Should College Athletes Be Paid?
College sports continue to make millions of dollars for everyone involved, apart from the stars of the show - the athletes.
In just a few weeks, millions of basketball fans from the United States and around the world will eagerly tune in to March Madness, a three week marathon of college ball to determine who has the best team in the country.
The highest ranked 64 college teams are entered into a knockout tournament, where they either win and advance or lose and go home. For any sports fan it is must see tv, with every game televised live.
Similar to the college football playoffs, these championship games attract a global viewing audience, huge attendances, and millions of advertising dollars, but the stars of the show - the college athletes - do not get paid. This has been an ongoing debate for decades, and as revenue grows, so does the argument surrounding college athletes and their right to a pay cheque.
So should these young adults who balance college studies while chasing their sporting dreams receive a peace of the pie? Below, we assess some of the most significant factors to analyse this ongoing debate.
As mentioned in our introduction, March Madness is avidly followed by a massive audience every year, with over 26 million people in the United States tuning into last year’s championship game between North Carolina and Gonzaga. To put that number into context, that’s around two million more people than the total population of Australia.
Big ratings mean big revenue, and it is estimated that 90% of the NCAA’s (National Collegiate Athletic Association - college sports governing body) USD $1 billion annual revenue comes from March Madness alone. A majority of the remaining $100 million comes from College Football.
TV rights, sponsorship and ticket sales all help generate the $900 million in revenue, with American networks CBS and TBS currently halfway through a 14 year - $10.8 billion agreement to broadcast the tournament.
Despite the extravagant numbers, the NCAA is not the only one profiting from March Madness, as an estimated $10.4 billion was gambled on the 2017 tournament via legal and illegal bookmaking, along with the popular ‘bracket challenge’ tipping competition.
This year’s championship game will be played at the Alamodome in San Antonio - a football stadium which can hold over 64,000 people.
"I think the NCAA is the biggest racket in the entire world." - Former Texas A&M and Cleveland Browns Quarterback Johnny Manziel.
While Johnny Manziel only lasted two seasons in the NFL, he will forever be known as one of the most exciting quarterbacks in college football history, with a larger than life personality.
In a recent interview, Manziel called out the NCAA for their strict policies on college athletes not being paid, and not being allowed to make any money via other methods for their athletic abilities.
In 2013, the Texas A&M quarterback was the subject of an investigation for accepting money for his autograph. Various autograph dealers stated that Manziel accepted thousands of dollars for signing various items, which is a serious breach of the NCAA’s collegiate athlete rules.
Although the governing body admitted they could not find any hard evidence that “Johnny Football” accepted payment for his autograph, they claimed the QB was aware that the items he signed would be sold to the public, and wanted to make an example out of him.
Because they had no actual evidence that Manziel received any payments, the NCAA were unable to hand out significant punishment. Instead, they agreed with his college to suspend him for just one half of football in the first game of Texas A&M’s 2013 season.
This did not seem to have much of an impact, as Manziel entered the game in the second half, throwing three touchdown passes to lead his team to a 20 point win, receiving a huge ovation from the crowd.
When asked if he has moved on from the saga, Manziel suggested that he has yet to forgive the NCAA, stating that they are “full of shit” and tried to harm his chances of NFL stardom: "They tried to end me. They tried to really ruin my career."
College Football Attendance and TV Rights
While college basketball enjoys its moment in the sun every March thanks to the unique March Madness tournament, college football takes precedent from late August until early January every year, attracting passionate crowds and millions of viewers every Saturday.
The below table from the NCAA’s official website details just how big college football really is, with 20 teams averaging over 70,000 people to every home game last season, lead by Michigan with an amazing average of more than 111,000.
It must be noted that most college’s only host six or seven home games a season, but the fact that four teams average bigger crowds than last year’s AFL Grand Final (100,021) emphasises the sheer magnitude of college football.
Drawing a big attendance might be great for revenue, but as with any modern sport, the TV dollar is where the real profit comes from. The current rights holder for the college football playoffs are ESPN, who pay USD $470 million per year.
Despite the huge figure, the broadcast giant would consider their investment a success as this season’s championship game between Alabama and Clemson was watched by an audience of 30.7 million in the United States. And yet not one player who featured in that thrilling overtime classic was paid.
Wisconsin home crowd Jump Around:
As Alabama dug deep to win this year’s championship game, triumphant head coach Nick Saban was hailed as a genius for his brave call to bench his starting quarterback at half time for freshman QB Tua Tagovailoa. The electric 19 year old changed the game and threw the winning touchdown in overtime to give Saban his sixth national title, and fifth with ‘Bama.
As Tagovailoa enjoyed his heroic performance, he still has a long road ahead to establish himself as a starting quarterback, and if he’s lucky, a chance to one day play in the NFL.
Saban meanwhile, can relax knowing that he will be paid $11.1 million for the next two years, and that’s on top of his $4 million signing bonus.
Football is a religion in Alabama, and there is no doubt that Nick Saban’s success is a primary reason why the Crimson Tide attract over 100,000 people to its home games, and generate an annual revenue of $100 million from their football program alone. But is it fair that his hard-working players put their bodies on the line every week without getting paid?
On top of his enormous salary, Saban also had his $3.1 million mansion paid off by Alabama’s “boosters”, who are a wealthy, influential group of supporters, sponsors and former players who donate millions to the college and their football program every year. Despite their generosity, no college athletes are allowed to accept any payments or benefits from the boosters.
If you ever watch a Nick Saban press conference, you will notice a Coca Cola bottle perfectly placed in front of him, every time. College football coaches are able to accept sponsorship and endorsement money, but their players are strictly prohibited from doing the same.
Although the pressure on college athletes to perform on the field/court and in the classroom is higher than ever before, it must be noted that they do receive some nice benefits for being a student athlete.
The NCAA states that along with member colleges, they award scholarships to 150,000 student athletes every year. Considering that some colleges now cost $50,000 a year to attend (including college football powerhouse USC), the benefit of a student athlete scholarship cannot be questioned.
The scholarship also covers some food costs, mentoring and career training, but students cannot accept any free meals from other sporting figures such as potential agents, professional teams or coaches during their college career.
Along with an education, the opportunity to star in college gives athletes a chance to make it as a professional, as almost all homegrown NBA and NFL players come through the college system. However, only 2% of basketball and football athletes actually get drafted.
So what is the answer?
An education, and a chance to make it as a professional athlete is an amazing opportunity for college students, however, when the NCAA, the schools, the coaches and almost everyone else involved is making outrageous money from their unpaid star players, the question must be asked.
But for every football and basketball game watched by millions, there are many minor college sports such as bowling, lacrosse, volleyball and wrestling that do not attract a large crowd, or bring any notable TV revenue to the NCAA. Paying student athletes will most likely open another can of worms.. should a star quarterback be paid the same amount as a volleyball player who plays in front of a crowd less than 100 people?
Maybe sports talk radio host Colin Cowherd has the best solution, arguing that some major football schools have so much money “they don’t know what to do with it”, and that athletes deserve to be paid a modest amount to compensate for the sacrifices they make.
Colin Cowherd’s solution for paying college athletes:
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