NCAA appears to be ignoring blueprint for success its athletes drew this season
Viewership stats show there's a market for quasi-professional college sport
Technically, South Carolina and Kansas won the NCAA's two basketball championships this week. On Sunday, Aliyah Boston and the Gamecocks outclassed the UConn Huskies 64-49 to win the women's title, and the following night the Jayhawks reeled in the fast-starting North Carolina Tar Heels for a 72-69 win in the men's title game.
Figuratively, we can say the NCAA itself won March Madness.
According to Deadline.com, the men's championship was the most-watched college basketball game in history with 18.1 million viewers. The number's not a shock, given the name-brand programs involved, but a mild surprise in an era of splintered TV audiences, and threats, both credible and made-up, to the NCAA's popularity.
The women's title game?
It attracted 4.85 million viewers, according to Deadline.com. That number represents an 18 per cent increase over last year, when organizers inadvertently put the women's tournament on everybody's radar by treating athletes like second-class sports citizens. Sunday night's TV audience was the biggest for a women's final since 2004.
Most people would take those numbers as evidence that the business of big-time college sports is still thriving. The transfer portal might have turned recruiting into a lower-stakes version of professional free agency, and COVID-19 still threatens to upend events, but the viewership numbers highlight the sustained appeal of a high-stakes game between historically powerful programs, and that women's basketball was a product in need of better placement.
And it all unfolded at the end of the first school year in which student-athletes were permitted to monetize their Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) by scoring sponsorships, selling merchandise, or hosting skills camps for kids. NCAA officials have argued in the past that allowing athletes to cash in would torpedo college athletics' popularity. March Madness viewership stats say there's a market for quasi-professional college sport.
Blueprint for the future
The news should comfort NCAA decision-makers, and yet …
Last week NCAA president Mark Emmert addressed the U.S. Congress to urge the passage of a federal law governing college athletes, and their access to NIL deals. Currently each state sets its own rules, which muddles the recruiting, transfer and sponsorship markets.
"We're at a place of huge disjuncture around college sports," Emmert told lawmakers. "We've got a relatively, in my opinion, short window of time during which the schools, especially in Division I, need to decide what they want the relationship [with] student-athletes and their schools to be, what the governance structure around that can be in the current legal environment, and how the rules and structures at a national level, a divisional level, at a conference level could and should be made."
Of course, the NCAA could just draft bylaws guiding NIL deals, while making them legal among all its member schools. If you don't need Congress to pass a law requiring student-athletes be enrolled in school, you don't need one telling them whether they can get paid. The NCAA has its own rulebook and is free to update it to keep pace with a changing sports landscape.
This past season gave the NCAA a blueprint for the future:
- Allow players to make money, because it helps retain talent without driving away spectators.
- Elevate women's sports, because the numbers say people will watch.
But if the NCAA is seeking to keep its sports anchored to the past, Congress is the right place to find help.
It's where you'll find Senate Republicans, who, when presented with an infrastructure bill that could help wean the U.S. off fossil fuels, voted in favour of deepening the climate change crisis.
And it's where you'll find Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, who routinely votes against green initiatives, and who also makes a lot of money selling coal to power plants.
But beyond Congress, the endorsement marketplace for NCAA athletes remains robust. Of course, big names in big-time sports are cashing in. Brampton's John Metchie III, a standout wide receiver at the University of Alabama, appeared in a public health department vaccination campaign, and also endorsed a local Mediterranean restaurant.
Meanwhile, OpenEndorse, a college athlete sponsorship consultancy, has found that while more than half of all NIL money goes to football players, women's basketball players had the second-largest share of the market, pulling in 17.8 per cent of all sponsorship dollars. They even outranked men's basketball players, who controlled 15 per cent of the NIL market this school year.
Those numbers hint at women's basketball's untapped potential as an audience draw and commercial product, but they're also a reflection of talent. The NCAA is still the place for people like Paige Bueckers and Aliyah Boston to apprentice for pro careers, but elite men's players are finding salary-paying alternatives to college ball.
Darius Bazley spent his pre-draft year as New Balance's million-dollar intern.
Earlier this week Elijah Fisher, widely regarded as Canada's best prep player, explained to the Canadian Press that he's trying to decide between a college scholarship and playing in the NBA's G-League.
The NCAA can modernize and streamline regulations around player payment, or it can accept that potential stars like Fisher will skip college all together, which might be ideal for people who still believe major college sports aren't primarily businesses. If semipro leagues siphon off the super-elite talent, they'll also create more room for the athletes the NCAA sells to us in TV commercials — the people going pro in something other than sports.
As a fan of the Northwestern Wildcats, I can only fantasize about that scenario. A drain on top-end recruits would hurt Michigan and Ohio State more than it would my alma mater, which has made exactly one appearance in the NCAA men's tournament. A talent deficit at the top would draw us closer to the middle of the pack, which, to a Northwestern basketball fan, feels like a championship.
But I'm a bigger fan of seeing the most opportunities for the most people possible, and of seeing players compensated for the value they create. Outside the NCAA, that's where pre-NBA basketball is trending.
The facts are that marquee college sports events still draw an audience, even when the players get paid; that women's sports can become marquee with more exposure; and that non-college options abound for top-flight men's players.
If the NCAA wants to remain the top option for future hoops stars, it needs to give schools the leeway to attract them. Otherwise, the best men's players — and, maybe, eventually the women, too — will find ways to get paid while prepping for a pro career, and not even the U.S. Congress will be able to stop them.