Leutz: Stop the Madness

It’s time to compensate college athletes.

by Peter Leutz | 4/18/19 2:00am

Last week’s Final Four generated an estimated $142 million of revenue in its host city, Minneapolis. And that was just the start; CBS and Turner Sports made $1.32 billion in advertising revenue last year, and advertising revenues have consistently increased each year since 2014, which means that this year’s total may be even higher. Social media platforms and live streams allowed American workers to spend an average of six working hours per year watching the NCAA tournament, which would present a problem if their bosses weren’t also watching. 

Las Vegas casinos handled over $300 million in estimated betting volume on this year’s tournament, and with states beyond Nevada fully legalizing sports gambling for the first time, gamblers in the U.S. wagered an estimated $8.5 billion on the tournament. With its unmatched size and scope, March Madness is an extremely lucrative form of entertainment.

Colleges receive cash prizes for their performance in the tournament, state governments tax gambling, many sponsors rake in profits and TV providers post huge earnings. The players, meanwhile, go back to school on Tuesday. They don’t receive any money for their role in the tournament. This is blatantly unfair and exploitative, especially since athletes underpin the entire March Madness industry. College athletes are anything but amateurs, and they should be able to market their likeness as compensation for the revenue they generate. This isn’t just fair; given the recent expansion of sports gambling, allowing athletes to profit off their likenesses will preserve the NCAA Tournament’s integrity.

This is the first year that sports gambling has been fully legal in states other than Nevada. The National Basketball Association has been especially vocal in its support for the transition, jockeying for a share of the resulting revenues from sports gambling. Major league salaries have grown so high that players have less of an incentive to gamble on their own games, like Pete Rose of the Cincinnati Reds notoriously did in the 1980s. As such, sports gambling no longer threatens the integrity of America’s favorite games as it used to. That is, so long as the players are being paid. 

The integrity of collegiate competitions remains at risk of cheating by players. Players are often young, and many of their families’ economic situations rely on their athletic achievement. Put in that situation, and otherwise unpaid, players risk being bought out by big whale gamblers looking for a “sure thing.” This is precisely why the NCAA sued the state of New Jersey over sports gambling in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. The NCAA still opposes all forms of legal and illegal sports wagering. The NCAA is at a crossroads in its debate over player compensation. The league would be wise to allow players to sell their likenesses. Doing so would disincentivize corruption, which, since the Supreme Court struck down the federal sports betting ban, the NCAA will need to find a way to combat.

Some argue that offering salaries to college players would distort the economics of college athletics, effectively creating a bidding war for top high school talent and pricing smaller colleges out of participating. That’s why compensation for college athletes should not come in the form of a salary. Rather, the NCAA should allow players to license their names, images and likenesses.

Athletes would be rewarded for the amount of revenue that their names generate, whether through autograph signings, endorsements or the sale of memorabilia. The highest level of college athletes deserve this kind of compensation, and it’s time that the NCAA permit it.

Allowing this sort of income for college athletes would reduce the possibility that high-level athletes desperately seeking income would resort to bribery and gambling corruption. In addition, allowing college players to sell their likenesses would give them an economic incentive to stay in school; such an incentive currently is nonexistent, and that can prove disastrous for students who can’t make ends meet. If the goal is graduation, as the NCAA holds at the heart of its mission, then players who could make millions at the professional level should have an economic incentive to stay in college for longer than just one year. 

The current system allows colleges and universities across the nation to make millions off of players, who meanwhile have to wait a year in fear of injury before bringing any revenue home to their families. Allowing these athletes, who dominate our culture every March, to profit off their likenesses would not only protect one of America’s favorite sports competitions from corruption but also keep our favorite players in it for more than a year. And, above it all, it would offer players the deserved compensation they currently lack.