#DigitalSkeptic: March Madness Is Fiscal Madness

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Say it ain't so, Joe. But it looks like the once-mighty National Collegiate Athletic Association is going into sudden death Digital Age overtime against itself.

Who knows why, but with all the box scores, big data and betting spreads flowing from the looming NCAA Men's Division Basketball Championship, one critical gaming line never gets its due: the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Form 990s. These legally mandated disclosures, which must be filed yearly with regulators, show the true cost of allowing this 501(c)(3) nonprofit sports organization to do business here in these United States.

Over the years, these NCAA Form 990s have fetched some media attention. Usually, it's griping about how president Mark Emmert and two dozen or so employees listed on the forms took home about $7.5 million in 2011 -- while the kids playing the games took home nothing.

But read the 990s carefully and college sports fans should find a familiar, if darker story. For all the seeming take-no-prisoners power of the NCAA, it turns out this organization is nothing more than a legacy media brand struggling to compete with a flock of leaner, meaner competitors it helped create.

Yes, sports fans. Strictly by the numbers, the emerging group of power athletic conferences -- including the Big Ten or Atlantic Coast Conference -- are on track to take down the NCAA, and soon.

No Grade "A" for NCAA
The issues looming for this NCAA are startlingly familiar for those us who've watched the decline of such similar legacy brands as the New York Stock Exchange or The New York Times. Yes, there is a wide range of services this sports organization's disclosures says it provides, conducting "efficiently the business of the Association as directed by its members" and managing $4 million some-odd dollars in drug testing in 2011.

But the real dollars-and-cents story in these Form 990s is a simple one -- that for better or worse, the National Collegiate Athletic Association is in exactly one business: distributing the media fees it collects from tournaments and sporting events.

Take the 2012 filing. The $809 million in television rights and championship fees dwarfed the $16.9 million collected in eligibility fees and other program revenues. That gap is so large that NCAA management admits openly it must have a hedge if that TV-dollar spigot ever dries up.

"With the concentration of the NCAA's revenues coming from one primary source, the executive committee has established a long-term goal of the growth of the quasi-endowment to sustain operations for one year," was what I found deep in the filings.

Most of the NCAA's money does not stay with it. By my count, about two-thirds of $841 million collected in 2011, or $522 million, flow immediately back to the universities and conferences as grants.

The problem is not with how these TV dollars flow back to the majority of smaller schools. It matters not a bit that itty-bitty Abilene Christian University got a $13,458 check in 2011 or that Alabama State got about $604,000. The game-changer is the massive payouts flowing to the groups of universities that play together as part of larger conferences that in turn deal with the NCAA. These new collegiate sports young turks are using the tried-and-true digital disintermediating playbook of direct distribution, outsourcing and lower pricing to set themselves up as the new middleman between schools and fans.

Take the Metro Atlantic League, which was able to muscle a fat $3.3 million out the NCAA in 2011. Or the decidedly mediocre Atlantic 10 Conference that got paid $10.1 million! In fact, when I added the total NCAA conference payouts, I stopped counting when the figure got north of $200 million -- roughly 20% of total revenue.

The NCAA nobody needs
The digital stake in the heart of the NCAA is that the new generation of conferences is only getting bigger, learn and meaner. The buzzword in college athletics this year is "realignment," in which mega-groups such as the Big Ten or the Atlantic Coast Conference get bigger and more powerful. Not only did these group have the leverage to extract $50 million and $39 million respectively from the NCAA in 2011; these newly empowered conferences are cutting the NCAA out entirely.

The Big Ten, for example not only sells DVDs and other gear directly from its site, but took in a reported $11 million in revenue from its own fast-growing TV network. And it has begun to license directly its own game footage and shows -- the NCAA's job -- using a low-cost third-party licensing group, Denver-based T3 Media.

The cost cutting is already affecting the bottom line: Salaries, other compensation and employee costs run roughly three times higher for the NCAA than for the Big Ten. And if fans have the courage to add up the NCAA's $4.9 million in officers and key employee fees, the $33 million in other salaries, the $6 million in employee benefits, the $9 million in legal fees and/or the $4.3 million, $4 million and $3.5 million respectively for information technology, occupancy and travel costs -- and that's just some of the expenses, there is not the space here to list them all out -- the question gets simple, fast.

Just what does a Big Ten or an Atlantic Coast Conference or a Pac 12 or really any group of schools need with the NCAA? Just ask any veteran of a similarly laid-low legacy franchise, such as the NYSE or New York Times and they'll level with you

"They all talk about the power of the brand," said Duncan Niederauer, then the CEO of the New York Stock Exchange. "But what you learn is, this is a technology business. And if you can't keep up. You won't keep up."

"Who you were doesn't matter at all."

This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.

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