What will the Big Ten-SEC partnership look to accomplish?

Sports

The most important thing to know about the burgeoning cooperation of the Big Ten and the SEC, announced late last week, is to not call it an alliance. Let alone The Alliance.

The ill-fated — and roundly mocked — conference alliance of August 2021 was a ham-handed move. But most notably, it was the ACC, Pac-12 and Big Ten acting defensively in response to the SEC’s acquisition of Oklahoma and Texas.

This “joint advisory group” announced last week between the Big Ten and the SEC should be viewed more as a bellwether for where college sports are going, and the desire of SEC commissioner Greg Sankey and Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti to be proactive. It will be a consultant for the two leagues but won’t have the authority to implement changes.

While further details remain unclear, the Big Ten and SEC are sharing ideas to carve a path forward for college sports, something NCAA leadership has failed to do for a generation, capped by the recent flop of the transformation committee.

This isn’t a breakaway, a point Sankey and Petitti have done great gymnastics to point out. It’s rather an arrow pointing toward progress, ranging from micro issues such as squabbles in the College Football Playoff (governance, access and monetary distribution) to larger-scale issues all the way up to Congress.

Here’s what’s definitive about this new linking: These leagues don’t want Eastern Michigan having a say in what happens at Michigan or Florida International affecting Florida. They don’t, for example, want the Dartmouth basketball team’s unionization effort to impact the Auburn and Iowa football teams’ futures.

The SEC and Big Ten are cool on new NCAA president Charlie Baker’s proposal that calls for a new tier of Division I, which includes $30,000 payments to at least half of a school’s athletes and allows schools to make name, image and likeness deals directly with athletes.

One of the reasons the SEC and Big Ten breaking away isn’t rooted in reality comes from the Supreme Court ruling in 2021 in the NCAA v. Alston case. That ruling stresses time and again that conferences are free to forge individual paths forward.

So where could this SEC-Big Ten partnership show up to forge the future of college sports? The simple answers are lawsuit settlement and revenue share.

Multiple sources told ESPN there’s a lot of chatter that this SEC-Big Ten arm-linking could manifest itself amid the thicket of lawsuits facing the NCAA. Some of the wealthiest conferences want to find a way to settle those suits — particularly the billions in potential exposure of House v. NCAA — and use the settlement structure to create a path forward.

This is not simple, nor is it inevitable, as it’s a complicated play that likely would involve Congress. But as one industry source told ESPN on the building settlement chatter: “Congress doesn’t want to save us. They want to help us. There’s a big difference.”

Sources pointed to the House vs. NCAA case, a class-action lawsuit that has the NCAA facing a multibillion-dollar payout in damages to former athletes if a federal judge decides the association’s old prohibition on NIL deals violated federal antitrust laws. That case is scheduled to go to trial in January 2025, but it could be settled before then.

All of the so-called Power 5 conferences — SEC, Big Ten, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 — are listed as defendants in the House case, which is part of the reason they could be motivated to settle.

This spring appears to be the optimal window for settling.

The NCAA is also facing two other open antitrust complaints and a federal lawsuit that argues that all college athletes should be considered employees of their schools.

There’s no clean path to a settlement, and the circles around those talks are typically tight. But could the Big Ten and SEC spearheading some type of settlement — perhaps in multiple looming cases — mean they agree to pay some of the past damages and figure out an approved structure to revenue share with athletes going forward?

Other leagues could and will follow along. With revenue sharing with athletes seemingly inevitable at some point, would this be a way to instill it?

Gabe Feldman, director of the Tulane sports law program, warned of myriad complications but acknowledged a potential path through settlement that could create a framework going forward.

“It’s certainly plausible,” he said. “The realistic part is about the will of the parties. Are the parties willing and able to find a dollar amount to make these cases go away and able to find a structure that they would continue under? It’s certainly plausible.”

Some protection would likely be needed to slow or prevent future lawsuits from coming and challenging the structure. There are various opinions on how and whether that could be achieved, but that’s likely something that would need some type of government intervention. A settlement and some sort of revenue share could help encourage action from federal lawmakers, who have thus far made little tangible progress toward voting on the type of bill the NCAA and its members say they need.

“What they need from Congress, to be clear, is clarity,” said Mark S. Levinstein, senior counsel for Williams & Connolly, who has decades of experience in the sports space. “They need a lot of answers. For example, with respect to labor law, can the athletes unionize? If they unionize and choose the labor laws, is everything the universities did now protected from being challenged under the antitrust laws?”

Levinstein added: “The universities would also need some help with Title IX — if the football players receive a percentage of the university’s revenues, what do they have to do for the women’s rowing athletes? And they will need some clarity on any restrictions they impose on NIL. Can they prevent boosters from paying athletes to come to the university? Do you allow the quarterback to receive millions in NIL deals if they’re actually NIL deals and not payments to get him to enroll at a particular university?”

That’s a lengthy way to say there’s nothing linear here. But the settlement as a bridge to federal help is an idea being discussed, and it’s one the SEC and Big Ten appear set to dig in on once they determine which members — presidents, chancellors and athletic directors — will make up the advisory group.

We’ve seen plenty of committees, commissions and expert panels in college athletics over the years that have led to nothing more than additional committees, commissions and expert panels. What makes this partnership different is that the SEC and Big Ten have the financial muscle, alignment and leadership. But that doesn’t diminish the challenges.

Since Sankey took over at the SEC in 2015, we’ve learned that he’s calculating, the type of leader who measures many times before cutting. Sankey is, in general, a believer in the NCAA and the need for rules and a governing body. But there’s also a boiling point when Georgia State has the same juice as Georgia.

Sankey served as the co-chair of the transformation committee, a group that met for more than a year. It was formed in an effort to reshape Division I rules in the wake of the Supreme Court decision, and there were few tangible results. The time Sankey dedicated to it showed that he believed in some type of healthy NCAA for the future of college sports. But the reality is the transformation committee couldn’t transform anything. So here we are.

Petitti got hired in April of last year, and as he has gotten acclimated to all the issues in college sports, he has made the strategic decision to link with Sankey. Former Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren and Sankey had a poor relationship, summed up upon Warren’s departure by Sankey saying, “We saw the world differently.”

Alignment among leadership doesn’t mean they can change anything. The most gobsmacking thing about college sports is that, for as popular and profitable as they are at the highest levels, there has long been no one in charge. And those who do qualify as leaders can’t tell you with any confidence what the basic structure surrounding their business will be in five years. Truly, no one has any idea. Everyone is guessing.

With cohesion in the landscape’s two most powerful leagues, they will plow forward. The task is daunting, but luckily the last alliance for power conferences set the bar pretty low.

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