Today’s guest columnist is Rick Burton of Syracuse University.
As we approach the NCAA Division I Baseball Championships (June 17-27) at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, thereby concluding the NCAA’s calendar of competitive tournaments, but also observing the one-year deadline until Mark Emmert steps down as NCAA president, it’s worth asking if the schools involved in big-time college athletics truly want control over the NCAA or whether intercollegiate sport is becoming just a little too risky for them.
To be certain, the chancellors running major Power Five universities are all, in essence, running billion-dollar corporations that are equal parts cities unto themselves and educational institutions built on concepts like in-person teaching, research/discovery, faculty tenure and seasonal retention of customers (many of whom actually graduate).
It’s never an easy job.
At any given time, a university president can wake up to find she is dealing with a scandal, work stoppage, lawsuits, unhappy constituents (faculty, students, parents, alumni, staff, contractors, fans, etc.) or mounting pressure from trustees that something (anything) get built or improved. Sometimes those challenges all arrive on the same day.
So, we can, in our compassionate way, afford some empathy for a position that looks great on paper (and even better in multi-striped commencement robes) but must consistently stare down the barrel when it comes to keeping lights on and wolves from the door. This is where intercollegiate athletics makes its entrance.
Are college sports important to university presidents? And if so, how important?
Some maintain intercollegiate sport is the front door (or front porch) to the academy, the shiny bauble keeping many schools in the news and, in some cases, generating contemporary relevance. It may be costly, but nothing generates free publicity quite like a winning season or an unexpected tournament run.
Just ask Saint Peter’s, a small, private, Jesuit liberal arts school in New Jersey. In less than one month, the Peacocks received an estimated $70 million in brand recognition for winning some basketball games. Certainly not “chump change” for the school president holding court during that Cinderella season.
Or how about when a school, let’s say LSU, decides to pay its head football coach something approaching $100 million over 10 years. If said coach is the highest paid state employee by a wide margin, then, yes, the athletic department and its many stakeholders are important.
That brings us to the age-old question faced in professional poker dens nightly. If I’m at a high-roller table, how much can I afford to lose and when do I fold? When do I push away from the green felt (or green turf) because the stakes are too high, the risk unmanageable?
For many college presidents, that moment, that rider (to paraphrase Bob Dylan), is approaching.
When Alabama or Ohio State willingly push more chips into the middle of the table, does the president of Vanderbilt or Northwestern blink? Sure, those two private institutions know they will get healthy payouts from the SEC and Big Ten network deals, but at what point do those CEOs acknowledge they’re not drawing from the same deck?
This raises the bigger question involving the difference between professional sports leagues and the rapid professionalization of college sports. In California, Senate Bill 1401, otherwise known as the College Athlete Race and Gender Equity Act, was introduced but is now bottled up in the legislature. If some version of this passes in the next few years, however, certain California schools could be required to pay football and basketball players more than $100,000 (above their free tuition, room and board).
It doesn’t take a very fast calculator to know major NCAA schools will soon find themselves unable to afford that “call.” They must wipe their brow, look down at their cards, calculate the odds of drawing to an inside straight, and fold. Call it a night in that ultra-competitive room.
Could multiple schools draw the same conclusion that they are in over their heads? Will some university presidents decide to push back from the table?
Say this much for professional sports: While they have socialistic tendencies (plenty of revenue sharing, lots of government subsidy, no relegation in North America), these entities are very capitalistic. The owners in these games are highly efficient and generally control or influence their odds.
Now, think about sport at the college level, where increased athlete freedom has spawned a new kind of capitalism, currently on full display. If a university president can’t control the variables, and her inefficiencies get exposed, will she lose her job? If she allows an athletic director to double down on football or basketball and they “bust,” where does it leave her?
Said another way, no university president can allow a billion-dollar educationally focused enterprise to fail. So, while college athletics is popular and important, many big-time card players are anxiously wondering who will lead the NCAA next, what their vision is and whether they’ll establish “house rules” to balance things out.
If that new leader won’t (or can’t), many presidents may take their remaining chips and head downstairs to the more affordable tables. Logically, that choice is imminent.
Burton is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University and SU’s Faculty Athletic Representative (FAR) to the ACC and NCAA. His new co-authored book, Business the NHL Way, will be published by the University of Toronto Press in October.