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College Sports Stakeholders Optimistic New NCAA President Will Usher in Transformation

College Sports Stakeholders Optimistic New NCAA President Will Usher in Transformation

The NCAA announced the hiring of its next president, Charlie Baker, in mid-December. Baker, who just finished his second term as the Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, will assume his new role in March.

Baker acknowledged “the complex and significant challenges” the organization faces in the introductory press release. But he has shared little in the way of his plan to address them since, leaving stakeholders unsure of what to expect.

Cynics are convinced the NCAA search committee was drawn to the former Governor because he is positioned to help the organization defend its long-standing amateurism mission. The thought is that hiring a politician, particularly a popular, nonpartisan one like Baker, will aid the NCAA’s efforts to gain a federal consensus on, and ultimately legislation that addresses, name, image and likeness, athlete rights, collective bargaining, and revenue-sharing related issues.

But that may be too convenient of an assumption to make.

More optimistic stakeholders remain hopeful the hiring reflects the NCAA’s understanding that times have changed and that the former Governor can help the organization to transform itself, on its own terms. “Transformation is changing the way of thinking at the top, from a school standpoint, and recognition that this cannot [continue to] be business as usual,” Andrew Donovan (EVP, collegiate partnerships, Altius Sports Partners) said. “There are legitimate concerns that have to be addressed in a meaningful way.”

On the surface, the hiring looks to be business as usual in Indianapolis. It would be reasonable to think, “This is the NCAA getting somebody that has [government] inroads, who can build support and get done what many school presidents, athletic directors and NCAA personnel believe is the key to creating consistency with NIL and addressing lingering anti-trust issues,” Donovan said.

But Donovan said as you dive deeper into it there are reasons to believe Baker is coming in with the intention of using his skillset to build consensus and support among on-campus leadership, and to help the NCAA “create its own outcome.”

For starters, “we’ve seen little to no progress [on NCAA related issues] at the federal level over the last three years,” he said. And there is no evidence that would suggest the government intends to bail out the organization now.

The job description posted by Turnkey ZRG may be another tell that the NCAA is preparing to usher in an era of change. The organization said it was looking for “a once-in-a-generation, transformational leader” and listed collaboration with stakeholders on “new governance models, new business models, new membership structural models, and new strategic operating models” among the duties and responsibilities of the job.

The search committee’s decision to look beyond former university presidents and athletic directors for Mark Emmert’s replacement could be another indication the NCAA is ready to evolve. Remember, the Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big-12 all went outside of collegiate athletics to hire commissioners that could help them to navigate and –stay ahead of– the changing landscape.

Baker proved to be a result oriented, public sector/private sector problem solver during his time in office. But he will also be bringing relevant experience having turned around a business (see: Harvard Pilgrim Health) and private equity chops to the NCAA.

Both could end up being valuable to the organization. “If you look at currently proposed legislation in D.C., costs are certainly going to go up, maybe even compensating players,” Len Perna (chairman and CEO, TurnkeyZRG) said. “Somebody with P&L experience has to unify the stakeholders to find new businesses to cover those rising costs.”

Baker also understands what it is like to be a student athlete. The incoming president played basketball at Harvard in the late 1970s. That experience should give him some instant credibility among the constituency and provide a unique perspective, at least for an NCAA president, on a host of issues facing collegiate athletes today.

The former Governor’s next public appearance should provide a strong indication of where the NCAA is headed long-term. If he makes it clear that the organization is going to try and defend its decades old amateurism model, the collegiate landscape will continue to splinter. That could bring about more imminent challenges related to employment status and unionization, and perhaps accelerate conversations about the Power Five and Group of Five schools succeeding in football.

However, if Baker states that the NCAA recognizing change is overdue, that collegiate sports has become a massive commercial enterprise and the student-athletes should share in the proceeds, he will alleviate concerns across the industry and buy the organization some time as it would likely slow down any talk of conference succession in football and take some of the air out of the sails of various groups challenging the status quo.

Perna said to expect the latter. “The NCAA is ready [to change] at all levels. There is no question.”

The NCAA’s new president will have to prove that quickly though. So, finding small wins early will be imperative to his success. That could include placing some meaningful guardrails around NIL, which presumably more student-athletes would be inclined to abide by if they felt the NCAA was supporting them.