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Closing Shot: The Next Moves In College Sports

Since 2002, the Intercollegiate Athletics Forum has brought leaders together to discuss the industry’s future. This year’s event arrives among a sea change.

By David Bourne
NCAA President Mark Emmert said at the 2010 Intercollegiate Athletics Forum, “As long as I’m president of the NCAA, we will not pay student athletes to play sports.” He will help kick off this year’s event, where he will address the major shifts of college athletics since then.shana wittenwyler

This week marks the 20th edition of Sports Business Journal’s annual Intercollegiate Athletics Forum, and while the gathering has tackled its share of hot-button topics over the years, this year’s event comes as college athletics faces some of the most disruptive forces ever.

This year’s event, sponsored by Learfield, will be held Dec. 8-9 at the Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, marking the first time the conference has been held outside New York City.

From the first event, on Dec. 11, 2002, attendees have been dealing with a changing industry dominated by some frequent themes. At that inaugural edition, retiring NCAA President Cedric Dempsey bemoaned the never-ending push for additional revenue in college athletics, saying it was creating an imbalance between the educational mission and the financial requirements of running programs.

“Unfortunately, as we make more decisions based on financial issues rather than on what’s right in terms of opportunities for student athletes, I think it will become increasingly difficult to justify what we’re trying to accomplish in intercollegiate sports,” Dempsey said.

Beyond the never-ending push for revenue, the call for a football playoff has been a frequent point of debate at past IAFs. In the event’s second year, the fire was stoked by the decision to send Oklahoma and LSU to that season’s BCS national championship game and bypass USC. The first playoff, however, would not arrive until 2014.

By 2008, panelists were wading through digital media and the opportunities to monetize new platforms such as online video. They discussed how streaming was helping recruitment and promoting smaller sports, but not everyone was on board with the technology. “Our volleyball coach did not want his games streamed because he didn’t want to let other teams scout him online,” said Ross Bjork, then-UCLA senior associate AD. “I’m like, ‘Hey coach, come on. It’s 2008.’”

IAF began on a somber tone in 2011 as it was the first large-scale gathering of college sports officials since the child sexual abuse scandals broke at Penn State and Syracuse. A shellshocked industry vowed to restore the country’s faith in their institutions. “We’re deeply concerned, sick and tired of all the scandals,” said NCAA President Mark Emmert. “We want to restore integrity. We want to install confidence in collegiate sport.”

Later editions of IAF mapped out strategies for student ticket sales, debated autonomy for Power Five schools and weighed in on the brave new world of sports betting. “It was like, here we go: live sports betting in Mississippi,” then-Ole Miss AD Ross Bjork said at the 2018 IAF, with the state of Mississippi one of the early adopters of sports betting.

The start of the pandemic in 2020 rocked college sports, crippling revenue and forcing schools to make tough decisions. That year’s virtual presentation of IAF saw industry leaders call for cost cutting versus eliminating certain sports. Already that year, close to 100 Division I programs had cut various sports. “We’ve got to find some better funding models that would stave off what we’re seeing, in terms of athletic directors having to make some hard decisions,” Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman said.

Which brings us to this year’s event in Las Vegas. Never before has IAF arrived  amid so many industry-altering changes: athletes as employees, NCAA restructuring, conference realignment, football playoff expansion, gender equity and NIL. History is in the making.

Want to go? Visit intercollegiateathleticsforum.com to learn about attending in person or to watch virtually.

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