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Are college sports doomed?

On Monday, the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the NCAA cannot limit educational benefits doled out to college sports stars. While many see this as a victory for student-athletes who deserve to get rewarded for their effort and talents, I view this as potentially the first step toward the destruction of college athletics as we know it.

The reason for my pessimism is simply based in economics. Generally speaking, football and men’s basketball are the two biggest revenue generating sports in the NCAA. By the very existence of these marquee money-making sports, it allows universities across the country to pay the operating costs of the smaller revenue generating sports.

To illustrate this point, Ross Dellenger, a college football writer for Sports Illustrated, broke down the profit disparity of different college sports programs for Louisiana State University. According to his tweet in 2020, the LSU football team made a $56.097 million profit during the 2016-17 cycle. Men’s basketball was a distant runner-up, turning a $1.619 million profit during that span. Meanwhile, the LSU baseball team was the only other school program to profit that year to the tune of $569,148.

Incredibly, no other sports program from this notable NCAA powerhouse school made a profit that year. Men’s and women’s activities such as swimming, tennis, golf and track and field contributed to a $23 million deficit for the LSU athletic department in 2016-2017. While these numbers are from only one school in one isolated season, I believe this massive revenue disparity is typical of what we could expect to see at any major college that competes in the NCAA.

Armed with this information, student-athletes in non-revenue generating sports would have to depend on subsidies from the revenue generating teams for additional benefits such as study-abroad programs and graduate scholarships. Being that these student-athletes are already being subsidized by the bigger money teams, I do not think it is realistic to expect even more hand-outs to the athletes participating in smaller programs.

The legendary economist Milton Friedman once said “nobody spends somebody else’s money as carefully as he spends his own.” With that in mind, I can easily foresee a situation in which smaller revenue programs begin to rack up a bill that the larger revenue programs do not feel like paying. If that were to happen, teams like LSU football may want to secede from the NCAA altogether and operate as a professional minor league with no school affiliation as a way to alleviate the cost of doing business.

Further, if marquee universities such as Alabama, UCLA, Texas and Michigan were to lose their football and men’s basketball programs in a mass exodus to a minor league system, massive budget cuts to the smaller university sports programs would become a near certainty. In other words, golf, track, tennis, gymnastics, softball and volleyball teams across the country would be cut from colleges because those sports cannot sustain their own operating costs. As a result, high level scholarship athletes from these sports would be left out in the cold.

In conclusion, it sounds like a wonderful idea on the surface to compensate student-athletes. After all, they give their blood, sweat and tears to entertain us with athletic excellence. However, with mostly every NCAA sport operating at a loss except for football and men’s basketball, I do not see how this new plan can be sustainable on a large scale for an extended period of time. In my opinion, it is only a matter of time before the big revenue generating sports programs will seek greener pastures and form their own league so as to not participate in the NCAA’s doomed business model.

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