Somewhere in the wake of yesterday’s huge story about Northwestern football players forming a union came a long Twitter conversation between two TV personalities — Doug Gottlieb of CBS Sports and Bomani Jones of ESPN — about athlete exploitation in college sports. As the two of them went at it over the concepts of opportunity and privilege, Jones said something that grabbed my attention:
Of course, Bomani Jones’ employer will tell you there are billions of reasons for continuing what we have. ESPN pours a significant amount of cash into college sports programming; roughly $1.33 billion will flow from ESPN’s coffers into college sports during the 2013-14 academic year. That number will jump when the SEC Network launches next August.
The Worldwide Leader isn’t alone. CBS and Turner Sports will shell out an average of $771 million a year for the rights to the NCAA Tournament through 2022, and Fox Sports not only built the Big Ten Network, but is paying college conferences another $250 million on top of that to air sports on both its broadcast and cable networks.
With so much cash flowing into college sports and so little protection afforded to the athletes who help produce all that cash — bear in mind the NCAA claims zero responsibility for brain trauma suffered by college football players — it’s no surprise that college athletes would take it upon themselves to organize. It also begs the question: just why is so much money flowing into college football and basketball?
The short answer: millions of fans are watching.
Right. So why are they watching?
Is it because the schools at the top college conferences get the best players? Sure, that’s part of it. Wouldn’t it stand to reason, then, that fans of football and basketball would watch those players play in professional leagues, where the players are getting paid for their work?
Here’s where we get to the heart of the problem. The American sporting landscape is littered with failed attempts at starting alternative professional leagues for football and basketball. The World Football League? The United States Football League? The XFL? The United Football League? They all failed within five years of their launch.
Minor league basketball has had a bit more traction — the Continental Basketball Association survived for decades as an NBA minor league before finally folding in 2009 — but it doesn’t come close to outdrawing big-time college basketball. Go to any NBA D-League game, and you’ll be lucky to find a few thousand fans in the stands. More importantly, you won’t find the top high school prospects at those games. Jabari Parker gets more attention playing for Duke than he would playing for, say, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants.
This is where we begin to understand the status quo. What we have here is an issue of branding. Minor league football and basketball have no traction in America, because fans have declared their loyalty to the brands of college football and basketball teams. College football, in particular, has a century’s worth of rich history in America. College students attach themselves to their schools’ teams, remain attached through adulthood, and spread those attachments to children and other family members. You can’t sell the Omaha Nighthawks to an army of die-hard Cornhuskers fans. They’ve spent decades engrossed in the University of Nebraska’s football team and all of its traditions. Supporting a group of guys trying to play their way into the NFL is not enough. These people demand Nebraska football.
When you think about it, though, what is the Nebraska football team if not a group of guys trying to play their way into the NFL? Perhaps that wasn’t the case during the heyday of Bob Devaney in the 1960s, but times change. Aside from age and lack of pay, what truly separates Nebraska football players from those Nighthawks? If you put the Cornhuskers in Nighthawks uniforms, however, football fans in Nebraska would not flock to them. They demand all the bright red trappings of Nebraska football, and they won’t settle for another brand.
It might seem like little more than Jerry Seinfeld’s old “rooting for laundry” skit on the surface, but Nebraska graduates will certainly be quick to tell you it’s much more than that. So will graduates of Alabama, Auburn, Ohio State, Michigan, Clemson, Florida State, Texas, Oklahoma, and dozens of other schools.
And who understands that mindset better than ESPN?
ESPN has turned profiting from fan loyalty into a science, and they continue to throw billions of dollars at college football because the Nielsen ratings tell them it’s what the people want.
What the people want, however, no longer jibes with what football players need now. Times change, but the NCAA has steadfastly refused to change with the times, making 2014 money from TV deals while forcing players to adhere to 1954 ideals. The amount of money changing hands — Big Ten schools like Nebraska, for example, will get between $23 and $25 million each per year from multiple TV deals — exposes the hypocrisy within big-time college sports. The powers that be collect billions of dollars from TV networks, while the players that fans tune in to watch are systematically denied the opportunity to profit from their endeavors.
Of course, this is not a issue for the game of baseball. Minor league baseball has been a staple in this country since the late 19th century. The NFL never developed the kind of minor league system that baseball did — largely because, up until the Super Bowl era, college football was far more important than pro football. The NFL spent much of the first half of the 20th century struggling to stay afloat, while college football and Major League Baseball dominated the sports pages, and baseball built a player development system that now has long-established brands. The Reserve Clause might have limited the fair market value of many baseball players, but the players were still paid as professionals and still free to profit from commercial endorsements.
It’s also not an issue for international soccer, which abolished maximum salary rules in 1961. Southampton FC runs an exceptional youth academy that has produced quite a few world-class players, and larger clubs have paid Southampton millions of pounds to acquire the contracts of teenagers in the Saints Academy. Arsenal paid £5 million up front for 16-year-old Theo Walcott in 2006, then paid £12 million up front for 17-year-old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in 2011. Tottenham Hotspur also paid Southampton £5 million up front for a certain Welsh 17-year-old now plying his trade in Madrid.
Ponder for a moment how much Jameis Winston’s contract might have been worth in that sort of environment. Cam Newton and Reggie Bush were allegedly paid under the table, but how much might they have been paid if schools could do so openly? Now ponder why is the NCAA so determined to prevent us from answering that question.
Mark Cuban has actually endorsed a soccer-style player development model for minor league basketball — sign players out of high school, develop them, then sell them on to NBA teams. If a new professional league formed to do this very thing, though, would anyone watch? If, say, the Bull City Blues opened for business in Durham, NC, with Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins on the roster, would basketball fans go to see them play, or would they stay home and watch Duke play Kansas on ESPN, regardless of who was actually wearing the uniforms? For football and basketball, fans right now are telling TV networks they care far more about the names on the front of the jerseys than the names on the back of them.
That’s why it’s difficult to imagine anyone making the effort to create a new developmental league and promote it properly, especially for football. A new football league attempting to sign kids out of high school and develop them for pro careers would struggle mightily against the billion-dollar machine that is college football, because the brands of the schools — the names, the logos, the traditions, and all that surrounds them — are far too entrenched in the public psyche. Fans ultimately don’t care about the immorality inherent in the system, because they are too loyal to the schools’ brands to let them go.
This might be why it’s ultimately up to the players themselves to change this status quo, just as it was up to the MLB Players Association to abolish the Reserve Clause in baseball — a movement that might never have started without Curt Flood’s refusal to accept a trade. Time will tell if these Northwestern football players will be remembered as Flood is, but without their actions, college football will certainly remain business as usual. Everybody’s watching the players, but collectively, who’s really looking out for them?