Future of women’s college sports: Fight over revenue jeopardizes Title IX protections for amateur athletes
21st June 2022

Editor’s note: Last of a three-part series examining the impact of Title IX as the 50th anniversary of its passage approaches this week.

Amy Perko is not a soothsayer by trade.

But once the COVID-19 pandemic exposed some of the cardboard bottoms on the yachts of college athletic departments, it wasn’t hard to see which ships would make it. And which ones would sink.

“I think it’s likely that you will see some fragmentation among Division I (schools) in particular,” Perko, CEO of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, told The Post. “(And) possibly different structures.

“The college sports model, frankly, it’ll look very different in five or 10 years. But I strongly believe that whatever model that is, we will see a commitment toward opportunities for women and more compliance with Title IX.”

Others aren’t so sure.

Despite Perko’s optimism, a poll of 99 athletic directors taken by the Associated Press a year ago found that 94% of respondents said it “would be somewhat or much more difficult to comply with Title IX gender equity rules if their school were to compensate athletes in the biggest money-making sports.”

As Title IX, the landmark civil rights legislation that prohibits gender discrimination in any school or education program that receives federal funding, turns 50, college athletics as we know it is entering into a state of flux.

Student-athletes can now legally seek to profit off of their respective names, images and likenesses (NIL). The Supreme Court last June voted unanimously in the case of NCAA v. Alston that limits on education-related benefits to students violate anti-trust laws. The court accused the NCAA of “monopoly power” in its opinion and hinted strongly that it viewed the organization’s bedrock definition of amateurism as anachronistic and anti-commerce.

Athletes and boosters are now unfettered in ways they never have been before, and the NCAA’s traditional wardens — university presidents, athletic directors and coaches — have found themselves in varying degrees of panic.

With athletic departments scrambling to protect their bottom lines, as well as some very significant paychecks, will the equal opportunities for women required by Title IX be preserved? Or will non-revenue-producing sports find themselves endangered as the free market for talent creates accelerated bidding wars in football and men’s basketball?

Football’s hold on Division I

In December 2020, Perko’s Knight Commission, a group dedicated to reforms that support and strengthen the educational mission of collegiate sports, recommended FBS football separate itself from the NCAA entirely.

Some administrators have been thinking along the same lines.

And one of them, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, sent shock waves through the collegiate landscape in April when he told Sports Illustrated that a split among Division I universities, a collective that currently includes Colorado, Colorado State, Denver, Northern Colorado and Air Force, is “inevitable” by the 2030s.

“There are so many schools trying to get out of their current conference,” Swarbrick told SI.com’s Pat Forde, “and they can’t get there.”

CSU, for example, has made no secret of its desire to leave the Mountain West for a Power 5 conference such as the Big 12 or Pac-12 in order to garner the revenue increases that would go along with it. Conference realignment a decade or so ago was one of the rationales behind the construction of the state-of-the-art Canvas Stadium, which opened in 2017.

But the Big 12 itself is in transition with the departure of tentpole schools Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC. The notion of a so-called college football “Premier League,” in which the best and richest from Power 5 break off for a super conference of their own, not unlike the elite soccer clubs in Europe, was the stuff of fan fiction a generation ago.

But as Perko and Swarbrick noted, the seeds are already being planted. And Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff added more fertilizer to the mix earlier this month by telling The Athletic that he thinks FBS conferences, and not the NCAA, should administer big-time college football from here on out.

If the Buffs and Rams, for example, were to find themselves on the outside looking in when it came to television revenues compared to their current conference peers, it’s hard to imagine that women’s sports, and Title IX enforcement, wouldn’t feel some of the trickle-down effects. But how much? And how soon?

“Title IX pertains to our entire university. It’s the law,” CU athletic director Rick George told The Post. “It’s not like we can go out and say each sport is going to be able to do whatever it (likes) and not think there’s going to be Title IX implications.”

Seismic changes loom

With the NCAA limping into this decade as a wounded animal and decades-old notions of what constituted a “student-athlete” being redefined, college sports finds itself in a period of potentially seismic change.

And some seismic sticker shock.

According to data provided by CU to the NCAA for the 2019-20 fiscal year, the last football season unaffected by COVID-19, the Buffs received $21.94 million for its broadcast rights, including revenues shared by Pac-12 members.

The athletic department was bestowed $9.29 million in league distributions outside of broadcast and bowl revenues. Total operating expenses for all women’s sports programs, meanwhile, were $10.59 million, compared to a reported $4.06 million in total operating revenues.

Wherever the college sports train veers from here, regardless of budgetary concerns, George stressed, he believes Title IX will continue to be one of its lasting guardrails.

“And as we continue to move forward,” George continued, “as the NCAA continues to move forward, as we look at what the industry looks like — and that’s coming by the end of the year — Title IX is going to be extremely applicable to that new structure. Whatever it is.”

George added that through the university’s NIL exchange, Buffs volleyball blocker Sterling Parker and skier Kaitlyn Harsch recently joined a partnership with Fowler Automotive, while sprinter Jaida Drame launched her own clothing line, Drame Apparel.

“It’s important that every school does look to ensure that student-athletes, both male and female, have the same access points and same opportunities as the other (gender),” George said.

But in order to preserve those opportunities for women’s sports, exposure is critical.

And that matters on both a national and regional scale, said Fran Belibi, a senior forward on the Stanford women’s basketball team and former Colorado Gatorade Player of the Year at Regis Jesuit.

“There are so many ways we could start to consider things more equal if we started with something as simple as news coverage and putting women on (television broadcasts) as often as men,” Belibi said. “That goes a long way with the fight for equal pay and more opportunities, hopefully. …

“I think something as simple as just putting people on TV more often can show that there are more women playing, that there are more women that are part of sports … and if we can do it in sports, maybe we can start to do it in the world.”

The NCAA currently awards more than $160 million in revenue to its members, roughly 28% of its annual distribution, based on bids and wins in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament — but no money from similar achievements on the women’s side.

A 2021 report commissioned by the NCAA Board of Governors and authored by attorney Roberta Kaplan, founder of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, declared that the organization’s revenue distribution model was “inconsistent with the NCAA’s stated commitment to gender equity.”

SB-1401, or the College Athlete Race and Gender Equity Act, was introduced by the California legislature this past February with the purpose of funneling money generated by big-time college sports out of the hands of conferences and universities and into the student-athletes providing the competition and entertainment.

But the devil was in the details. In simplest terms, SB-1401 would have required California colleges whose sports produce significant revenue to split the profits with the student-athletes involved. Administrators complained that said revenue currently earmarked to help pay for Olympic sports and women’s sports would instead have to be set aside for football and men’s basketball players.

The bill stalled in the Senate, but its proponents, including the National College Players Association, are pushing to get it back onto California’s agenda no later than 2023.

“(My hope is) that (legislators) will think about all the sports,” Belibi said. “Because I don’t think it’s valid to quantify who’s worth more — sure, sometimes, football brings in the money. But we’re all out there working. So I think we all deserve the opportunity to profit off that hard work.”

“Untapped potential”

Despite the reservations of some athletic directors, Perko remains confident that the deregulatory forces that have sided with student-athletes’ rights will also be sympathetic toward gender equity in the decades to come.

“I do think that non-profit organizations, especially with the NCAA universities that have a mission of higher education, are going to move more quickly to resolve Title IX issues and non-compliance,” Perko said.

“I also think, from a business standpoint, people are recognizing the untapped potential for women’s sports, and there are a lot of metrics you can point to that show that potential — just looking at the sports (on television) right now, the Women’s College World Series, you look at the TV ratings for that event, and they just continue to soar. And there’s the growth of women’s soccer.

“You can really trace that back to when many schools realized that they needed to add more opportunities for women in college sports.”

While Title IX’s impact is more often cited for its impact on gender equity in sports, it’s also designed to safeguard students from discrimination in forums that include sexual harassment, employment, discipline, financial assistance, admissions and recruitment.

But administrations have added amendments to the bill since. The Trump administration included provisions requiring accusers in sexual assault complaints to be cross-examined. A federal judge recently struck down those provisions.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona’s additions to the law, which would reportedly include protections based on gender identity and sexual orientation, are expected to be made public soon.

“I think on the whole if you look at the opportunities that we’ve created and women who have excelled with those opportunities, having equal opportunity is embedded in our culture,” Perko said.

“We may see tweaks to the model. We may see different models. But we’re never going back to the standards of yesteryear, in terms of the lack of opportunity.”

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