Monday, May 23, 2011

Will Paying Players Destroy College Basketball?

I absolutely love John Gasaway, the original Big Ten Wonk, but I have to admit that I think this isn't the most compelling argument he has ever made:

If the Big Ten wants players in its revenue sports to have “full cost of attendance” scholarships, the league has the resources to make it happen. (They have the resources to make it happen even assuming the bottom-line figure would need to be doubled and shared with an equal number of non-revenue athletes in women’s sports to survive Title IX scrutiny.) But creating these new dollarships, while merely cementing existing imbalances in college football recruiting in place, would revolutionize college basketball recruiting overnight. The elite high school football player already chooses between programs that can afford full cost of attendance scholarships. Not so the top high school basketball talent. In a sport where TV exposure and NCAA bids are spread (relatively) far and wide, talent currently has far less incentive to travel in packs. That will change, dramatically, when major conference programs can offer recruits a better financial package than what mid-majors are able to afford. 
These are two very different sports — each with its own very different revenue model — and if you ask me if they share any needs in common I would cite just two things: better athletic directors and a new definition of amateurism. If you’re concerned that the very same SEC West football coaches who make plainly unprincipled decisions receive millions of dollars while their players struggle to afford a plane ticket home, the solution is two-pronged: 1) principled athletic directors creating compensation packages more aligned with empirical reality than with the HR equivalent of the mid-00s housing bubble; and 2) allowing stars in any college sport to strike whatever deals they can with agents and advertisers. Meantime tell college football no one wants them exporting their stale oligarchical ways to the one revenue sport where surprises actually happen.
During the course of the last paragraph, Gasaway links to his essay on amateurism, which I encourage everyone to read when they get the opportunity. The Readers' Digest version is that the NCAA should allow deals between athletes and third-parties such as agents and clothing manufacturers, a suggestion with which I agree.

But the juxtaposition of that article and the complaints quoted above is jarring. NCAA protestations aside, the reason that college athletes have not been allowed to pursue these opportunities is because the playing field will be skewed even further towards major teams; Longhorns will sell a lot more jerseys than Owls of either the Rice or Temple variety. 

Of course, it is already conventional wisdom that the Big Ten made their proposal to put the screws to the MAC and the Sun Belt, so Gasaway's point might seem irrefutable. But the scheme only works because football teams are massive. Basketball programs only get 13 scholarships; an extra $5000 per scholarship is only $65,000 per year, or approximately one-and-a-half secretaries. Title IX will require an extra 13 Super Scholarships in women's sports as well, but we're still only at $130,000 per year, and if the athletic department at Long Beach State can't scrounge that together, maybe Division I just isn't for them.

Besides, it's doubtful whether slightly different compensation for athletes would even mean The End of Long Beach State, either in reality or in concept. Assuming that only the major conferences (major defined as "BCS auto-qualifying") adopt the Super Scholarship proposal and that those teams recruit three basketball players a year, that means about 222 recruits each year will accept major conference scholarships. (I'll call it 225 for simplicity's sake). Of the Rivals Top 150 recruits for 2011, only 16 are headed to "mid-major" teams anyway, even without Super Scholarships. (Those recruits are headed to Memphis, Charleston, Xavier (3), BYU, Harvard, Alcorn State, SMU, Western Kentucky (2), North Texas, Houston, George Mason, New Mexico, and Butler). And even of those schools, several would be either certain to pay the small amount of money (Xavier, BYU, Butler, maybe SMU, North Texas, and George Mason) or aren't paying money anyway (Harvard). A few players each season will choose Iowa State or Depaul over Wichita State because of the extra $10 a day, but is this really going to be enough to upset whatever balance of power exists in college basketball?

More likely, this proposal, like death, will focus the minds of athletic directors around the country. Men's basketball is still a revenue sport even as football drains athletic department coffers. Rather than pouring endless resources into football, many mid-level schools may decide that the Cinderella-friendly nature of college basketball provides greater bang for the athletic department buck. And unlike third-party contracts, compensation is capped; a top recruit is turning down perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars by choosing to play for Detroit or Central Michigan rather than Ohio State if they get to sell their personages while on campus. If competitive balance is the concern, the Big Ten proposal should be seen as the lesser of two evils by college hoops fans.