Jordan on sports

tsj column writers - sports viewBy Jordan Kobritz

With the first ever Division 1—Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS)—playoffs just passed, perhaps it’s appropriate to ask the question: is college football now just like the NFL? The answer is … yes and no.

No doubt there are similarities between the two. Each strives to maximize revenues but overall the NFL has done a much better job of that than college teams. This year the NFL grossed $10 billion in revenue compared to approximately $3.2 billion by the 120 FBS teams according to the website The Business of College Sports. The figure for colleges is decidedly understated as not all schools report financial data and others don’t include revenue from all sources. Service academies and private schools are not bound by disclosure requirements. In addition, revenue used for college athletics may be intertwined with other University revenue—such as student athletic fees—and some athletic revenue, especially for football, is independent of the University.

There are a number of distinctions between what NCAA folks are fond of calling—incorrectly—amateur football and professional football. Two of the biggest are that colleges are not subject to taxation and they don’t have to pay the players. True, a number of football players—up to 85 players per team—receive scholarships but those are merely bookkeeping entries for most colleges. No cash changes hands.

The NFL, on the other hand, pays approximately 48% of its revenue to the players. That’s in addition to the costs associated with medical services, training camp, equipment, travel, meals, and the coaching staff, expenses that the colleges pay as well. If colleges were required to pay a similar percentage of their revenue to the players there would be less money available to pay administrators and coaches. The highest paid athletic directors earn the equivalent of NFL executives, in excess of $1 million per year. College football coaches can earn as much as NFL coaches, upwards of $7-8 million per year with incentives and outside income.

A third distinction is that colleges have an internal funding mechanism: the ability to assess an athletic fee to every student. The fee exceeds $1,500 per student at some institutions and according to Bloomberg View, the 227 institutions in Division I collected more than $2 billion in fees for the 2010-11 school year, a figure that has surely increased since then.

Unlike the pros, colleges are eternally concerned with academic eligibility in an effort to maintain the charade of amateurism perpetuated by NCAA types and everyone else who profits from the system. But that horse left the barn long before the testimony and decision in the O’Bannon case last year sucked the air out of the NCAA’s balloon. Most of the players, including Ohio State’s third-string quarterback Cardale Jones, have known the truth for years. Jones led the Buckeyes to victory over Alabama on January 1 in the semi-final round of the playoffs and a spot against Oregon in the national championship game on January 12.

On October 12, 2012, immediately after he took a sociology exam, Jones tweeted, “Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ‘aint come to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS.” No word on how he fared on the exam, but to Jones’ credit he did capitalize “school” along with “football,” despite the clear message that he doesn’t hold them in the same esteem.

Jim Harbaugh, former San Francisco 49ers coach who was recently hired at Michigan, has a number of financial incentives in his contract for winning along with one for academic performance. As an indication of how the Michigan administration values each, the payoffs for winning range from $250,000 to $500,000. The incentive for academic performance pays Harbaugh $150,000. Cardale Jones would approve.

Mack Brown, current television analyst and longtime coach at the University of Texas which grossed $93 million from football last year, more than any other college program, understands the college system as well as anyone. Here’s his take on college football, as quoted in The New York Times, “When you hear presidents and athletic directors talk about character and academics and integrity, none of that really matters. The truth is, nobody has ever been fired for those things. They get fired for losing.”

Sounds just like the NFL to me.

(Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is a Professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com  Jordan can be reached at jordan.kobritz@cortland.edu.)

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