around a while.
Scott's original vision of the Pac-16 didn't come to fruition, and it probably won't happen in the near future. While Delany, Slive and the Big 12's Bob Bowlsby still have their fingers on the expansion trigger, Scott is geographically boxed in and probably stuck at 12 members. Still, Scott's Pac-12 Networks -- which the league owns outright -- launched last year with decent carriage and should provide a healthy chunk of revenue for the Pac-12's schools going forward. By making a deal with ESPN and Fox in 2011 for fewer games at a seemingly exorbitant price, the former WTA boss set the market for future deals and woke up some of his colleagues to the money being left on the table. Scott also hasn't been shy about exploring the possibility of untapped markets in Asia.
Unlike some of the presidents he serves, Scott understands that major college sports are a business and must be run like one. Going forward, he could become an even more influential voice as NCAA leaders, commissioners, presidents and athletic directors try to reconcile the business with the missions of the universities in which that business is based.
No other athletic director is this powerful because no other conference has a power balance as out of whack as the Big 12. In the SEC, Florida's Jeremy Foley has juice, but he can't steamroll LSU's Joe Alleva or Georgia's Greg McGarity. Even if Delany didn't do such a fine job of keeping the schools rowing in the same direction in the Big Ten, Ohio State's Gene Smith couldn't walk all over Michigan's Dave Brandon or Michigan State's Mark Hollis. But in the Big 12, Texas has outsize power. Oklahoma, run by the extremely capable Joe Castiglione, is the only other Big 12 program even near the same financial neighborhood as Texas. The rest simply serve at Bevo's leisure.
Texas president Bill Powers ultimately makes the decisions, but Dodds does the legwork and makes the recommendations that Powers follows. In 2010, Texas played the Big 12 against the Pac-12 to leverage a deal that paved the way for the Longhorn Network. (It may be the butt of jokes because of its lack of carriage, but it is a lucrative butt of jokes.) In 2011, Dodds and the Longhorns gave some back to the rest of the league by agreeing to equal revenue sharing among Big 12 schools. This was a shrewd move, because while it made Texas look magnanimous and helped solidify the conference, all the action in 2010 had eliminated any possibility of a potentially larger revenue share like the one the Big Ten will have after its next deal or the one the SEC will have after its network is up and running. Because Texas already partnered with ESPN for the Longhorn Network and then the league sold most of its rights to ESPN and Fox, the idea of a conference network was a non-starter. While its conference rivals will always be free to start their own networks -- and some already have -- the one at Texas will always be bigger, shinier and more lucrative.
Every offseason, the Memphis-based Sexton -- who is now part of CAA's sports division -- whips the coaching market into a frenzy. The result? His clients get paid, and then he gets paid. It helps that Sexton has some top-shelf coaches on his roster. He has both sides of the Iron Bowl (Alabama's Saban and Auburn's Gus Malzahn). He has Florida State's Jimbo Fisher. He has Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy. But Sexton isn't only a master at leveraging a coach's success into a raise. In fact, his ability to sell any coach is what truly makes him a master of the art.
Until the bitter end, Sexton always managed to make sure someone else had interest in Houston Nutt. And then there is the greatest trick Sexton played on the college football world. First, he helped Lane Kiffin get hired at Tennessee. Then, he helped Lane Kiffin get hired at USC. Truly miraculous.
Another TV person? Indeed. Television is the most powerful force in college sports, and Fitting runs the most influential show in college sports. Fitting deserves some of the credit every time Tom Rinaldi makes you cry or Samantha Ponder shows off an arm better than a lot of college quarterbacks. Fitting also deserves part of the blame every time Kenny Chesney shows up as a guest picker or GameDay comes to Tallahassee and fails to have hometown favorite T-Pain singing Auto-Tuned picks.
Like it or not, GameDay sets the agenda for a significant chunk of college football's fan base every Saturday. The good news is that Fitting, his team and hosts Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso have used that power responsibly -- usually making sound editorial judgments and covering what needs to be covered. The debut of Fox's pregame show this past fall only served to show how far ahead GameDay is in every facet. While a lot of ESPN's offerings have morphed into self-parody, GameDay has remained solid. Let's hope Fitting keeps it that way.
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