Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Business of Amateur Sports

While they came up short, the Michigan Wolverines’ basketball team had a fantastic year - making the Final Four for the first time since 1993 when they had the legendary “Fab Five” (given the name because all five of their starters were freshman). Of course the wins in the Fab Five’s title run were all later vacated for National Collegian Athletic Association (NCAA) rules violations (in this case players taking money).

Michigan’s foibles were hardly the first or last college sports $candal – as fans are all too aware. A recent Marist poll found that two-thirds of fans think it is a routine practice for colleges to break NCAA rules when it comes to recruiting and training their players. My first reaction was how blind are a third of sports fans. My second was what happened in the last year to change so many minds – in 2012 barely more than half of fans felt cheating was prevalent. Penn State leaps to mind, but that wasn’t about players. Auburn is having some scandal about player drug use. The biggest current money scandal involves a guy in jail for a Ponzi scheme admitting to hiring hookers for players and recruits, but there have been splashier violations (even at Miami – after all you can’t spell “corruption” without the “U”).

It is not hard to figure out why these scandals happen. College sports is huge money and the players see none of it. Recently the National College Players Association and a Drexel University professor name Ellen Staurowsky studied NCAA sports revenue. They looked at the most prominent conferences; those of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS). If kids in those conferences received shared revenue the way pro players get it (the professionals usually get between 50-60% of the pie) football players would earn an average of $178,500 a year. Basketball players would get $375,000 (while football makes buckets more money than basketball, but the cash would be spread over waaaay more guys). For the top teams the salaries would be even higher – the ten most profitable basketball teams would give their players $1.25 mill a year for example. And that would be on top of what they get now in terms of scholarships.

Those scholarships are worth $23,000 – but the study calculated that that average Division I scholarship is roughly $3,300 short of the actual cost of attending.

That doesn’t seem to matter much to fans – or at least the ones who spoke to Marist. 72% of them claimed that athletes should only receive that scholarship, while just 21% believed their sports heroes should get paid. Remarkably the tide against paying players is getting stronger – last year those numbers were 68% and 27% respectively.

This worry about keeping money out of “pure” [95% of those polled said players should focus on their studies, just 5% were able to see that college sports has become a big business] college sports doesn’t seem to carry to coaches the same way. 45% of those polled said college coaches – most of whom work for economically struggling state institutions – should be paid the same a pro coaches. That was an increase of 6% over last year. Possibly that is because college fans worry about losing their coaches to the pros?

Incidentally about 60% of Americans are some type of sports fan (which is why I harbor the silly hope of someday getting paid for all this wonderful writing I do). And to bring this entry back to its point of departure, as English 101 taught me, Marist reports that just under half of Americans follow college b-ball at some point, and almost four in five want the big dance to stay at the size it is.


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