It’s long been understood that there are “college sports” and then there are revenue sports: football and men’s basketball. It wasn’t until very recently, however, that I realized that the world at large — up to and including the Big Ten conference, most sportswriters, PBS, HBO, and the U.S. Department of Justice — has failed to grasp an essential point. There’s every bit as much difference between college football and college basketball as there is between either sport and any non-revenue sport. (One outstanding exception to the rule: John Infante. He understands the yawning chasm between the two revenue sports perfectly.)
In a world where decisions made pertaining to “revenue sports” are really made pertaining to football, basketball is at risk. College hoops isn’t about to disappear, of course, but it is true that the sport’s quality and popularity are contingent, not inherent. People weren’t this interested in the NCAA tournament 40 years ago. Who’s to say it can’t be that way again if we screw things up?
The Big Ten is considering a proposal that could screw things up for college basketball. Bumping up the value of athletic scholarships to cover the “full cost of attendance” is being presented as “a student welfare issue.” If this were truly the overriding concern the solution would be obvious: a funding mechanism that embraces all FBS programs in football and all D-I programs in basketball. The cost of spreading this wealth would be surprisingly modest. Press reports peg the additional outlay per scholarship at between $2,000 and $5,000. Let’s take the larger figure. The amount of additional money needed to bump up every football player in the low-revenue Mid-American Conference to a “full cost of attendance” scholarship would be roughly equivalent to Nick Saban’s annual salary. If the athletic directors discussing this proposal are really so concerned about student welfare, they have it within their power to do something about it — across the entire sport.
Guess what. That’s not what will happen. Instead the conferences with the deepest pockets will be able to address the needs of “student welfare.” The rest — the majority — will not.
No one has deeper pockets than the Big Ten. You have to give the conference credit. Where sports, dollars, and media intersect, the conversation is now driven primarily by the Big Ten. The conference has become to the business of college sports what the SEC is to football.
If the Big Ten wants players in its revenue sports to have “full cost of attendance” scholarships, the league has the resources to make it happen. (They have the resources to make it happen even assuming the bottom-line figure would need to be doubled and shared with an equal number of non-revenue athletes in women’s sports to survive Title IX scrutiny.) But creating these new dollarships, while merely cementing existing imbalances in college football recruiting in place, would revolutionize college basketball recruiting overnight. The elite high school football player already chooses between programs that can afford full cost of attendance scholarships. Not so the top high school basketball talent. In a sport where TV exposure and NCAA bids are spread (relatively) far and wide, talent currently has far less incentive to travel in packs. That will change, dramatically, when major-conference programs can offer recruits a better financial package than what mid-majors are able to afford.
These are two very different sports — each with its own very different revenue model — and if you ask me if they share any needs in common I would cite just two things: better athletic directors and a new definition of amateurism. If you’re concerned that the very same SEC West football coaches who make plainly unprincipled decisions receive millions of dollars while their players struggle to afford a plane ticket home, the solution is two-pronged: 1) principled athletic directors creating compensation packages more aligned with empirical reality than with the HR equivalent of the mid-00s housing bubble; and 2) allowing stars in any college sport to strike whatever deals they can with agents and advertisers. Meantime tell college football no one wants them exporting their stale oligarchical ways to the one revenue sport where surprises actually happen.