O'Bannon Trial: Conference USA an example of how the other half lives



OAKLAND, Calif. -- For the NCAA, calling Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky to the stand was a chance to show Judge Claudia Ann Wilken a picture of how the other half lives.

During the first two weeks of the O'Bannon v. NCAA class-action antitrust trial, she had mostly heard perspectives from college sports' upper class, including the testimonies of NCAA president Mark Emmert and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany late last week. Emmert and Delany run nonprofit organizations that function like gigantic revenue-producing machines. Banowsky presented quite a contrast Monday, saying he didn't know what the plaintiffs' attorneys meant when they mentioned terms like "arms race" and "four- or five-star recruit."

Conference USA certainly is another world, and as the bus stop of college sports leagues, it has seen a dizzying amount of movement in its 19 years of existence. When East Carolina, Tulsa and Tulane depart for the American Athletic Conference on July 1, 15 schools will have left the league for the greener pastures of bigger conferences with more lucrative TV broadcast agreements.

Louisville and TCU are the only former members to have climbed all the way to a "Power Five" conference, but the rest of the deserters -- schools such as Cincinnati, Houston, SMU, Central Florida and South Florida -- have improved their situation. In Banowsky's latest attempt at survival, he has added a collection of former Sun Belt Conference schools and two universities that are not yet playing Division I-A football but intend to do so -- Old Dominion (this fall) and UNC-Charlotte (2015).

O'Bannon trial: Day 11

• Developments: Todd Petr, the NCAA's director of research, presented a summary of data from 2004-12 to show that only about 14 to 23 schools make money on their athletic programs in any given year. In cross-examination, plaintiffs' attorney Bill Isaacson showed that the NCAA told Congress in 2002-03 that 92 Division I-A athletic departments made money. Petr explained the difference was that the figures used for Congress included subsidies from student fees; the figures used in court did not account for that. After Petr, Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky took the stand to make the case for how paying players for their names, images and likenesses would further hurt his low-resource schools.

• Impact: Isaacson was able to create doubt that Petr understood which revenues were included in the data the NCAA presented. Banowsky was unable to make a convincing case that many schools would leave Division I if the plaintiffs win.

• What's ahead: Greg Sankey, the executive associate commissioner of the SEC, will be called by the NCAA.

Not one school in this current incarnation of Conference USA makes money on college athletics. Banowsky said some of his universities will foot a bill each year of around $20 million to have an athletic department that features Division I-A football and Division I men's basketball. The NCAA wants to establish that only a small percentage of schools that would be affected by this case are generating a net profit -- its director of research, Todd Petr, testified Monday morning that 23 were reported to be in the black in 2012 -- and Banowsky was the guy to humanize that story.

When asked what would happen if football and basketball players were owed 50 percent of the TV revenues for use of their names, images and likenesses, Banowsky predicted that some Conference USA schoosl would choose to drop football altogether rather than reallocate for the estimated $500,000 that the players would bring in with a group license in this scenario.

Yet, Banowsky said Conference USA presidents were in favor of going to the full cost of attendance model that the "Power Five" have proposed, which would allow athletes from all sports to receive a stipend for the gap between what their scholarship covers and what it actually costs when you add in food and a spending allowance (estimated at around $2,000 to $5,000 depending on the school).

In cross-examination, plaintiffs' attorney Seth Rosenthal pointed out that the amount owed to players for their NILs -- if they were to receive anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of TV revenues -- would be about $2,000 to $5,000 when divided among 98 scholarship athletes, in the same range as full cost of attendance.

"These are schools that already outlay $20 million from their general budget," Rosenthal said. "Your testimony is that an additional $200,000 would cause them to drop football altogether?"

"No," Banowsky said.

Asked about why his presidents would want to pay full cost of attendance but not for use of NILs, Banowsky responded: "What we don't support is funding student-athlete benefits that exceed cost of education. There's economic realities with which we deal, but also principles."

The actual economic reality from campus to campus is still a murky concept. If schools actually thought they were losing money by having the prestige of Division I sports programs attached to their university, why would so many be lining up to get into Division I-A football?

Banowsky admitted that there is a lot of interest from many schools still in Division I-AA. In fact, the schools that recently joined Conference USA all paid $2 million entrance fees so that they could be a part of the $84 million TV deals the league has signed with Fox and CBS. Conference USA can't compete financially with the "Power Five," but it has nearly doubled its revenues since Banowsky took over as commissioner in 2002.

To understand the likelihood of a Division I school dropping its football program, all one would need to look at is UNC-Charlotte, which played its first year of football last season at the Division I-AA level as it goes through the required two-year transition period to Division I-A.

Like the rest of Conference USA, the 49ers athletic department will lose significant money in its official record keeping, but the school still decided to start a football program from scratch in 2008 -- with the condition that the fans raise the first $5 million for the building of a stadium.

"In the case of Charlotte, having a football program [creates] the opportunity to bring alumni back to campus on a Saturday," Banowsky said. "It's a special, significant thing. Football has the potential to bring a university together."

J. Brady McCollough: bmccollough@post-gazette.com and Twitter @BradyMcCollough.


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