BOSTON — The NCAA is turning to one of America’s most popular governors to steer it through the slew of changes looming for the lucrative business of college sports.

Installing Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker as the organization’s next president puts a former businessman, college basketball player and longtime bureaucrat at the helm of an association hoping Congress will help it navigate a smoldering players' rights movement largely centered on pay and collective bargaining.

Baker, a Republican, will leave office on Jan. 5 after declining to seek a third term. He will take over as NCAA president in March, replacing Mark Emmert, who announced in April he would step down after unsuccessfully lobbying Congress to protect the association’s business model.

“I really do believe that we are at a bit of a pivotal period for the NCAA,” said Baker, a former health care industry executive, on a conference call with reporters Thursday formally announcing his new position. “I really do think that the enthusiasm, the life, the professional experiences I’ve had, the people I’ve gotten to know, the relationships I have, can be a big part of helping all the folks involved in the NCAA.”

He added: “The challenge is significant, but the possibilities and the opportunities, if we are successful, are enormous."

Linda Livingstone, the Baylor University president and NCAA Board of Governors chair who led the presidential search committee, said Baker’s “skillset and passion for college athletics make him the right choice” to lead the NCAA despite his unusual background.

Baker “has demonstrated an appetite to take on really big and complex problems, as well as the ability to tackle them in remarkably effective and creative ways,” she said.

Baker, a veteran of state government who played basketball for Harvard during the 1977-1978 season but has never worked in sports or higher education, is also likely in line for a massive pay bump. He was earning $185,000 per year as Massachusetts’ chief executive, according to the state payroll. Emmert, his predecessor at the NCAA, took home nearly $3 million in 2020.

The announcement sent shock waves through Massachusetts political circles. Many had expected Baker to stay in politics or perhaps return to the health care sector. Even longtime members of Baker’s orbit were surprised by the move.

“This was nowhere near my mind when I made the decision a year ago not to seek reelection,” Baker told reporters. He said he was approached by the NCAA search committee “a couple of months ago” and the more the two sides talked, “the more I thought I could be helpful.”

Baker has a track record of turning around big organizations, including health insurer Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. And he’s built a reputation as a bipartisan broker and managerial expert over his decades in the private sector and in state government, where he’s finishing eight years as a Republican governor working with a Democratic-controlled Legislature.

NCAA officials said they’re looking to capitalize on that expertise — and on Baker’s popularity — as they seek to navigate numerous legal and regulatory challenges in Washington, D.C.

Major court rulings have prompted the association to cede some of its power over college athletics to the wealthy, powerful and growing college athletic conferences that run popular football and basketball games.

The association is also struggling to address a broad landscape of rules and policies that now allow athletes to make money off their publicity rights — yet lock players out of formal employment rights, or a share of the billions of dollars in revenue that help finance enormous coaching salaries and campus sports facilities.

Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) have prodded athletic leaders for feedback on federal legislation to regulate players’ “name, image and likeness” rights — long a top item on the NCAA’s wishlist. Other Democrats have pushed for more sweeping legislation that limit restrictions on athletes’ use of their publicity rights and enact health and safety standards.

Persistent concerns over race and gender equity continue to surround the association. Its direct control over the lucrative March Madness college basketball tournaments, and decisions on how it distributes the money made from those contests, are also a continued source of criticism from lawmakers, players’ rights advocates and higher education groups.

The National College Players Association has filed complaints with federal education and law enforcement authorities over college athlete pay restrictions and, last month, launched a new pressure campaign demanding that colleges share sports revenue with players. Earlier this month, the Knight Commission college sports reform organization criticized the slow pace work by an NCAA committee tasked with overhauling the association’s governance of its top-tier programs.

A review of the NCAA’s basketball tournaments fromthe Kaplan Hecker & Fink law firm last year found “underlying, systemic gender equity issues” at the organization. In 2020, the organization also delayed a high-profile campus sexual violence policy that can require athletes and schools to document and track misconduct cases.

Baker didn’t comment on player pay or collective bargaining issues during his Thursday press conference with the NCAA.

“I don’t really like to speculate on future things that I don’t really have the ability to successfully answer, and I still have a day job that I’m doing right now,” Baker said. “As we get a little closer to that [start date], some of the more detailed questions I’d be perfectly happy to answer.”

That’s a common response from a governor who often says he won’t comment on legislation before it reaches his desk — and one that’s in line with the approach of an association that often works its influence efforts behind closed doors.

But Baker will have to undertake both private and public efforts to rebuild the NCAA’s credibility on the Hill.

He’ll have a familiar face in Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.), a leading advocate for college athletes in Congress and critic of Title IX violations at major colleges. She said Thursday that Baker’s “experience as a college basketball player coupled with his extensive career spanning both the public and private sectors will serve him well in this position.”

The NCAA is “at an inflection point where athletes and the millions of fans who root them on have largely lost faith in it as an organization,” said Trahan, a former Division I volleyball player, in a statement. “The association desperately needs a proven leader … I commend Governor Baker for taking this challenge on.”

The tumult surrounding the association is raising questions about why Baker — who weathered calamitous snowstorms, a gas pipeline explosion and a pandemic as governor — wants the job.

“As somebody who really believes in the power of collegiate sports on all levels to do all sorts of amazing things — for communities, for schools, for alumni and for student-athletes — I think it’s worth doing,” Baker said. “Yeah, it’s big and complicated. So have been a lot of things I’ve done in my life. But most of the time they were absolutely worth doing.”

Baker will leave Massachusetts’ government in the hands of another former basketball player: Democrat Maura Healey, the state attorney general who this year became the first woman and openly gay person elected governor of Massachusetts, played for Harvard and professionally.

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