The NCAA announced Thursday that Baker will replace Mark Emmert as the head of the largest college sports governing body in the country, with some 500,000 athletes at more than 1,100 schools.
Baker, a Republican, has been governor of Massachusetts since 2015. He announced a year ago he would not seek re-election. His second term ends in January and he will start is new job in March.
He has never worked in college sports.
“I must say that when I was first approached about this, my initial reaction was that I was not exactly what you would call a traditional candidate,” Baker said on a video conference call with reporters.
Some of the traits that have made Baker a successful governor — including his ability to negotiate with a Democrat-controlled Legislature and his more moderate stand on many social issues — have been seen as closing off a pursuit of higher office in GOP that has turned sharply to the right.
Baker said his time in state government, building consensus among various constituencies, coalitions and factions, should help in leading a diverse association with a wide range of priorities.
“I certainly think the challenges here are significant,” Baker said.
He said he was approached by the NCAA’s search firm about two months ago.
“When you consider the priorities that we have right now in the NCAA, it’s hard to imagine a better fit than Governor Baker,” said Baylor President Lind Livingston, who is the chairwoman of the NCAA Board of Governors. “As a public servant, he showed a talent for working across party lines, convening Bay Staters of all types to do big things together.”
The NCAA emphasized Baker’s high approval ratings as the Republican governor of a blue state in announcing the hire. He will now become the face of an increasingly unpopular entity that has been viewed as an impediment to athletes getting a fair share of the billions of dollars generated by big-time college sports.
Emmert announced he would step down earlier this year after 12 years of leading the NCAA through a tumultuous time. Battered by losses in court and attacks by politicians, the NCAA is going through a sweeping reform, trying to decentralize the way college sports is run.
College sports leaders, including Emmert, have repeatedly asked for help from Congress to regulate name, image and likeness compensation (NIL) since the NCAA lifted its ban in 2021 on athletes being able to earn endorsement money.
Now the association will be led by a politician for the first time.
Baker mostly side-stepped specifics when asked about whether college sports needed government intervention and if a model could include athletes being paid, something schools have long opposed while arguing that it would upend the amateur sports model that is the foundation of college athletics.
“I’m going to wait until I actually have the job and I’ve had some conversations before I get into the details of several of these questions,” Baker said. “But to me the jewel of college sports is the opportunity and the access that it provides to so many people and the experiences and the learning that comes with that.”
Baker was born in upstate New York, went to high school in Massachusetts and graduated from Harvard, where he played basketball. He also had two sons who played college football and his wife, Lauren, was a gymnast in college.
That’s the extent of his experience in college sports.
The last two NCAA presidents, Emmert and the late Myles Brand, moved into the job after being university presidents. Before that the job had typically been held by former college sports administrators.
With the NCAA moving into a new phase and college sports becoming more professionalized, it was clear the role of the president of the association was also changing.
Emmert and other college sports leaders have been spending ample time in recent years in Washington, hoping for a federal law to manage NIL and a narrow antitrust exemption for the NCAA.
The NCAA has been leaning on broad bylaws that outlaw recruiting inducements and pay-for-play to deal with NIL compensation, but detailed, uniform rules have been lacking. More than 30 states have passed their own NIL laws and it has resulted in a patchwork of regulations and hard-to-enforce rules.
Some federal lawmakers has expressed a desire to dig into college sports beyond NIL, with long-term health care and revenue sharing for athletes potential issues.
NCAA revenues have surpassed $1 billion in recent years, most of that coming from its media rights deal for the men’s Division I basketball tournament. The majority of the NCAA’s revenue is distributed back to the schools through their conferences.
There are also billions flowing into the major conferences that play big-time college football. The top-tier of Division I football (known as FBS) operates mostly outside the NCAA. That includes College Football Playoff, which is on the verge of expanding from four teams to 12.
Amy Privette Perko, the CEO of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, said the biggest challenge Baker will face is trying to figure out how and if major college football can continue to exist under the NCAA’s umbrella.
“The NCAA receives zero dollars from the CFP, but it remains liable for the legal and health costs of FBS football,” Perko said. “The explosion of revenues, just for FBS football, is at the heart of much of the controversy about the future of all of college sports.”
During Emmert’s tenure, the NCAA increasingly found itself tangled in political debates. The NCAA pulled its championship events out of states over official use of the Confederate flag and made a similar move when state lawmakers moved to pull back protections for members of the LGBTQ community.
The NCAA became a target for some conservatives over its policies that allow transgender athletes to compete for national championships.
Baker will step to the front of an organization that is in the process of determining how it wants to govern and lead. Meanwhile, college sports themselves have never been more popular.
“That in some ways, I think, is an enormous asset,” he said, “when you’re trying to have a discussion about what the best way to ensure that what we have is not lost going forward.”