College Football

No, NCAA, Paying College Athletes Would Not Cause a 15-20 Percent Decline in Ratings

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Former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson, as part of the NCAA’s defense in the O’Bannon lawsuit, argues, based on survey data, that college sports ratings would decline by 15-20 percent if performers were paid for their trouble. Not surprisingly, that argument has little merit when scrutinized.

Pilson’s estimate referred to a report by J. Michael Dennis, a market research expert the NCAA hired, that found 68.9 percent of respondents were “opposed to paying money to student-athletes on college football and men’s basketball teams in addition to covering their college expenses.”

The survey also found that 37.7 percent of respondents would be less likely to watch, listen to, or attend college football and men’s basketball games if athletes were paid $20,000 per year. If provided with such information, Pilson wrote, “a responsible broadcasting executive would reduce the price a broadcaster might be willing to pay for the rights to telecast college sports if college players were to receive payments of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

That survey is biased and not all that meaningful. First, prompting an individual directly breeds over-reporting and overstatement of impacts. This is akin to asking individuals their opinion of reality television and presuming the negative reaction will translate to bad ratings. A more accurate measurement would get respondents to reveal their true preferences blindly. That’s before we even address how easy it is to manipulate survey wording to achieve desired outcomes. A majority of Americans think we spend too much on “welfare.” A majority of Americans also think we don’t do enough to help the poor.

Let’s look at case studies that may better address Pilson’s point. Do people have a natural aversion to watching paid athletes in football and basketball? No. The NFL is the most popular and profitable sports league in the world. The league presently earns more than $9 billion from TV revenue, and believes it can more than double that in coming decades. ESPN pays the NFL $1.9 billion per year, for 17 games. Player incomes are at an all-time high. Television revenue is at an all-time high.

Does a traditionally “amateur” sport going “professional” diminish its popularity? No. The Olympics is perhaps the best parallel for NCAA athletics. It was a rigid, traditionally amateur event that began to allow “professional” athletes to participate in the early 1990s. This did not hurt the Olympics’ popularity (London 2012 was the most watched TV event in U.S. history). The change was implemented to enhance the event’s popularity by keeping the best athletes around. The theoretical backlash was minimal, if existent at all.

If the best athletes were paid for their skills, or for granting endorsements, why not? The concept of “selling out” — once such a pejorative — had become almost meaningless. Making a lot of money for being good at a sport was a badge of honor.

Pilson contends that networks would pay less for NCAA events if athletes were not amateurs. Really? College Football and Basketball being better placed to keep star players longer would make them less valuable? What about the “Olympic” sports that could now feature “Olympic athletes?” How much more valuable is say, college swimming, if the next Michael Phelps is competing for Michigan or Florida?

If it’s not the athletes, is it a broader ennui with commercialism? No. Major college athletics has embraced the “Rose Bowl Game Presented by VIZIO” era. Conferences have their own TV networks. Teams are de facto professional enterprises with “brand identities.” The “amateur ideal” has been diminished in almost every conceivable way except payment of performers for services rendered. People complain about commercialism when prompted. It doesn’t stop them from watching. Sports, as television products, have become only more popular and lucrative.

There’s no causal or correlative evidence the popularity of college athletics relates to the amateur status of the players. It’s time to fix an unfair and outdated system. Surveys to the contrary are only a sign more Americans need brushing up on the virtues of Capitalism.

[Photo via USA Today Sports]

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