The Future Of College Sports – – Part I

Last week, I kicked the can down the road about the future of college athletics saying that I did not have a good sense of where it was going and what the ultimate outcome might be.  Those two major uncertainties still exist; but after reading Bob Molinaro’s column last week in the Hampton Roads Virginian-Pilot, I suspect I am not alone in my lack of understanding:

“There are many things to ponder about colleges directly paying athletes without complaining that it turns undergrads into pros. Anybody who thinks they’ve got a handle on this — even among school officials and conference leaders — is bluffing. It may take years to analyze the fallout. In the meantime, it’s generally agreed that the big-conference schools — and this is mostly about them — will do all right, thanks to their billion-dollar TV football deals. But …

“What about mid-major and smaller programs that don’t get as much from TV? How will they handle the finances of pay for play? What sort of strain will it put on their boosters when they’re asked to pitch in even more to bankroll the new revenue model? So many questions, so relatively little understanding of how it’s supposed to work.”

I have come to realize that there are at least two reasons for my confusion on this matter:

  1. I am not smart enough or sufficiently connected in the world of college athletics to be able to see through the fog and make out the future end state for college athletics.  I have no difficulty pleading guilty to this charge.
  2. The system is in such a state of turmoil that even the entity of college athletics itself does not know where it will wind up and when that morphology will be completed.  Sometimes when you cannot find something, the reason is more than the fact that you have not looked in the right place; the fact may be that it does not exist.  The next equilibrium state for college athletics may not yet be determined.

Historically, people were admitted to colleges around the world for different reasons.  At first, colleges were places of academic study and investigation.  Wealthy patrons founded the institutions and students were admitted because they were prodigies or because they had a patron of their own who would pay the college to admit the student.  That second route to admission was the start of the “legacy admission” system.

Early colleges did not have athletic departments because they did not play intercollegiate sports.  This was a time when the NCAA’s idealized “student-athlete” concept might have applied; students pursuing graduation from the school played games to pass their leisure time against fellow-students.  That state of affairs led to the occasional contest between a team from one school playing a game against a team from another school.  And off we go …

People in admissions departments swear that athletic successes lead to increases in applications; I will take them at their word for that.  More applicants mean two things:

  1. The school can choose from a larger pool of future scholars, leading to an enhanced academic reputation for the school down the road.
  2. The school can charge more tuition because the Law of Supply and Demand says if demand goes up and supply remains the same, the price of the service will naturally increase.

So, athletic success has enough to do with the ongoing success of the college that it made sense for the institutions to set up “Athletic Departments” – – and that move by various colleges led to the idea of the “athletic scholarship” which created an entirely new category of students on college campuses.  Some athletes are still indeed students pursuing college degrees that should benefit them – – and society-at-large to some degree – – down the road.  Along side those actual student athletes are some “students” who are excellent athletes but have no interest or intent to get a college education and avail themselves of the rights and privileges of a Bachelors’ Degree from the university.

That system of laxity for athletic admissions led to boosters and under-the-table payments to athletes, which has now become a set of almost overt transactions.  I was – – and I remain – – completely in favor of college athletes being reimbursed for the use of their name, image and likeness (NIL) but I never anticipated the sham sorts of arrangements that would come into existence in no time leading to the NIL-world of today.  Likewise, I have no idea how the infusion of several billions of dollars from NCAA coffers as a result of a legal settlement to schools and conferences might change the landscape again.  But I have a couple of thoughts about the future that are sufficiently crystalized that I will offer them up here.  Then I can wait and see if any of them turn out to have relevance to what college athletics evolve to.

  • As Bob Molinaro said above, the “Big-Boy schools and conferences” will go in one direction because they will continue to receive plenty of revenue from their media rights deals involving football and basketball.  But what about the “Litle Guys”.  The Ivy League has survived for 70 years under a mutual agreement to limit “athletic admissions” by eschewing “athletic scholarships”.  Might some other “Little Guy conferences” emulate that arrangement and create other versions of limited admissions?  The Ivies have plenty of advantages that allow them such a “luxury”; can other schools afford to copy the model?
  • Collegiate athletic conferences created long-standing rivalries.  Some of those rivalries have been sacrificed at the altar of “more TV revenue.”  What is to keep current conference alignments together should TV viewers change their preferences for teams and programs five years from now?
  • Might some schools simply abandon intercollegiate athletics if the costs get too high?  That would be a final resting point but perhaps some schools will eschew sports that are not sustainable financially.  Yes, that might mean the end of a school’s fencing team or its lacrosse teams because there are only meager media rights revenues produced by either.  However, it could also mean the end of football at some small schools where the costs of fielding a team are large and the revenue stream coming in is a trickle.  Could happen …
  • The current system involving the Transfer Portal is destabilizing; basically, college athletes are annual free agents.

There are more uncertainties than listed here; tomorrow I will take on some others. Until then, I’ll close today with these words from the oil-field firefighter, Red Adair:

“If you think its expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports…


4 thoughts on “The Future Of College Sports – – Part I”

  1. Jack,
    As crazy as this may sound, the idea of revenue sharing may be appropriate. Where the power 5 schools, big 10 and others with large TV contracts set aside an amount to distribute among the smaller schools in order to establish a level “playing field”. Otherwise the “big boys” will dominate the available talent pool. I believe MLB engages in revenue sharing. An exercise that would confound Einstein after looking how it’s distributed. It would be no simpler for college athletics, but at least an attempt for equity among colleges to bid for talent.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *