As ESPN analyst Jay Bilas sees it, last year was a bad one for men’s college basketball. Attendance was down, physical play was up, scoring dropped and television ratings continued to lag far behind college football.
But with no one directly in charge of the sport, fixing these problems could be a long, daunting process.
“It’s absurd,” Bilas said. “No good businessperson would run a ... business this way.
“If you have an idea or something you think can be of benefit to the game, on whose door do you knock? There’s nobody.”
What is a billion-dollar sport to do?
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski says he has a solution, an idea he has had for 20 years. He says college basketball needs a commissioner.
“Who’s in charge?” Krzyzewski said a day before his team met Louisville in the Elite Eight in late March. “Well, who, though? No, President (Mark) Emmert is in charge of the entire NCAA. He’s got a huge job. There should be somebody in charge of college basketball who does this on a day-to-day basis and understands everything about it.
“When they put the dirt on me, inside, underneath the dirt, I’m still going to be yelling for somebody to run college basketball.”
The commissioner could serve as college basketball’s CEO and be responsible for the day-to-day operation of the sport, a business with revenues approaching $1 billion annually. By streamlining leadership, changes to the game could be made more quickly than with the current committee-driven structure.
Emmert, the NCAA president, has said he is open to dramatic changes in the governance structure and has pledged to review the idea of a commissioner at the organization’s January convention with the goal of having new proposals adopted in April. None of the other NCAA-governed sports have commissioners.
Men’s college basketball generates nearly all of the NCAA’s revenue – the organization projects that 90 percent ($712 million of $797 million) of its 2012-13 revenue will come from the TV broadcast deal with CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting alone. Most of the remaining 10 percent will come from ticket and merchandise sales at NCAA championships, with the men’s basketball Final Four the largest contributor.
With high-profile conference commissioners and coaches predicting major changes for the NCAA and calling for an evaluation of the current definition of amateurism, what the future holds for the sport is unclear. No one interviewed for this story advocated leaving the NCAA. But everyone agreed the status quo is unsustainable.
“The tension between amateurism and the professional business that we’re running is only going to grow unless we address it,” Bilas said.
A commissioner could speak as an authoritative voice on all issues concerning college basketball and take the initiative on opportunities to grow and improve the game. The person in the job would need to know all parties within the NCAA who are connected to the game, as well as develop better working relationships with the country’s other basketball organizations, including the NBA, NBA Players Association, USA Basketball, Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and more.
“There is such a good relationship between college football and pro football,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I don’t think we have that. That’s more our fault than theirs. I wish we could do a better job of looking out for what’s the best for the game of basketball.”
Game in decline
The issues from last season are not new.
Scoring, for example, is one of several long-term problems to which the NCAA has been slow to respond. For 17 seasons, from 1987 to 2003, Division I teams averaged more than 70 points per game. But it has been 10 years since Division I has hit that benchmark.
Scoring in 2012-13 reached its lowest point since the 1951-52 season, with teams averaging 67.5 points per game. Meanwhile, the number of fouls called per game (17.7) reached an all-time low.
The NCAA is finally trying to cut down on the physical play that has dogged the game – both Bilas and ACC Commissioner John Swofford used the comparison of a wrestling match to describe play before the start of this season – by having referees call fouls on hand checks on the perimeter. Through Wednesday, the number of fouls called per game (20.6) and scoring averages (73.7) have increased 16.5 percent and 9.1 percent, respectively, according to data from KPI Competition Analytics.
The inspiration for the crackdown comes from the NBA, which underwent its own freedom of movement revolution beginning in 1994, when some hand-checking was eliminated. Three years later, arm bars were banned, and the league readdressed the physical play with further restrictions on defenders in 2004. Since then, scoring has increased.
Meanwhile, college basketball attendance and TV ratings lag behind college football.
Regular-season attendance numbers are in decline for Division I programs, with nationwide average attendance down eight percent from five years ago, despite having 17 more teams and 321 more games. Average attendance in the ACC was down 11 percent from 2008 and 12 percent from 10 years ago, when there were three fewer teams. ACC football attendance, while empirically larger (thanks to bigger venues), has also declined recently, with stadiums 85 percent full last season, compared with a recent high of 93 percent in 2007, according to an Associated Press report.
On television, last season’s most-viewed regular-season basketball game was on Feb. 2 at 9 p.m. on ESPN, when No. 3 Indiana upset No. 1 Michigan, attracting four million viewers for a television rating of 2.5, according to Sports Media Watch. That was one of six games with a rating of at least 2.0.
Average college basketball ratings on ESPN have been 1.1 in three of the past four seasons (with the games in 2010-11 averaging a 1.0 rating). Before the 2009-10 season, the high was set in 2005-06. The top rating for the 2012-13 regular season (2.5) ranks behind the high-water mark for the 2011-12 season (UNC vs. Duke, ESPN, 2.7) and the 2010-11 season (UNC vs. Duke, CBS, 3.2). The ratings for both Champions Classic matchups this season on ESPN were strong, with Duke vs. Kansas (2.1) and No. 2 Michigan State vs. No. 1 Kentucky (2.6).
For comparison, through Nov. 9 of the current college football season, 55 games drew a rating of at least 2.0 with the Sept. 14 Alabama at Texas A&M game on CBS leading the way with an 8.5 rating and 13.59 million viewers. College football continues to grow – this year, ESPN posted its most-viewed regular-season Saturday in the history of the network.
All these issues might have been addressed sooner if there had been someone in charge of basketball.
“There are some trends there during the regular season that we need to address, and different aspects of the sport, from a rules standpoint,” Swofford said. “When you have a part of any organization that carries the degree of importance that basketball does in the NCAA, it would be a great idea, really, to have someone whose total and full devotion is to the sport.”
Who do you call?
Attempting to map out the current NCAA governance structure as it relates to men’s basketball isn’t easy, even for a man who has dealt with the organization for 20 years. As the head of the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC), Jim Haney has represented the interests of his membership to the NCAA on numerous occasions.
The question was straightforward: When your organization wants to raise an issue with the NCAA, who do you call?
“I’ve been around for a little over two decades, so you develop relationships, you get to know people, you get to know the process, so when you reach out for guidance, direction, feedback, it could be the president of the NCAA, it could be a chair of a committee, it could be a president or commissioner, you know a lot of people,” Haney said. “You have to work within the governance structure that exists.”
Emmert, as the president of the NCAA, answers to an 18-member board of directors, with the individuals serving four-year terms. Then there’s the Legislative Council, which handles legislative issues, and Leadership Council, which deals with policy issues, each with 32 members. Under the two councils are the cabinets, which contain the committees. There are three committees that deal specifically with men’s Division I basketball: the basketball committee, basketball issues committee and basketball rules committee. And Emmert has created special subcommittees to look at issues as he sees fit.
“We have meandered about our sport with committee-driven decisions with people who don’t live the rules,” Krzyzewski said.
The bloated NCAA structure is one of the game’s main problems, Bilas says. The more streamlined, the better.
“And that’s the biggest issues facing the NCAA; can the NCAA stay in its lane, or are we going to continue to act like the NCAA itself is an agent of education?” he said. “It’s not. All it should be doing is running championships and administering championships and the competition itself.”
As far as basketball-specific governance, the NCAA has Dan Gavitt, the new vice president for men’s basketball championships who was hired in 2012 to oversee the NCAA tournament. He has a managing director under him, which will be JoAn Scott when she replaces the outgoing Jeanne Boyd after the 2014 Final Four. They deal specifically with the tournament, not college basketball as a whole.
“It’s almost amazing that the game runs as well as it does given how screwed up the governance is,” Bilas said. “That’s not to say that they don’t have good people there, because they do. It’s fair to say the NCAA office in Indianapolis is not very well run, that it is a mess. It is closer to disarray than it is to fully functioning at a high level. That needs to change.
“The athletes are better than they’ve ever been. And the coaching is better than it’s ever been. I term that an administrative problem.”
Much as committee-driven governance can impede decision-making, so does the sheer size of top-level college basketball. There are 351 Division-I teams for the 2013-14 season. The top level of football, the FBS, has 125 teams.
“Football has figured it out better than we do,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “What do you see going go on in Washington right now? Senate, Congress, all those people, they can’t make any decisions. When you have (351 teams), it’s hard to make decisions on rules or governance that’s going to fit everybody. The smaller group you have, you’ve got a better chance.”
The numbers have often led basketball changes to be made from the bottom up. For example, a proposed $2,000 stipend for athletes was approved by the NCAA in 2011, it was later overturned because of opposition from smaller schools.
“We need to try to do something for the players at the highest level that earn this money for the NCAA, the 90 percent of the income that comes in from men’s basketball,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “We need to look at that. And we need to find the money. We can’t just say, well, we don’t have the money. There’s money, you’ve got to find it, and you’ve got to direct it there. That’s important, crucially important.”
ACC coaches Williams, Krzyzewski and Boeheim are tired of going “the way of the lowest,” Krzyzewski says.
Finding the right person
So who is the ideal person for the job?
“You need somebody that’s willing to understand the coaches, the players and the administrators,” Boeheim said. “So many administrators, they just understand administrators. I don’t even think they really care what players think. I don’t think they really even care what coaches think.”
Big East founder Dave Gavitt, who died in 2011 at age 73, had many of the qualities coaches would like to see in a commissioner.
“He would have been the ultimate guy,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “And you know what? Maybe Danny Gavitt (Dave’s son) would be the second-best guy.”
That was a name supported by Krzyzewski and Bilas – both of whom said they personally wouldn’t want the job but would support whoever did it – as well as Boeheim, Swofford and George Raveling, director of international basketball for Nike and a former college coach.
Given the NCAA’s willingness to examine its governance structure, it’s possible a position like this could exist in the near future. But the NCAA’s recent track record has most taking a wait-and-see approach.
“We’ve got an extraordinary opportunity right now because the NCAA office is in disarray, looking for solutions,” Bilas said. “But it’s also an opportunity to screw things up.”
But Gavitt is optimistic.
“We have an opportunity here over the next year-plus or so,” he said, “to possibility move more toward the model that Coach K has envisioned. That will all be determined by the membership.”
So maybe Krzyzewski won’t be forced to advocate from his grave.
“Our game is underperforming,” Bilas said. “We’re just scratching the surface of how good it could be if it were run correctly.”