The NCAA Can Afford To Pay Players With Its March Madness Mega-Millions. Here's How
Every year, March Madness makes hundreds of millions of dollars for the NCAA, and every year they explain why the players don't get any of it. It's bullshit.
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
This feature is part of VICE Sports' March Madness coverage.
This weekend's Final Four marks the culmination of the biggest money-making event of the year for the NCAA. The association doesn't run college football's postseason, although that is also a gigantic money-maker for its schools, which means March Madness is its crown jewel.
How much money are we talking about? More money than any other "amateur" sports league could ever dream of. The latest data we have is from the 2014 fiscal year, when the NCAA made $908 million in revenue. Approximately $700 million of that came from television revenue and media rights fees that are almost entirely tied to the NCAA Tournament. That makes March Madness the most valuable American sporting event besides the Super Bowl.
Of course, almost none of that money goes to the players. Who, incidentally, make the whole thing possible.
The NCAA likes to claim, among other things, that it's just too complicated to pay players. Not quite. There are plenty of ways to divvy up the association's March windfall with its on-court labor force, and none of them are particularly complex. Here are a few:
Split the revenue 50/50 just for NCAA Tournament participants
Players aren't going to get ALL of the money the NCAA Tournament generates, and there's no real argument they should. Both the athletes and their schools generate value; as is the case in the NFL and NBA, fans tune in to see elite athletes perform at an elite level for elite programs. The name on the front of the jersey matters; so does the name on the back.
In the NFL, players receive 55 percent of television revenues. Let's assume college players received 50 percent. That means there would be a pot of $350 million to split among the players on the 68 teams. In the socialist utopia of college sports, teams love revenue sharing, so let's also assume that every individual player will make the same amount.
You know what that comes out to? $395,927 per player.
HOLY SHIT! That is a ton of money! Like, life-changing money. Only I already know what you're thinking: "I am uncomfortable with players making that much money, because as a capitalist and an American, I think that making money is wrong. Plus, somebody somewhere might buy a tattoo. What are the other options?"
Glad you asked. Because you could also ...
Split the revenue 50/50 for every Division I basketball player
This is a more likely scenario, because nobody is going to want to have that big of a disparity in payment between players who make the NCAA Tournament and those who don't. Professional leagues split TV money evenly between the best and worst teams.
But even when you dividing 50 percent of the TV revenue among every scholarship Division I basketball player—13 players each at 351 schools—it still works out to $76,704 per player. Which, again, is pretty damn solid, and a lot better than the current zero dollars per player.
But wait: I'm uncomfortable with schools having any less money. Is there a surplus to pay the athletes with?
There is! Even if the NCAA was correct in continually claiming that it and its schools will go broke if they don't continue to operate exactly the way they do right now—and don't worry, because that's a bogus argument—the association can still afford to pay college basketball players a substantial amount.
How? Well, the association had an $80.5 million surplus in the 2014 fiscal year, $20 million higher than its 2013 surplus. In 2015, the NCAA reported a $9 million loss, a number the non-profit association attributed to increased distributions to schools ($20 million), administrative costs ($3 million) and a tanking stock market (the rest, more or less). But the NCAA also had a $108.5 million association-wide operating reserve and a $363 million endowment fund in the same year, which means it's not exactly cash poor.
So, let's say the NCAA divvied up that 2014 surplus among every single Division I basketball player—hardly a fair model, and one that no union would ever support. Players would have seen $17,642 per person, almost as much as the proposed $20,000-25,000-for-a-full college career trust fund payments in the O'Bannon case. Which, incidentally, the NCAA spent millions successfully fighting to overturn.
What about just having the schools pay the athletes?
The NCAA already gives out over $500 million to the schools each year, though none of that goes directly to athletes' pockets. So why not just let individual schools decide how much to pay their laborers? That's basically how it works in every other free market system.
The NCAA maintains that only a few schools actually make a profit—but that's basically an accounting trick, because as non-profits, athletic departments aren't being pressured by owners or shareholders to turn a profit. Combine that with labor costs that are fixed at a below-market rate, and those same athletic departments have plenty of money to spend the money on things they don't actually need, like millions of dollars in bonuses for coaches whose athletes get good grades, and weight rooms with waterfalls.
Here's how much money each Final Four team's athletic departments made this year:
● Oklahoma: $129,226,692
● Syracuse: $87,175,761
● North Carolina: $83,771,913
● Villanova: $37,541,206
With that kind of money, all four of those schools—which would have varying levels of payment commitments in other sports, based on their priorities and preferences—could pay their basketball players handsomely. And the schools that wanted to win games and get to future Final Fours would do just that, because elite basketball talent has plenty of value. Fans love to watch, and advertisers love to pay for those captive eyeballs.
Look, none of this is particularly complicated; only amateurism makes it fuzzy. And two things are clear: one is that there is far too much money sloshing around here to say the players should not get any of it. The other is that, no matter how you slice the pie, the NCAA and its schools can easily afford to give athletes a larger piece.