November 28, 2023

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The Sports Fanatics

NCAA’s empty NIL threats being proven wrong in early days

Last Saturday, some 90,887 fans packed Ben Hill Griffin Stadium to watch the Florida Gators play the Alabama Crimson Tide. It was the fifth-largest home crowd in UF history.

Across the country, 7.9 million tuned into the CBS broadcast, which is 10% higher than the 2019 average of 7.1 million for the network, which itself was the highest in nearly three decades.

That’s one game, of course, but just hours later 109,958 people saw Penn State defeat Auburn in person while 7.6 million watched on ABC. A week prior, Oregon-Ohio State put up 100,482 and 7.73 million, respectively. The week before that Clemson-Georgia delivered 8.8 million television viewers and Notre Dame-Florida State got 7.6 million.

This must have all come as a shock to decades of NCAA lawyers, fear-mongering conference commissioners and parrot-the-company-line-to-protect-the-bottom-one athletic directors who swore — literally in Supreme Court filings even — that college sports fans would no longer be college sports fans if the athletes were allowed to profit off their name, image and likeness.

Except the players now can. And the fans are still here.

It’s almost like the establishment made up a sky-will-fall panic.

We are just three weeks into the first football season where players are allowed to sign endorsement deals, so the sample size remains brief. However, the decades of claims that fan interest would evaporate if the unique “college model” went away hasn’t come close to materializing.

NCAA president Mark Emmert speaks during a news conference at U.S. Bank Stadium during the NCAA men's Final Four. (Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports)

NCAA president Mark Emmert speaks during a news conference at U.S. Bank Stadium during the NCAA men’s Final Four. (Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports)

The NCAA, in the groundbreaking O’Bannon v. NCAA case, opposed the granting of NIL rights because it was “necessary to preserve the amateur tradition and identity of college sports.” Its chief legal counsel, Donald Remy, declared it a “scheme” that “threatens college sports as we know it.”

NCAA president Mark Emmert testified during the trial that NIL would “be tantamount to converting [college sports] into minor league sports and we know that in the U.S. minor league sports aren’t very successful either for fan support or for the fan experience.”

In the separate NCAA v. Alston case, attorney Seth Waxman argued to the Supreme Court that “the cost of labor” was a “differentiating feature” for college sports. Without it, he said, interest would decrease.

Waxman even cited an NCAA-funded study that “tested people’s reaction to giving [athletes] … a $10,000 academic award [which concluded that] something like 10% of the respondents said they would be less interested and would watch less if that’s the case.”

Please. No one possibly could have believed such a ridiculous survey. It was as absurd as when then-Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, while discussing O’Bannon v. NCAA, claimed his league might go non-scholarship Division III if forced into any kind of “pay-for-play” system.

“The Division III model … would, in my view, be more consistent with the Big Ten’s philosophy,” Delany stated.

Not long after that, Delany collected a $20 million bonus for negotiating a television contract.

Everything was grandstanding and wolf-crying. There were no 10% of fans who were so opposed to an “academic award” that they stopped watching. And no, Ohio State, Michigan and the others are not going D-III.

In the event that college sports has actually lost a fan, it’s probably gained a few back who were ethically opposed to the old system.

ABC said its daylong Week 3 programming was the most watched for that week since 2016. Across all networks, it took 11 weeks during the 2019 season to produce three broadcasts with at least 7.5 million viewers. This season has already delivered five such games, plus six more with audiences of 4-plus million.

Essentially, this should serve as a reminder to stop believing the reactionary, obstructionist talk that College Sports Inc. leaders love to recite.

This is a group who opposed small monthly stipends to athletes because it would upset competitive balance (it didn’t). The same group who claimed even a four-team playoff would cause dozens of bowl games to immediately shutter (more were added). The same group who warned that NIL would tilt the recruiting to a select few major football and men’s basketball programs.

Early samples don’t indicate any such thing. Inflcr, an Alabama-based company helping schools and athletes navigate the space, found the average deal was under $923 and 53% went to athletes outside of football or basketball anyway.

CINCINNATI, OH - FEBRUARY 13: Memphis Tigers head coach Penny Hardaway (right) talks to his players during the game against the Memphis Tigers and the Cincinnati Bearcats on February 13th, 2020 at Fifth Third Arena in Cincinnati, OH. (Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Memphis coach Penny Hardaway said NIL incentives helped him land the top recruiting class in the nation. (Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

And there are already signs that NIL will help disperse talent because there is a financial benefit to being the big fish in a smaller pond. Memphis men’s basketball is a nice program but plays in the American Athletic Conference and has never won a national title.

It beat out Duke, North Carolina and Kentucky to sign 2021’s top recruiting class in part, coach Penny Hardway said, because of the available NIL money in a Tiger-obsessed city. It also kept the NBA’s G League from poaching recruits.

“You can come to college now and get deals for yourself and learn and develop at the same time,” Hardaway said.

That’s good and true for all sports. Four members of the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team, including gold medalist Suni Lee (Auburn), will give college gymnastics a huge boost of star power because they can now compete and make some well-earned endorsement money.

“It is something I wish I had been able to do,” said Jordyn Wieber, the 2012 Olympic gold medalist who is now the head coach at the University of Arkansas. The old system forced Wieber to serve as an over-qualified student manager at UCLA, rather than compete. That benefitted no one.

None of this was difficult to envision. Activists and journalists predicted it for decades. Lawyers argued it for years.

College administrators dug in anyway, as they tend to do. They spent millions on lawyers and kept increasing the alarmist warnings. Eventually it all collapsed like a house of cards of course.

Keep this in mind the next time the NCAA is vehemently opposed to something.