Millionaire Or Pauper: What Are College Athletes Worth?

There's a report out today that says college athletes are underpaid, and you should probably ignore it. Reading a study from the National College Players Association saying that college athletes should get more money is like reading a study from the NCAA saying student-athletes should never be paid and should thank Jesus every day for the honor of wearing the logo of a large State School for 3-to-4 years. When an advocacy group releases a bunch of charts and numbers and pronouncements and they all tend to back up the issues that they're advocating, take it with a Terrelle Pryor's Nissan 350Z full of salt.

Which doesn't mean the NCPA report, written by a former UCLA linebacker and a Drexel sports management professor, doesn't have some juicy talking points. (it warranted an 1100-word summary from the Associated Press). The average FBS football player should be worth $121,000 annually, the study says, and the average D1 basketball player $265,000. The highest paid college athletes in America ought to be the members of the Duke basketball team, with each being worth more than $1 million a year.

These numbers are flawed. The study simply takes Duke basketball's (or whichever program's) revenue, a number that is fraught with its own shortcomings and inconsistencies, and uses the NBA's (50 percent) or NFL's (45 percent) revenue sharing figures to come up with a pot. They divide that pot evenly among all the players on a team to come up with their figures. As if Seth Curry's fair market value is the same as Marshall Plumlee's.

The study keeps harping on "fair market value," and that's the problem with college sports, and one that this study doesn't address in the least. Athletes are paid what they're worth, but they're worth what someone is willing to pay them. Instead of fair market value, a top athlete, even in the NCAA, should be concerned with his free market value.

Here's what would happen in a just world: The top teams, with the backing of millionaire boosters, will come up with the funds to pay the top prep prospects millions right out of high school. Maybe they won't want to shell out that much, but they'll have to to outbid all the other programs. Dream teams will be built, with the best 18-to-22-year-olds in the world all playing for maybe 30 schools (in almost every domestic league around the world, the number of financially viable teams tops out around 30). All the other FBS schools will reduce their programs to non-revenue sports.

Those 30 or so teams will have to increase revenues, and with the level of play an order of magnitude better than the old NCAA, they will have leverage. They will raise ticket prices, require personal seat licenses, and start selling player merchandise. They will sign their own regional TV deals, and require a larger proportion of national TV deals. The NCAA will have to institute a salary cap to keep the arms race from bankrupting everyone.

In football, playoffs will be a must: top American sports all have playoffs. In basketball, the one-and-done will be replaced with prime time best-of-seven series, all the better to earn those hefty television contracts. The players will realize their value, and unionize. The schools may find that they are not covering their costs, and demand new stadiums from state taxpayers. Some universities, still operating in the red, will be forced to sell off their teams to independent businessmen. No one will bat an eye when players stop pretending to go to class.

If college athletics were fair, if we started paying athletes to play because we already pay to watch them play, then college sports would look an awful lot like the pros. That's still skewed against the players, and it might not be a better product for the fans, but it's a hell of a lot more fair to them then the deal they're getting now.