College Sports – One step closer to the edge

I’ve written rants twice before about college athletics..

In my first post, ‘Paying college athletes isn’t the answer,’ I felt as thought college athletics had gotten too big for its own good. In the ten years since I wrote that post in April 2014, it’s only grown bigger. It’s grown so large that the landscape of college athletics has been forever changed with recent conference realignments throwing the entire system into a state of chaos.

In my second post, ‘The absurdity of college athletics,’ which was written in February 2016, I bemoaned how colleges have lost their way by placing an emphasis on athletics over education. Since I wrote that article, major colleges have continued to shift their priorities in favor of athletics. If there is any question, follow the money. You’ll see that its athletics driving revenue generation, money spent, and donations from wealthy alumni and boosters.

The absurdity of college athletics has only grown since my first two posts.

Show me the money

The two biggest athletic sports conferences, the Big 10 and SEC have contracts that payout $1.15 billion and $740 million per year. The annual payout to each member school in those leagues is $71.875 million and $68.75 million respectively. Even the ‘second tier’ leagues, the Big 12 and ACC, their schools net $31.7 million and $17.1 million on an annual basis. (source – Business of College Sports)

Given these amounts of money, it’s no wonder that the highest paid employees of our institutions of higher learning are football coaches. Here are the salaries of the top 4 college football coaching salaries for the 2022-23 season with their buyouts.

CoachUniversityTotal payBuyout
Nick SabanUniversity of Alabama$11,407,000$44,800,000
Dabo SwinneyClemson University$10,884,775$64,000,000
Kirby SmartUniversity of Georgia$10,705,600$92,625,000
Ryan DayOhio State University$10,271,250$46,222,292
source –

For those not familiar with what a buyout is, it’s the amount of money the school is on the hook for if it fires the coach without cause. For example, if Kirby Smart were to be fired without cause, the University of Georgia would owe him almost $100,000,000.

Looking through the salaries for all the major college programs, the lowest paid coach for a P5 program is making $2,300,000. That’s pretty good money that a university is paying for someone to run a football program, which isn’t (supposed to be) the main focus of an institution of higher learning.

To put this in perspective, the highest paid four college coaches are making more than 75% of the head coaches in the NFL. The salaries for the highest paid NFL coaches can be found here. I can’t say for sure, but something tells me they don’t come with lucrative buyout clauses.

(As a side note, if you’re interested in the amount of revenue generated by the ‘non-profit’ conferences, ProPublica has compiled the numbers from publicly filed documents for the NCAA, Southeastern Conference, Big 10, and Athletic Coast Conference)

Athletes don’t benefit, directly

Because of the amateur status of NCAA athletes, they are not permitted to be paid for their services. Therefore, none of the television money gets passed down directly to the athletes. To me, it’s such a crazy situation. The individuals who are responsible for performing and that generate the revenue for the television contracts are not entitled to share in any of it. Sure, they are provided a free education, but that amounts to $30,000 – $40,000 per year for most athletes. It’s a far cry from the ~$70,000,000 the institutions receive for their services.

Until recently, many players were illegally paid under the table by program boosters, but the recent Name, Image, and Likeness rules (better known as NIL) have allowed players to benefit directly from their status. While not publicly known, it’s rumored that some of the more notable players at the top tier programs are earning as much or more with their NIL deals than they would make with a professional sports contract. It’s no wonder some star athletes are opting to stay in school.

The big losers – non-revenue sports athletes

With all the changes that have come from conference realignments in the name of money, the one group that has been left out of the discussion in non-revenue sports athletes. These are often referred to as “equivalency sports,” which means that these sports only offer partial scholarships to their athletes. For men, these sports include baseball, rifle, skiing, cross-country, track and field, soccer, fencing, swimming, golf, tennis, gymnastics, volleyball, ice hockey, water polo, lacrosse and wrestling. For women, it covers bowling, lacrosse, rowing, cross-country, track and field, skiing, fencing, soccer, field hockey, softball, golf, swimming, ice hockey and water polo.

Participants in these sports often play home and away, or have to travel to league meets that can last multiple days. When conferences were regional, travel was typically within the same time zone and completed in a matter of hours. The new mega-conferences formed in the name of football money are creating coast-to-coast travel for these athletes. These teams don’t have the luxury of charter flights scheduled at convenient times. They are at the mercy of commercial air travel schedules, having to travel thousands of miles that have be done to confined time limits to adhere to strict NCAA travel rules.

In my opinion, these are the athletes who are going to pay the biggest price in conference realignment that have no say in the matter. You would hope that some of the money would trickle down into more scholarship money, more equipment, or better facilities, but I doubt these athletes will see any benefit from the increase in revenue.

One step closer to the edge

With the latest realignments, college athletics has moved one step closer to the edge. The big question is the edge of what? Is it the edge of becoming an entertainment empire, turning into sports franchises masquerading as education institutions, irrelevancy, or collapsing under its own weight?

I can’t speak to the big picture, but for me it’s move one step closer to the edge of irrelevancy. College athletics is turning into professional sports. For me, the lure of college athletics was regional rivalries and players who you could connect with for 3 or 4 years.

Regional rivalries are being replaced with conference games that, quite frankly, I could care less about. Pitt playing Penn State or West Virginia on a Saturday afternoon? I’m in. Pitt playing Cal or Duke, not interested. Same goes for games such as UCLA – Rutgers, USC – Northwestern, Texas – Vanderbilt. Does anyone other than the players really care about these games?

I would have a vested interested in watching players grow in stature and skill from their freshman through their senior years. I would root for them and follow them into their pro careers. Now college players move from team to team on a yearly basis looking for more playing time of the best NIL deal. It’s not nearly as much fun rooting for players who stop by the team for a year only to move on when the next better deal comes along.

But that’s just me being me. I suppose I may be a little old school and somewhat nostalgic. I have fond memories of my love for college sports when I was younger. Sadly, those days are gone. The money has gotten too big. The stakes are too high. There’s no turning back. If I want to continue following college sports, I have a simple choice to make – get on board or hop off.

I expect that sooner rather later, I’ll be making the decision to hop off.

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