The so-called "Power Five" conferences — the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC — will reap most of the riches from the new football playoff. They have just been granted greater autonomy to chart their own course within the NCAA.
With the $EC Network projected to be a financial windfall, the future could not look rosier for University of Kentucky athletics. When the ACC issued an invitation to Louisville, it meant U of L had claimed the last seat (for now) among college athletics major leagues.
Yet for Kentucky's five other NCAA Division I schools — Western Kentucky; Eastern Kentucky; Morehead State; Murray State; and Northern Kentucky — the future is filled with uncertainty.
With their new-found freedom to act on their own, the Power Five leagues are expected to enact "cost of attendance" scholarships for their athletes. That means increasing the value of scholarships from tuition, room, board and books to the more general figure of what it actually costs a student to attend a school. The figure being thrown around is an average of $5,000 a year per scholarship athlete.
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For a UK or U of L, that cost should be manageable. What happens, however, at schools that are not in leagues with plush TV contracts and/or their own networks?
"That's the big question," says Eastern Kentucky Athletics Director Mark Sandy. "Once the Power Five act, let's say the Missouri Valley (Conference) schools (like Wichita State) feel like they need to add (cost of attendance) to stay competitive in basketball. Well, does that mean Murray State has to act to stay competitive with the Valley? If it does, then EKU probably has to act to be competitive with Murray. There is the potential for a great deal of 'trickle down.'"
Western Kentucky is joining Conference-USA this year. As members of the FBS, C-USA schools plan to offer cost-of-attendance scholarships, WKU AD Todd Stewart said.
"We'll do it," the WKU AD said. "I think it's important to maintain competitiveness. Some of the other things the Power Five schools can do, we can't match. And I think that's OK. We can't match all they do now, but we have been able to compete."
Another uncertainty is whether schools from leagues "down the college sports food chain" can offer cost-of-living scholarships in some sports but not others. For Title IX reasons, a university that wanted to provide enhanced aid in men's basketball would also presumably need to do it in women's hoops.
But can you offer cost-of-attendance in basketball but not in, say, golf? Even if you can, is it fair?
"Is it right if you have the OVC Tennis Player of the Year and her scholarship is worth less than the 13th player on the basketball team?" EKU's Sandy asks.
If an OVC school does not offer the $5,000 in spending money available at an SEC school, people speculate over the impact that will have in recruiting. However, let's be real — how often does a recruit pick the Ohio Valley Conference over the Southeastern Conference now?
What could be a valid concern is what happens if an OVC school finds a lightly recruited prospect who goes on to become a Kenneth Faried — the basketball standout who left Newark, N.J. to become one of the most significant athletes in Morehead State history.
"Kenneth was from New Jersey," says Morehead AD Brian Hutchinson. "So after, say, his sophomore year, what if Rutgers or Seton Hall come to him and say 'Hey, our scholarship is worth thousands more'?"
There has been talk that Power Five autonomy could lead to a rule that would allow players to transfer without sitting out a season. "That would be a deal breaker," Hutchinson said. "That rule would make our level almost like high school. It would be open season, people coming on our campus for our best athletes."
Perhaps the biggest uncertainty of all for schools outside the Power Five that choose to embrace cost-of-attendance scholarships is, how do they pay for them? An increase of several thousand dollars per scholarship annually spread across hundreds of athletes is potentially a budget buster.
The majority of Division I athletic departments are subsidized with funding from their university proper — often meaning tax dollars.
"Most FCS universities are (operated on) 20 percent revenue and 80 percent university funds," EKU's Sandy said. "So if you are going to increase your costs, you either have to increase your revenues or get more from the university."
The bottom line for schools other than the Power Five is that events outside their control are shaping their destinies. That's never a comfortable place to be.
"Not knowing what could come down next in terms of costs," says WKU's Stewart, "that's the thing that keeps me up nights."