We enjoy making fun of ESPN sports business reporter Darren Rovell, and do so a lot around these parts, because he is a brandbot and a doofus. For the most part, he's harmless, doing nothing worse than publicly embarrassing himself in novel and hilarious ways.
In addition to being a purveyor of brand-related trivia and a rewriter of press releases, though, Rovell is the sports business reporter for the largest sports media organization on the planet. This makes it something of an actual problem when he makes insidious and flatly incorrect arguments to his nearly 600,000 Twitter followers, as he did over the weekend.
You may notice the lack of any moral consideration in Rovell's argument against paying NCAA athletes. For a lot of people, the strongest argument for paying players is that the current system generates millions of dollars in profit on sports while systematically blocking most forms of compensation.
But Darren Rovell is not most people. So let's look at his case against paying athletes on the terms that Rovell himself likes to use—pure capitalism. Rovell is declaring that it's a fallacy to believe that players have any individual value. They are essentially interchangeable parts, and schools would gain no benefit from paying them.
Yet Rovell, who is usually the first to want to put a price on anything, is arguing that players must not be allowed to test their value on a real labor market—that the prohibition against paying college athletes must be preserved. The free market is the best way to determine value; the free market would determine these players to be valueless; and players should therefore (?) be barred from accessing the free market that wouldn't pay them.
Rovell's argument is a spectacular example of modern capitalism in action, where those with the most economic power promote the advantages of a free market ... except when they don't. He is an ardent believer in the free market who has come to the paternalistic conclusion that a disadvantaged class shouldn't have access to that market. If Rovell were promoting certain regulations of the free market in order to protect the powerless from the powerful, that might be one thing, but he's not. He's promoting a regulation that only serves to limit the power of the already powerless, by obstructing the workings of the market.
The best part about Rovell's lecture on college athletics, though, isn't that ESPN's sports business reporter clearly has no idea how business or markets work, generally, but that he apparently has no idea how the business of sports works, in particular.
Rovell is right that most individual players' names don't carry any real value. Not too many people are rushing out to buy a Willie Cauley-Stein jersey. But how does Rovell think college athletics programs—namely men's football and basketball, as well as women's basketball to a lesser degree—earn money? They do so by selling merchandise, selling tickets, winning NCAA tournament and bowl games, and convincing donors to give them a bunch of money. How do athletics programs do all of these things? By winning. And how do they win? By convincing the best athletes to come play for their school!
This is where Willie Cauley-Stein's value to Kentucky comes in to play. In a free market, Kentucky and Louisville and Syracuse and Duke would all offer varying sums of money and benefits for Cauley-Stein to attend their school because he would improve their basketball team, and thus earn them more money. Or—to put it into terms more familiar to Rovell—Kentucky's brand is enhanced by winning, and Cauley-Stein helps them win.
This is how it works in professional sports as well. A few players, like Stephen Curry, generate enormous amounts of revenue for their team on their personal brand alone, but most NBA players don't. Few people own Andrew Bogut jerseys or buy tickets to watch him play, but he is the most important cog in the league's best defense on the league's best team, which enhances both the Golden State Warriors' brand and Curry's. (This is why he is paid $13 million.) This is just to say that the value of the team and the individual player—and the star player and the role player—are hopelessly intertwined. It's an obvious thing, understood by most semi-observant sports fans, and it's astonishing that ESPN's sports business reporter can't grasp it.
To everybody but the NCAA, its member institutions, and the corporations that profit from college athletics, it's clear that NCAA athletes are being screwed, and that NCAA policies need to undergo major reform. By providing an alternative viewpoint, Rovell appears to believe that he is standing athwart history yelling, "Stop!" But Rovell is literally wrong. In his violent unwillingness to allow even the most basic principles of the market to inflect his analysis, he's at absolute best equivalent to Joe Morgan, with his .392 career OBP, inveighing against the nerdy foolishness of sabermetrics, and at worst like a science reporter preaching against heliocentrism.
All of which prompts a question: Why does a $50 billion sports media enterprise continue to employ a sports business reporter who understands neither sports or business? As a giant capitalist enterprise, they're probably perfectly happy to have somebody who doesn't understand anything about capitalism in the job, seeing it as serving their interests. Perhaps it's just the market at work—who can say?