SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick told Sports Illustrated that he believes the breakup of college sports at the NCAA Division I level is “inevitable,” and puts a potential target date on that seismic change as the mid-2030s. Swarbrick also said there are “so many” schools trying to leave their current conferences, but they’re handcuffed by existing contracts.
In a wide-ranging interview with IFthe only athletic director who is part of the College Football Playoff Management Committee said the fracture lines within the 130-member FBS could leave two disparate approaches: schools that still operate athletics within a traditional educational structure, and those who tie sports to the university in name only.
“There’s always been sort of a spectrum—and I want to stress that everything along the spectrum is valid; it’s not a criticism,” Swarbrick said. “On one end of the spectrum, you license the school name and run an independent business that’s engaged in sports. The other end of the spectrum, you’re integrated into the university in terms of decision making and requirements, and some follow that.
“I think both can produce great athletic competition. But it’s really hard to get there given the contractual obligations that already exist.”
And when those contractual obligations begin to run out, that’s when big changes could occur.
“Absent a national standard, which I don’t see coming, I think it’s inevitable,” Swarbrick said. “Mid-30s would be the logical time.”
The Southeastern Conference media rights deal runs through 2033–34. The Atlantic Coast goes through 2035–36. The Big Ten is in its negotiation window now, with Fox Sports positioned to be the major stakeholder. The Pac-12 and Big 12 are next on the clock.
Should the schism come, Notre Dame would be among those who still tied its athletics to the educational mission of the school and answered to its president and academic administration. Others could essentially be spun off while retaining the school name and branding. A theoretical example (not proffered by Swarbrick): Oregon Ducks Athletics, Inc.
Where the 130 schools fall along that spectrum would be up to individual institutional choice.
The expectation is that the Big Ten and SEC will continue to leave the rest of the Power Five conferences behind in terms of revenue. The widening gap will place more stress on the current landscape, leading some schools to move away from their existing conference affiliations—and possibly leading some leagues to boot longtime members that don’t bring as much to the revenue trough.
“We’re going to have these two conferences that have so distanced themselves from anyone else financially,” Swarbrick said. “That’s where I see it starting to break down. There are so many schools trying to get out of their current conference, and they can’t get there.”
Asked which schools could be looking to move, Swarbrick answered, “None that I’d share.”
The SEC’s destabilizing acquisition of Texas and Oklahoma played a role in halting progress toward a 12-team College Football Playoff, a concept Swarbrick helped bring to the table last June. He, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, Mountain West Conference commissioner Craig Thompson and Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby formed the subcommittee that came up with the plan.
After initially being hailed as a welcome expansion in many circles, the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 eventually expressed concerns and dug in as unified opposition. That led to a series of unproductive CFP meetings that Swarbrick described as, “the single oddest thing I’ve ever been through.”
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Swarbrick specifically pushed back at the notion that Sankey was trying to orchestrate playoff expansion as a means of drawing Texas and Oklahoma into his league. “It’s complete bullshit,” he said. “Greg’s really smart, but nobody’s that Machiavellian. I had my own views, Thompson did, Bowlsby did. We weren’t being manipulated by Greg. [The playoff] will wind up at 12.
The market forces of conference realignment—triggered anew by the stunning agreement last summer for Texas and Oklahoma to leave the Big 12 for the SEC in 2025 at the latest—plus unprecedented player compensation and movement leave college sports at a crossroads. Amid unprecedented instability and change, Swarbrick and others are searching for the best path forward.
“I’ve been toying with a whole bunch of concepts, most of which probably don’t work,” said the 68-year-old Swarbrick, who has been the AD at Notre Dame since 2008. “But we’ve got to get something advanced that people will react to.
“My goal was to steer this to a safe harbor—that may be a pipe dream. Especially take the word safe out of it. I’d like to take a real shot at trying to facilitate something people will at least consider nationally. See if we can make any progress. I’d hate to leave without trying.”
Swarbrick offered no specifics on his potential plan for how college athletics should proceed. But he did identify several areas of acute need.
Asked if the current Name, Image and Likeness landscape is sustainable, the answer was a blunt no. Recruiting inducements were not the original idea, but that’s what NIL has become in many instances.
“This morphed so quickly into talent acquisition fees that it’s just stunning,” he said. “Two things happened. The schools that have been doing [under the table] this a long time just had a way they could describe it now and be covered. That created a whole bunch of pressure on other schools that said, ‘Oh my god, we’ve got to do that, too.’
“We went from what people thought was an overly restrictive market to the most unrestricted labor market in the history of sports.”
Does Swarbrick see NCAA Enforcement having any chance of reining it in?
“No. I hate to be so pessimistic, but it’s been a lot of years of not seeing them have any,” he said. “I can see a lot of that [rules compliance and enforcement] being transferred to the conferences.”
Swarbrick predicts that the current NIL marketplace will severely damage Olympic sports, as investments and donations continue to tilt toward revenue-producing sports.
“I hate to see that,” he said. “It’s going to be interesting to see how the federal government approaches it. If all of this revenue is disproportionately coming to men, even if you didn’t set it up, how does Title IX analyze that?”
With the NCAA looking increasingly to Congress to create uniform NIL legislation, Swarbrick would like to see the politicians work through the already existing framework of the 1978 Amateur Sports Act.
“The Olympic system then was every bit as broken as collegiate sports is now,” Swarbrick said. “Use that bill as the vehicle. Just amend it to address some of the key issues here, and by doing so protect the Olympic sports.”
But the lawmakers Swarbrick has spoken to aren’t overly receptive to the idea, and some of them seem less hopeful than NCAA members that Congress will perform an intervention.
“I was talking to a Republican senator and he said to me, ‘I keep reading that you all say we’ll finally be able to get something done when Republicans get control of the house and the senate and the presidency,’ “ Swarbrick said . “But it’s going to be a much more Libertarian Congress. They’re going to be unwilling to participate just on anti-regulatory grounds.
“We’re not getting [reform leadership] from the NCAA. It’s going to have to come from elsewhere. It’s interesting to see how challenging it is to get the university presidents to work together. It’s not that they’re resistant to it. They’ve just got too many things going on.”
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