The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics has joined Division I conferences in asking the NCAA for relief for non-revenue sports other than football and basketball, which would allow those teams to take a more regional approach in scheduling to reduce costs and travel.
In a letter to NCAA president Mark Emmert this week, the Knight Commission asked that the governing body waive its bylaws that require specific conference competition structures for all sports except men's and women's basketball.
NCAA rules do not govern scheduling in FBS football because the NCAA does not oversee the College Football Playoff.
"Waivers of these provisions would provide significant flexibility for conducting regular-season competition, which should result in substantial cost savings," Knight Commission co-chairs Carol Cartwright and Arne Duncan wrote in the letter to Emmert. "The flexibility also may be necessitated by subsequent governmental travel restrictions related to COVID-19."
Knight Commission chief executive officer Amy Privette Perko told ESPN on Wednesday that there's a growing consensus among athletic directors and conference commissioners to greatly alter scheduling and championships for sports such as baseball, softball, golf, tennis and other Olympic and non-revenue sports.
"It's fair to say that the conferences are looking for flexibility," Perko said. "We clearly wanted to strongly support that aspect of it, because quite frankly that would be an alternative that should be acted on really quickly so schools can begin to change some of their scheduling plans."
Perko said athletic directors from the Power 5 to non-football Division I conferences have expressed a desire to allow teams in those sports to schedule more regionally, which would reduce costs related to commercial flights and lodging, limit student-athletes' time away from classrooms and keep them closer to their campuses during the coronavirus pandemic.
"It's my sense that there is a lot of support," Perko said. "The competition structures and the conferences are really all built around football and basketball, but yet all the other sports have to also compete within that same structure. That's just one example of an organizational structure that, at least from our perspective, doesn't prioritize the most important issues, which are the education, health and well-being of our college athletes and being done in a cost-effective way."
In a regional scheduling scenario, for example, University of Texas teams in those sports might play contests against more Texas-based schools, instead of traveling to Iowa State or West Virginia for Big 12 games. Instead of UCF traveling to UConn or Wichita State to play softball, the Knights would play more teams from Florida.
Because of realignment, there are massive footprints in many Division I leagues. The American Athletic Conference has 12 schools in 10 states, Conference USA has 14 schools in 10 states and the Atlantic 10 has 14 schools in eight states and the District of Columbia.
Perko said one athletic director shared with her that two women's softball teams located in North Carolina -- one from Conference USA and the other from the Sun Belt Conference -- flew on the same commercial flight to San Antonio to play conference games against two different schools.
"We've heard numerous stories about how these geographically expansive conference footprints have added so much more missed class time," Perko said. "Some athletics directors don't like it because they've decreased regional rivalries."
Georgia Southern athletic director Jared Benko said he's already exploring ways to reduce the Eagles' travel costs because of the economic downturn and uncertain future caused by the pandemic.
"You'll see a lot more regional scheduling going forward in a lot of sports," Benko said. "I think the days of taking cross-country trips are probably over."
Travel costs related to non-revenue sports was one of the reasons the 22 non-Power 5 conferences asked the NCAA to temporarily relax its requirements for membership, including the minimum number of sports a school must sponsor and the number of games teams must play.
Mountain West Conference commissioner Craig Thompson, whose league has 12 schools in eight states, including Hawaii, described the conference as an "airplane league."
"For the most part, you have to get on an airplane to play golf, track and tennis, etc.," Thompson said. "That's very expensive, so how can we still support the sport but not at the level we sponsored in 2019-20? Everybody's just looking for some legislative relief and an opportunity to stay as whole as they can knowing there's going to be less revenue in the system to maintain what we did this year."
The NCAA on Friday declined the leagues' request for temporary relief in the minimum number of varsity sports. The NCAA said it would consider waiver requests from individual schools.
"From our perspective, cutting sports should be a last resort, and we should look at ways to provide opportunities in a more cost-effective way," Perko said.