Possible scenarios for the future of US college sports

Photo: slgckgc/Flickr

Photo: slgckgc/Flickr


By Roger Pielke, Jr.
Through the huge economic success of college sports, universities are caught between managing students and professional athletes. Professor Roger Pielke Jr. suggests to either merge athletics and academics more or to professionalize further in order to help college sport meet these challenges.

This weekend the Final Four teams will take the court in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s annual top-level basketball tournament, better known as “March Madness”. The NCAA basketball tournament, like the college football playoff that I wrote about here In January, is extremely popular and extremely lucrative.

Tens of millions of people fill out tournament prediction brackets each year with ESPN, CBS Sports, Yahoo, the NCAA and others to “gamble” (wink, wink) on the outcome of the games. I use the brackets as a teaching tool in my spring class. Every year there are surprises and buzzer beaters that enthrall and entertain.

The popularity of the spring tournament helped the NCAA to secure TV rights for the airing the tournaments for over $1 billion per year or about $16 million per game. To put this into context, the UK Premier League domestic rights went for about $3.4 billion per year or about $9 million per match.

As I wrote in January, the influx of money into big-time college athletics is both a sign of success but also a source of challenges. College athletics are, under the policies of the NCAA, supposed to be amateur sports. Unlike the Olympics, which gave up on the ideal of amateurism in the 1970s and 1980s, the NCAA has remained steadfast.

Cracks in the model
But cracks are beginning to show in the model. Athletes already receive various compensation, including scholarships, additional cash to support the “costs of attendance,” clothing from sponsors, and the opportunity for prizes. As NCAA sports have become more popular (men’s basketball and football, in particular), there have been correspondingly more resources for athletes to demand.

I’d venture that for this reason, the NCAA was not too upset to see both the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and Wisconsin lose their tournament games before the Final Four.

UCLA had one of the most exciting players in the nation, freshman Lonzo Ball who is expected to be a top pick in the NBA after just one year of college. Ball’s father has started up a clothing company which is marketed, in part, using the name and images of Lonzo, in what would appear to be a clear violation of NCAA rules. Ball has two younger brothers, who are both committed to UCLA, so this year’s tournament loss won’t end the Ball brothers controversy.

Wisconsin had on its team Nigel Hayes, who has a brilliant mind in addition to considerable basketball skills. Hayes is party to a lawsuit against the NCAA, calling for greater compensation for college athletes. Hayes also has a flair for the media. Last fall, Hayes showed up in the crowd behind ESPN college football announcers with a sign around his neck: “Broke College Athlete Anything Helps." Wisconsin’s overtime loss to Florida no doubt led a few NCAA execs to breathe a sigh of relief that Hayes would not be appearing on tens of millions of TVs during the Final Four weekend to discuss his lawsuit.

So how might the stresses and strains on the NCAA play out?

At a high level, there are two very different directions that college sports might take in the coming years. They could take steps to become more integrated with the universities with which they are a part, or alternatively, they could take steps toward a more professionalized direction. Let’s consider each in turn.

Universities should either be more flexible or more professional
Increasing the integration of college athletics and academics would not necessarily be inconsistent with greater compensation for athletes. Elsewhere I have suggested that stipends, intellectual property rights and prize money are already channels of compensation that are compatible with existing university and NCAA rules.

At the same time, universities could take steps to recognize the reality that big-time college athletes are not like other students. They have rigorous practice schedules that can limit the courses and majors that they can take. They also travel frequently, meaning that they frequently miss classes and evaluations. At the University of Colorado we offer scholarship athletes first class academic support, but in the courses that I and many other professors teach there is just no substitute for being in class.

A simple remedy to this problem might involve universities designing bespoke individual courses that are fit to athletic schedules. This could help athletes to get more value out of their time at college. A more ambitious project might involve actually awarding degrees in athletics, just as universities award degrees in music. Turning an athletic department into a degree-granting unit on a college campus would surely bring athletics more into the fold of the modern university, but would likely face many obstacles.

Another approach could involve spinning off big-time college sports along a more professionalized model. This would actually represent a return to the roots of college sports in American universities, in which athletes were hired to play for and represent the campus, but without any expectation that they were actually students.

Teams with the ability to balance their books (and those with a sustainable subsidy) could operate as an arm of the university similar to university-affiliated companies that presently spin-off research discoveries. Schools that could not achieve such financial stability would participate in lower tiers, much like most schools do today.

A more relaxed version of a professional model might grant scholarship athletes a “lifetime scholarship” which could be cashed in at any time an athlete determines that becoming a student makes sense. They would then be free to decouple sports and academics, and earn their degree whenever it made sense while focusing on athletics during their time of eligibility.

Yet another model would involve maintaining much of the current NCAA model, while paying athletes a salary (perhaps with performance bonuses) just as coaches are paid today. Consider that the University of Alabama football program recorded an $18.7 million profit in 2016, or about $200,000 per scholarship football player.

The details of how much athletes might be paid, how it would occur in the context of gender equity policies under Title IX and what it would imply for conference alignment would all be complex. But the NCAA is already complex. It could be done.

Change will come
Ultimately, there are a wide range of futures for big-time NCAA athletics. College athletics programs might become more closely tied to the academic mission of universities, or alternatively, they might evolve in a manner more consistent with professional sports. Along each of these forks in the road are other paths that might be taken.

One thing seems sure for US college sports. Change will come. It might be imposed from the outside, by a court decision or act of Congress, or it might come from the careful evaluation of alternatives by those who care most about college athletics as an important part of American culture. The latter course would seem to make the most sense, but unless college sports evolves on its own, it seems likely that others will take the lead. Watch this space.

More information

Read part one of Roger Pielke Jr.s' analysis of US college sports:



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