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MAC Tournament Commissioner Roundtable

Between the Men and Women semi-finals in Cleveland, Commissioner John Steinbrecher took some time to meet with assembled media, answering questions about the league, college sports, NIL, and more. He took questions for about 18 minutes and graciously provided answers to some of the things the fans and media wanted to know. Here is a transcription of that roundtable. Reporter 1: John, you have two teams in women's basketball right now that have 25+ win seasons [in] Ball State and Toledo. Yet, it will be rare for one of them to make the [NCAA] tournament because they don't win the MAC tournament. Has there been any discussions with the NCAA that may change that to help MAC teams?


JS: Well, I don't think going into the room and giving them that story will get us there. I think ever since they've gone to the NET, our metrics have dropped off significantly from the RPI, and I haven't come up with a conclusion other than the fact that it doesn't seem right. I don't know that the level of play has changed appreciatively, so yea, we are tracking that. We have got to be attentive to it, but also to try and control the things you can control, so what is that? You try and control your scheduling as much as you can and again, we need to continue to recommit to the right size of scheduling. Our top teams have got to challenge themselves and we have to win some of those [big time] games, and our bottom teams and middle tier teams have to schedule appropriate to them and we gotta win more non-conference games. We simply do, and then we will continue to see where the chips fall on that. Reporter 2: The 14 team playoff has been in discussion for 2026. How does that directly benefit the MAC and the group of five conferences, if at all?


JS: We have guaranteed access whether its a 12 team or a 14 team playoff. That's the step forward. There is also a pretty significant chunk of revenue that we will get that we can invest back into our programs, etc. That's positive and I feel good about both of those. I think I saw the same report [you saw] and I'll tell you what, I'll let you know exactly when that has been decided, or somebody else will, it's been a lot of speculation fora long time on all of this. [However] we still don't have a TV deal done (note: as of this interview, it had been suggested that the 14 team playoff would be approved, but this was not officially finalized). What has occurred is that the nine [FBS] conferences and Notre Dame have all agreed on some basic principles and terms for if and when we get a TV contract concluded. Hopefully soon, but we are not quite there yet.


Reporter 2: My second question: [The MAC] just added UMass [starting 2025]. Any talks on potential expansion partners to get us to an even 14?


JS: Yea, so we were not necessarily looking for a 13th [school], but I guess the charge for my presidents has always been continue to scan the environment and if there are opportunities to make the conference better, let's do so and that's what presented itself with UMass, and so, we're at 13. I wish I had brought it with me, but in high school and college, my football jersey number was 13. *brief chuckle* I am not at all uncomfortable with that number. I don't have the faintest idea if and or when we might expand again. If there are opportunities that make us stronger, perhaps we will but we'll take that as it comes.


Reporter 3: This is the first year for the MAC/Sun Belt Challenge here in basketball. I was curious on your thoughts on how that event went?


JS: Operationally, I was very pleased, I was not pleased with the results on our end of the table. Again, we need to do better in that we talked about needing to win more of our non-conference games. This was a clear indication of that. I'm glad we had that partnership. What I really enjoyed about it is for those where paying attention, that event really got singled out in terms of how it was reported, how you saw it on ESPN or CBS, and so it brought a light to the conference at a time when everybody else was slogging through some conference play. I like that. So again, I look forward to next year and hopefully we can win a couple of those belts.


Reporter 4: Obviously [some] talks about expanding the NCAA tournament. I am seeing the number right now that people seem to think that will be settled on [is] 76. If it does expand are you fearful that it won't benefit the mid-majors but will more benefit the high majors?


JS: Well, that is why I am in no great hurry to expand. I've said it all along I'm open to the conversation, but someone needs to make the case of how it advantages everybody and how it makes the event better. No on has had that case for me yet. I was less than pleased last fall when it was announced that the NIT [decided to] revamp and no on explained how that made the event better. I know why they did it. It was done for economic reason and to try to stave off an outside event, well, so be it. How does it advantage all of us to expand the NCAA tournament when I hear that rationale [for the NIT]? I'll be able to respond better to it, but I am in no great hurry to do so until those conversations are had.


Reporter 4: Going off of that, this week is supposed to be all about conference championship basketball. But, the storyline is college football playoffs and getting that revenue distribution figured out, what has it been like for you going through the week, trying to get through this event while being on the phone quite a bit [talking about the playoffs]?


JS: I spend the better part of the last two days in a separate room on phone calls and in meetings. Today's semifinals are the first four games I have seen the whole tournament. That's just the way it is, you know, that's life. It's not like there have been other tournaments where there haven't been other issues I have to attend to, but, so be it. They don't need me out on the floor to run the tournament. We got a great staff, great student athletes and coaches and all of that. Sure, I'd like to watch the games more, but I had other issues to attend to.


Reporter 4: Is it fair to say that the decisions being made [about] the playoffs will have an impact on all of college sports? JS: Well, I think that's kind of the impact of football at the FBS level and maybe even the levels below it. That's why I think it is so important to be successful with football. A successful football program lifts up the entire athletics program. Everyone will benefit from that, plain and simple, and I think our institutions that have experienced that success, they've seen that, and so it is important to the overall operation of our intercollegiate athletics programs.


Reporter 4: Are you content with the 1.8 billion dollar payout [divided amongst Group of Five conferences] that is expected? It is a little bit more than the past deal.


JS: Well, I won't confirm or deny whatever numbers are out there. There has always been a stratification of the revenue between the autonomy (Power Five) conferences and the non-autonomy (Group of Five) conferences. What we are seeing this time around now is further stratification of revenue among the autonomy conferences. Wherever it it ends up at, what I will tell you is that it is something we've all slogged through and worked on, and ultimately, we've all decided to agree to it, so I'm certainly not going to badmouth an event that we have signed up for.


Reporter 2: You talked about the Sun Belt-MAC Challenge earlier. Are there are opportunities and windows open for similar challenges with other Group of Five conferences, maybe with the Mountain West?


JS: I wish! You have no idea how long it took us to get this. I mean, we tried for years to get partners and it's really hard for an array of reasons. I'll give our coaches credit, [they] really gave us [MAC Office] the autonomy to work on it and deal with the scheduling. It doesn't mean they all liked who they played at various times and that's part of it, but there's too many other places where the conference in essence, gets vetoed at various levels, so I really commend our coaches and our administrators for that. I hope this is something, you know, we've got another year left on this contract, I hope its something we can either continue, or as you talked about, find other partners in various ways.


Reporter 5: With the addition of UMass, that leaves 13 teams in the MAC. First of all, how long did those discussions take, and could we see more teams maybe join the conference? JS: Discussions with UMass really began in late September. They reached out in late September, and that's where it started, and we managed to keep it fairly quiet. I actually went to a football game in November at UMass undercover. I just kind of showed up and went to the game, wandered around campus, took in the sights, listened to people and things like that. So from September to whenever we announced it, and that's probably about the appropriate timeline to exchange the information and let the [university] president's mull on things. I can't even begin to speculate what the future holds, again, if there's an opportunity to make us better, if there are people that want to be a part of us or institutions that want to be a part of us, we will certainly consider it, but that's not beating down doors.


Reporter 6: You mentioned that the TV deal with ESPN has not been finalized. Is there a deadline in your mind for when you'd like that to be done? JS: As soon as possible. This should have been done two years ago and it wasn't, plain and simple, and it wasn't. Reporter 6: Is that because of the [now defunct] Alliance [between the Big Ten, PAC-12 and ACC]?


JS: That was a missed opportunity for the conferences involved.


Reporter 7: Obviously, you know that NIL has changed the landscape of college sports the last few seasons. How do you think the MAC has handled that and how do you think maybe MAC schools are doing? What draws athletes to your universities? JS: You know, that's a good question. NIL is certainly an interesting animal that has gone in directions that I'm not sure anybody could have completely anticipated. In too many instances, its "pay for play" and that's not the intent of it. Again, I think I have said this since the beginning: Conceptually, I think NIL is the ultimate learning laboratory for student athletes. If it is set up in such a way that they are out there and they're working that deal with Joe's Pizza Shop or whatever it may be, or I'm going to do an endorsement deal there and I'm gonna work through a contract, I'm gonna have obligations and I might be working on my social media skills and I better learn about taxation, and just an array of things, right? It's the ultimate internship. It's not turned out that way in many cases, too many of these collectives say "Oh you got to do ex amount of community service... it's not community service if you're getting paid for it from where I'm sitting, right? So be it. That's where we are. I've been up to Capitol Hill, I think four times in the last 12 months to talk to Congress about this and they're all interested. They all know about it, but they're searching for answers and we've probably not given them the answers they necessarily need. We're probably getting closer, but it's still polarized Congress across an array of issues. I think our schools are trying to manage and build in that area as best they can. [Now], clearly we don't have the resources that a Big Ten school is offering, so why does a young woman or young man come to a Mid-American Conference institution? To get an education at, in many cases, in fact all cases, world class institutions to play for exceptional coaches and in many cases storied and historic programs. To not have to travel all over God's green earth to play a game, and to come to a place where we think we continue to believe we're the model of intercollegiate athletics. We think we have the appropriate balance of opportunity to come and earn your degree. It's not given, you earn your degree. Come and actualize yourself as a student athlete to the nth degree, and be as good as you can be as a student athlete, and then to grow socially and mentally in every sort of way. I really think we have the right mix of that and I know that I sound like I am preaching and pontificating and yeah, maybe we are a little bit but we take that stuff seriously. We had a president's meeting last night at six on some issues and you'd be amazed at the amount of time we spent talking about things like that and where our values aligned and what are we providing for the student athletes and what is it we are really trying to do? Well, we spent a lot of time talking about that and then ultimately judging ourselves on whether we live up to it or not.


Reporter 8: The Darthmouth Men's basketball team, obviously they're a certified union right? They're now going to go through the collective bargaining --


JS: Yea, and why knows where that ends up held up in courts or whatever, but so be it.


Reporter 8: Could the Mid-American Conference survive revenue sharing or [athlete] employment? JS: I don't have an answer for that. Time will tell and we'll see where that all goes. It's interesting, last fall I went to our council student athletes. We're probably one of the few conferences where our student athletes are part of our governance system, but I went to them and said "I want you to contemplate the issue of employment for student athletes", and I said " I don't want to tell you, you tell me. You think it's a good thing, you think it's not a good thing, we'll give you whatever resources to research whatever". They're finalizing a white paper for us right now and probably within a week to ten days, maybe [up to] two weeks, we'll have that completed and we will see what they say. My sense is that they don't necessarily think employment is the best avenue, but it's a debate to be had. It gets thrown out as an easy answer for a lot of things. I'm not sure it is. Maybe at the highest of highest revenue areas, and thats such a slim number. Maybe it makes some sense, I don't know beyond that. I'm not certain of that. That's certainly an interesting conversation in the halls of Congress as well right now, but stay tuned. We'll release that when that is concluded, and I really commend our student athletes. We have student athletes across, I believe almost all of our sports, but we have some basketball and football players on there as well as an array of other sports. So, I think, it's everything I'm being told and I've seen one draft, and they're still working on it. They are being very thoughtful and again, that's how we got into mental health 12 years ago. We asked the question of where are we, where are we not paying attention and that's what came back, and boom we went from there. So we like to ask them questions and we try to listen.


Reporter 9: A lot of MAC football teams play bigger opponents like SEC schools, to start the season, and with a lot of injuries happening in those games. What benefits do you see come from those games, aside from the money aspect? JS: Well, you want to play a mix of games, right? We're playing in a pretty big pond, right? We're an FBS conference. We're going to play high level non-conference FBS opponents. I don't believe our injury rate in those games is higher than it is in conference games. You got to be wise in how you schedule, right? You only want to play so many of those, and hopefully you can space them well. It's a little bit of right sized scheduling again, right? I don't necessarily want to always play Alabama. Maybe there is someone lower down the pecking order in whatever conferences we can play, and again that's I guess the art of scheduling and it's a lot of moving pieces there that I think all of our AD's are working hard. Yea, there is no doubt there is a revenue component, there's an exposure component, there's a "hey let's go test ourselves on a big stage". If we want to play in the College Football Playoff, we're going to have to beat some of those cats, so all of the above. Thanks for your time, glad you are with us.




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