SAN DIEGO – The big leagues appear poised to get their way and their own voting bloc within the NCAA.
Polling of the roughly 800 administrators at the NCAA convention's dialog on governance revealed solid support for an autonomous voting body for the five most powerful conferences – the SEC, Big Ten, ACC, Pac-12 and Big 12. Fifty-eight percent of those administrators – from all levels of NCAA membership – were in support of autonomy for the power conferences; 30 percent were opposed; 12 percent were neutral.
To NCAA president Mark Emmert, that's a significant change in outlook.
"It makes sense for the five big revenue conferences to have their own voice," Emmert told Yahoo Sports Friday. "A year ago that would have been a very difficult conversation. Now [member schools] are saying, 'Yeah, that makes sense.' … People have just become more comfortable with the ideas and concepts of it.' "
The process still will take time. Wake Forest president Nathan Hatch, the chair of the Division I Board of Directors, said there will be more focused discussion on the NCAA's new governing structure in April, and individual conferences will then have a chance to discuss those findings at their spring meetings. Then the proposals can be put to a formal vote.
"We hope to have it wrapped up and approved by summer," Hatch said.
The most publicized change the power conferences want to make is increasing compensation for athletes via a full-cost-of-attendance stipend. As it currently stands, there is a gap ranging from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars for most athletes between what their scholarship covers and the actual cost of attending college. Power conference leaders have tried for two years to pass legislation to increase athlete compensation, but have been outvoted by schools with less revenue to share.
If the big schools have their own voting bloc, that legislation should pass easily.
"There is support [in the ACC] for the general concept and taking a fresh look at the scholarship itself," ACC commissioner John Swofford said. "There's also a very strong feeling that whatever is done needs to be education-based, and good for student-athletes. … The natural answer to that is full cost of education."
But there are plenty of schools from outside the football-driven power structure who are concerned about what such legislation might mean for them. They see this as a chance for the rich schools to further distance themselves from the mid-major and low-major programs that would not be able to afford the additional cost.
"I worry that the gap is going to get so large that the notion of competitive opportunity might not be possible for the rest of us," said Northeastern athletic director Peter Roby, who was perhaps the most outspoken person in the two days of meetings. "I don't think we're under the illusion that a Northeastern, or anyone in the mid-major category, is going to win [basketball] national championships. But those differences in revenue should be obstacles that prevent us, if we get in the tournament, from being able to win some games and advance.
"I just hope there are some concessions, and maybe some of us have the opportunity to compete a little more fairly."
Those concerns were clear to Emmert, but he sounds like a leader who understands which direction the movement is headed.
"I think a lot of members are very worried about that," he said. "And that worry is certainly understandable. There already are some enormous economic gaps and competitive advantages. But the members that have more resources want to use them for the betterment of student-athletes."
If there was one area of underlying tension at this NCAA convention, it centered on the tug of war between presidents and athletic directors for control of college athletics. For the past year, ADs have grown more vocal in their dissatisfaction with being essentially cut out of the decision-making process.
"There is only one group that 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, seven days a week is devoted to this enterprise," North Carolina State athletic director Debbie Yow said Thursday. "And we should be included in the leadership."
That statement drew applause from an audience that was nearly 40 percent athletic directors. Presidents noted the sentiment for a stronger AD presence – but still seem reluctant to cede too much control. The presidents were firm in saying they still want to run the show, despite an acknowledged lack of expertise on some of the issues.
Expect that debate to continue to simmer.
After an exhausting, occasionally cacophonous and often tedious two days of discussion, three things were certain: a lot of administrators got a chance to be heard; change is coming; and some people aren't going to like it. That's very American and emblematic of the complexity of college sports.
"Democracy," Swofford said, "can be messy at times."