NCAA President Charlie Baker talks growing fanbase, gambling and new tier of Division in 1st address

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NCAA President Charlie Baker at the NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. (Photo courtesy of NCAA)

NCAA President Charlie Baker addressed the membership Wednesday for the first time since taking over the job, laying out goals for growing the college sports fanbase, dealing with issues related to the rise of legal wagering and continuing the conversation he started with a proposal to create a new tier of Division I where athletes would be paid by their schools.

Baker, who started as NCAA president March 1, gave his state of college sports address at a packed symphony hall in the Phoenix Convention Center. The speech came a little more than a month after he sent a letter to more than 350 D-I member schools with a bold and potentially ground-breaking idea for a new subdivision at the very top of college sports.

“We have received excellent feedback on these proposals from student-athletes and all of you,” Baker said in his speech. “Some may quibble with the details, but they are glad we are finally talking about the elephant in the room.”

Baker also met with a small group of reporters Tuesday night to take questions about some of his top-line priorities.

DIVISION I PROJECT

Baker said there was “overwhelming interest” among membership in the idea of creating a new subdivision of Division I for schools with the largest budgets. Baker’s idea would require schools in the new subdivision to pay athletes at least $30,000 per year through a trust fund.

“I worked in government for a long time and in government you set the table, right?” Baker said. “You file a bill. You don’t expect to get it back the same way you file it, you don’t think it’s written on a stone tablet. It’s a place to start.”

The formal NCAA process of examining Baker’s proposal and determining whether it can be turned into policy can start as soon as this week if the Division I board of directors decides to request that the council dig into it.

“But the big issue that hangs out there is this whole question about employment,” Baker said. “And there’s no doubt in my mind, a lot of these schools would do a lot more for their student-athletes if it was done under some framework that looked more like a contractual relationship and less like an employment one.”

SPORTS BETTING

Baker said the growth of legal sports betting, especially among college-aged people, is putting increased stress on athletes.

He said the NCAA is trying to modify “draconian” penalties college athletes face for breaking rules regarding betting on sports while also trying to better monitor and address what he called ugly blowback on social media directed at athletes, coaches and officials—often linked to wagering.

The NCAA will partner with a data science company called Signify, which also works with the NBA Players Association and WNBA, to identify threats.

“Basically tracks ugly, nasty stuff, that’s being directed at people who are participating in their tournaments and we’d use it the same way,” Baker said. “And it can shut it down or basically block it. And in some cases even track back to where it came from.”

Baker said a threat made to a team that was participating in an NCAA championship last year was credible and aggressive enough that the team was given police protection. Baker declined to identify the team and the championship event.

GROWING THE FANBASE

Baker said the NCAA needs to do a better job identifying and engaging with its fans online.

“It’s 2024 and most people who follow college sports, digitally online, and we have millions of people who come to our championships and we don’t know hardly anything about them at all,” Baker said.

He announced Wednesday that the NCAA has hired Kraft Analytics Group to help build a database of college sports fans that he hopes will reach 25 million in a few years.

“I want it to be flexible and sophisticated enough that we’ll know what teams you like, what sports you like, where you live and if there’s a game of interest going on anywhere near you, we’re going to let you know,” Baker said. “And we’ll also have a hot link to where you can buy tickets and buy gear.”

Earlier in the day, the NCAA Division I Council approved a package of rules related to how athletes are compensated for their celebrity endorsement work and proposed allowing schools to be more involved with such transactions that now total in the millions of dollars across the country.

The package is the NCAA’s attempt to bring transparency to the burgeoning name, image and likeness market and add oversight of those who want to work with the athletes. The policy calls for creation of a database of deals that could be accessed by athletes and schools, a registry of companies and agents that want to work with athletes and recommendations for standardized components of a NIL contract.

Athletes would be encouraged to disclose their deals, but it would not be required.

The proposed NIL regulation, introduced in October, was expected to be adopted at this week’s NCAA convention and go into effect Aug. 1. Division I includes some 350 schools and nearly 200,000 athletes.

The NCAA lifted its ban on athletes earning money through sponsorship and endorsement deals in 2021, and the lack of detailed rules combined with a patchwork of state laws have created uncertainty for both athletes and schools. It also allowed booster-funded NIL collectives to become the predominant way for athletes to cash in on their status.

Baker’s proposal also included a push for all D-I schools to bring NIL activities in-house, which was already being considered by Division I.

Under the council’s proposal, schools could facilitate deals and connect athletes with companies, but they would still be prohibited from using NIL payments as a recruiting inducement and directly paying an athletes for NIL.

That proposal could be approved by this summer.

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