Mark Story

Are the ‘little guys’ about to be driven out of big-time college sports?

Financial dynamics may be conspiring to rob schools from outside the power five conferences such as Western Kentucky of magical moments like Kawaun Jakes scoring a two-point conversion to beat Kentucky in overtime in Commonwealth Stadium in 2012.
Financial dynamics may be conspiring to rob schools from outside the power five conferences such as Western Kentucky of magical moments like Kawaun Jakes scoring a two-point conversion to beat Kentucky in overtime in Commonwealth Stadium in 2012.

In an election year, one hears much about income inequality. If you want a stark example of a world where the gap between those at the top and everyone else is gaping and growing, one need only look at major college sports.

This summer in our state, the University of Kentucky has unveiled a posh $45 million football training facility. University of Louisville backers are anticipating a financial windfall in the multi-millions after word that ESPN will launch an ACC Network in 2019.

Conversely, financial pressures caused Morehead State to drop men’s and women’s tennis, Murray State to end it’s men’s tennis program, and Western Kentucky to cut its track and field budget by nearly half.

As the gap between the “one percent” of college athletics and everybody else keeps widening, can Division I sports as we’ve long known it survive?

Nationally, recent months saw two Football Bowl Subdivision conferences sign two wildly disparate financial deals with the television networks that broadcast their games.

The Big Ten , a bedrock of the power-five conferences, inked a new agreement with Fox, ESPN and CBS that will pay the league some $440 million a year for the next six seasons.

Contrast that bounty with what happened when Conference USA, one of the lower-profile FBS leagues known as the “group of five,” had to go to the marketplace seeking a new TV deal.

C-USA, which includes Western Kentucky and Marshall, saw the demand for its broadcast rights all but collapse. According to The Virginian-Pilot, the new C-USA TV deal with ESPN, CBS Sports Network and two other outlets will pay some $2.8 million a year.

Each Big Ten school could reap more than $30 million from the conference’s new TV contracts alone — and that’s before Big Ten Network, College Football Playoff and NCAA Tournament revenues are factored in.

Meanwhile, each C-USA school will get around $200,000 from their league’s new television contracts — a substantial drop from the already modest $1.1 million each received from TV during 2015-16.

“We had the bad timing to be the first ‘group of five’ league to have to renegotiate in what is a rapidly changing marketplace,” Western Kentucky Athletics Director Todd Stewart said Thursday. “That’s one reason the league signed a two-year deal. The next time we have to negotiate, we’re hoping there will be new actors — a Netflix, Google/YouTube, Yahoo, Apple TV — in play.”

With customers beginning to cut the cord from traditional cable TV and satellite television distributors in favor of live-streaming services and other alternative content delivery platforms, sports cable networks, even ESPN , have faced financial downturns and begun to cut back.

Yet while the changing technology sabotaged C-USA’s negotiating power, the Big Ten reaped a financial bonanza under identical market conditions. Given that, I asked Stewart if he thought the schools in leagues outside the power five can stay at college sports’ highest level over the long term?

“I certainly hope so,” Stewart said. “I truly believe that the more people, the more communities, the more schools, the more parts of the country you have involved (in Division I college sports), the deeper the interest is. But there is no question that the disparity in revenue, which was already wide, is ever-growing.”

The day of reckoning for the “little guys” of college sports has not yet arrived.

In the just-concluded school year, teams from less-prominent conferences enjoyed some notable successes against the elite leagues. WKU football beat an SEC foe for the third time in the past four seasons when it won at Vanderbilt. In the men’s basketball NCAA Tournament, No. 15 seed Middle Tennessee State (C-USA) stunned No. 2 Michigan State (Big Ten). Most impressive of all, Coastal Carolina (Big South Conference but moving to the Sun Belt) won baseball’s College World Series.

Still, as the difference in TV revenue between the power five leagues and most everyone else continues to explode, the emergence of the long-discussed college sports “super-division” — with the big-time schools playing only against each other — might become inevitable.

Even if that split doesn’t occur, the gap in resources between the Davids of college sports and the Goliaths may become so great that no giants can ever be slain — especially in football.

If either happens, something unique, maybe even essential, to the appeal of college athletics will be gone. Without “the little guys” having even a puncher’s chance, big-time college sports will lose something that can’t be measured on balance sheets.