College Football Without Romance

This commentary was published in the Boston Globe on February 7, 2007

WE CALL FOOTBALL a game. But Super Bowl Sunday reminds us that the National Football League is big business. A minute of advertising time goes for more than $4 million. Winning the game means big dollars and enormously lucrative opportunities for coaches and players.

In contrast, college sports seem a more pristine opportunity for student-athletes to clash on the playing fields just next to the ivy-covered halls we studied in years ago. There is an inevitable romance about college sports that comes from this nostalgia, a romance that the NCAA — the governing organization of college sports — works to preserve and enhance.

The NCAA roots out the most trivial of recruiting violations to maintain the amateur image of college athletes. Why they’re just like the rest of the student body, they just happen to be on the football or basketball team! Never mind that they have to practice nearly year-round or they’ll lose their scholarships. And the NCAA makes sure that all those student-athletes earn their scholarships by maintaining a minimum grade point average.

But the rest of college sports looks pretty professional. The bowl games have sponsors. So we get the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl and the FedEx Orange Bowl. College football stadiums and basketball arenas are multi-million-dollar facilities with professional-quality weight-training and conditioning equipment and trainers. Ticket sales for basketball and football generate millions of dollars. Alumni donate millions to athletic departments. College sports is a big business.

Then there are the coaches. No amateurs or volunteers there. The latest example is Nick Saban, the new football coach at the University of Alabama. Saban will get about $4 million to coach the Crimson Tide. That’s a lifetime of income for some of us. But for Nick Saban, that’s the annual figure.

Saban’s story outraged pundits, citizens, and taxpayers. How can a mere football coach be rewarded so handsomely? How can the university president and the head of the athletic department be such irresponsible stewards for their institution? By what justice does the football coach who makes people happy 11 or 12 days a year make more than the best professor in the medical school or the governor of the state? These complaints don’t just come from the English department, where you’d expect some griping. The complaints come from the fans of college football who are having trouble feeling romantic about a team led by a $4 million man.

But if those fans want to find someone to blame they should look in the mirror. They are the source of that salary they find so exorbitant. Their desire to revel in victory is what drives the university to pay not an exorbitant salary but merely the going wage, what it takes to attract a talented coach away from other universities and the professional ranks.

At Alabama, that fan is tired of losing to Auburn. At Oklahoma where Bob Stoops makes more than $3 million to coach the football team , alums from Oklahoma want to revel in victories over Texas. Now and then, they expect a national championship. At Ohio State, Jim Tressel makes a few million to ensure that the Buckeyes stay competitive with Michigan.

And those expectations and the thrill of possibility are what make that $4 million salary feasible. That $4 million is what the market will bear because the rewards for victory have become so great. The television contracts are bigger than ever. The same is true of the bowl game payouts to both winners and losers. When prizes get bigger, people will spend more to get a crack at those prizes.

And what drives that increase in prices? The fans. The fans who care more than ever, who watch those bowl games in greater numbers, who generate the ad revenue that creates those television packages and ticket revenue.

The fans create the incentive that drives university presidents and athletic directors to give people like Nick Saban a salary 100 times what the average fan in the stands is earning. If you don’t like it, stop watching, stop caring, and stop contributing to the athletic department.

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