Group of 5 leaders discussing G5-only playoff, realignment as future options

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DALLAS — Group of 5 administrators have had preliminary discussions in recent months about a G5-only postseason playoff or even wide-scale G5 realignment with the involvement of private equity.

Multiple administrators from within the G5 conferences — the American, Sun Belt, Mountain West, MAC and Conference USA — told The Athletic that former college and NFL coach Derek Dooley has been the salesman on behalf of private equity firms, making contact with schools. The administrators, who were granted anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, made clear that nothing is imminent and they haven’t been presented with any numbers yet. But conversations are more real than they’ve ever been. Dooley did not respond to a request for comment. CBS Sports first reported on the talks.

The initial idea circulated among administrators earlier this year, but once the Big Ten and SEC threw around their weight to reshape the new College Football Playoff contract and grant themselves far more guaranteed revenue and almost all of the control, that served as the tipping point for many administrators to chart their future sooner rather than later. While the new CFP will bring in hundreds of millions more in revenue, the payouts to the Group of 5 will be relatively unchanged.

“We’re taking some leadership here to control our own destiny so that Tony Petitti and Greg Sankey don’t make that decision for us,” said one G5 athletic director.

Details of the plans under discussion vary. Some administrators like a smaller-scale idea of creating their own postseason to replace bowl games. Others believe the entire Group of 5 — especially the American, Conference USA and Sun Belt — should reorganize geographically under one banner with multiple divisions and share all revenue equally like a pro sports league.

The idea of G5 reorganization or the creation of a G5 football-only Super League consisting of the top handful of programs was informally discussed among some administrators when the current wave of conference realignment kicked off in 2021. Former Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany presented to leagues an idea of the three G5 leagues with southeastern footprints (AAC, CUSA, Sun Belt) reorganizing geographically. A few weeks later, the AAC added six schools from CUSA. The AAC earns millions more per school than other G5 leagues.

At College Football Playoff spring meetings Tuesday, AAC commissioner Mike Aresco dismissed the idea of the G5 doing its own thing. He has long argued that widespread CFP participation is important for the health of the sport and that creating a G5-only format would voluntarily label the leagues as second-class.

“It would separate us from the big guys in the CFP, and that would be bad,” Aresco said. “It’s what I’ve always feared, that we’d be in a different division.”

But Aresco will retire in less than two months, and his replacement Tim Pernetti earlier this month referenced the possibility of “maverick postseason models” and was open to the conference getting involved with private equity.

“Things have changed so much,” the athletic director said.

Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier has for years publicly backed the idea of a G5 playoff as a way to drum up more interest. There hadn’t been much support, for the reasons Aresco noted. But that has changed in some circles.

The geographic reorganization pitch is obvious: It would be easier for fans to travel to games and cheaper to travel for non-revenue sports. Additionally, it would create more natural rivalries.

There are clear hurdles, however. The Group of 5 conferences have their own television contracts. Would everyone need to pay exorbitant exit fees, or could that be avoided if everyone agrees to do this together? Would AAC and Mountain West schools be willing to give up their financial advantage on the other three leagues? Could current G5 commissioners take control of reorganized divisions? What if the ACC falls apart and needs G5 schools to add to the conference?

Many administrators also remain skeptical of the private equity interests circling college sports, including one presentation from a group of power brokers to create an 80-team Super League that hasn’t gained much traction. Private equity wants a large return on its investment, and it’s unclear how much money the Group of 5 could get on its own, especially in the current TV market. Its ties with Power 4 conferences are part of the value, especially now that at least one G5 team is guaranteed a spot in the 12-team Playoff.

But how long, administrators wonder, will the G5 have that spot? What could stop the SEC and Big Ten from changing the format and kicking the G5 out of its automatic spot? That is the future for which administrators want to be prepared.

“There’s nothing definite, just ideas being floated around,” the athletic director said. “But for the first time, everybody is saying, ‘I’m all ears.’ I don’t know if this model is the model, but I’m ready to talk about something now.”

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(Photo: David Yeazell / USA Today)

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