The Game Is Changing in College Athletics

By Jeff Compher and Zachary Smith, Ph.D.

WittKieffer recently studied turnover among directors of athletics at “Power 5” conference universities, the largest institutions in the U.S. By our count, nearly 70% of Power 5 athletic director jobs have turned over in the past five years. According to Sports Business Journal, the average AD tenure dropped to 6.3 years in 2018, and our guess is that this figure will continue to decline.

What’s behind the turmoil? One cause, we think, was the start of the College Football Playoffs in 2014 and the increased financial pressures it placed on big time football. For athletic directors, change is happening, and it’s happening fast.

The U.S. college sports landscape may have shifted more this fall than at any time in the past several decades. In September, the state of California passed a law, the Fair Pay to Play Act, paving the way for student-athletes to get paid for use of their “name, image and likeness.” The NCAA, which governs college sports and has long upheld the sanctity of amateurism among student-athletes, quickly followed suit, announcing that it, too, was now behind the compensation idea. “We must embrace change to provide the best possible experience for college athletes,” said NCAA board chair Michael Drake, also president of Ohio State University.

A dam has burst. What will it mean for institutions? It is hard to say. The fact that some athletes will get paid might not be all that disruptive – after all, it makes sense that student-athletes should be provided with the same opportunities to work as non-athlete students. However, as many have said, now that these changes are inevitable the devil will be in the details. And for the athletic directors we speak with, few if any welcome the change as it raises too many unanswered questions. What’s the AD to do, for instance, if the school has an apparel contract with Nike but Adidas wants to handsomely sponsor the star quarterback? This type of scenario must be addressed by the NCAA in a way that satisfies legislators.

Changes in AD Recruiting

We see a few key takeaways in relation to the role of athletic director:

  1. AD turnover will continue at a steady pace. Some athletic directors will get out of the game altogether as the job becomes more uncertain. Meanwhile, raised expectations in all areas will pressure trustees and presidents/chancellors to fire ADs sooner and with less hesitation.
  2. AD candidates at all levels must be equipped for success. Because of the pay and perks that come with being an AD, there won’t be a shortage of candidates. The best athletic directors, however, must be multifaceted and highly skilled at fundraising, innovation (especially around revenue streams), marketing, media relations, on-campus diplomacy, supporting student-athletes, and creating “comprehensive excellence” across sports. Candidates will be expected to have the “complete package” and those that do will be in high demand and command top dollar.
  3. The recruitment process will change. This is the most noteworthy trend we see. With the stakes so high, the risks multiplied, and the scrutiny on ADs magnified, institutions and search firms will conduct much more thorough and comprehensive searches than in the past. These searches will be:
    • More transparent and public (especially for the finalist)
    • More inclusive and consensus-driven (larger more representative search committees)
    • More deliberate and comprehensive due diligence (especially around referencing and media/background checks)
    • More diverse candidate pools

To this last point, more women and minorities will be considered as viable candidates – to better reflect the student-athletes they represent – and more will be hired. This is evidence that change, while not easy, can be a good thing.

Learn about our Intercollegiate Athletics Practice and AD recruitment.

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