The culmination of the college basketball season, the Final Four, is this weekend. On the men’s side, the four semifinalists, culled from a field of 68 that began play on March 13th, take the floor in San Antonio, Texas, on Saturday. The winners clash for the championship Monday night. On the women’s side, their semifinals will be Friday night in Columbus, Ohio, and the championship game is Sunday. Viewers by the millions will crowd around TV sets in living rooms and sports bars around the country to see the action. Enormous amounts of money will change hands as the result of wagers. The championship teams will be celebrated by fans everywhere, especially in their home cities and states. A handful of the players competing this weekend will not return to their classrooms next week, win or lose; the most talented among them will be quitting school to prepare for the upcoming professional draft, giving up what collegiate eligibility they might have left for an early shot at instant wealth.
This might also be the first Final Four I will not have watched in a very long time.
The game in days of yore.
There was a time when the college basketball championship wasn’t the media behemoth it is today. Believe it or not, there was even a time when the title game was not shown on national television. The very first Final Four was held in 1939, but the title game didn’t make it to anything resembling a live national telecast until 1963, when a company called Hughes Television Network televised the game between Loyola of Chicago and defending champ Cincinnati to a cobbled-together network of stations. The year before, ABC had shown Cincinnati’s defeat of Ohio State the day after the game was actually played. The ’63 game opened some eyes in network offices to the drawing power of college hoops, as the telecast bested two ratings powerhouses, Gunsmoke and Have Gun, Will Travel.
TV in those days was ruled by the three major over-the-air networks: CBS, NBC and ABC. Independent companies like Hughes would try to challenge the big boys with sports like basketball, but until the advent of Fox in the early 1990s, nobody came along who had deep enough pockets to put together a real network to provide across-the-board programming. So watching college sports in those days meant relying on your local station to pick up a syndicated package from outfits like Hughes or TVS. The major networks might carry one, perhaps two college football games on Saturdays, and then the bowl games, but there was nothing close to the saturation-level coverage of both sports that we have today.
Even with the ratings success of the ’63 game, none of the big networks decided to put any money into televising the NCAA tournament until 1969, when NBC bought the rights and aired a handful of games, including the Final Four, which was won by UCLA. Back then the tournament had less than half the number of teams it has today. CBS had been carrying the National Invitation Tournament title game for several years; the annual invitation-only, 8-team tournament held at Madison Square Garden in New York often had as much or even more prestige than the official national championship, primarily because it was always held in the Big Apple, the hub of the nation’s media, and not in backwater towns like Louisville or Kansas City.
But UCLA’s run of championships–an astounding 10 in 12 seasons from 1964-75, a record that will surely never be approached, much less topped–caught the attention of the nation, and thus the head honchos of the major networks. The NCAA and its member schools also realized that there was money to be made. Still, it took a while. UCLA’s run into the ’70s threatened to derail the TV momentum, just as the New York Yankees’ dominance in the 1950s threatened to do for Major League Baseball. Ratings went up when North Carolina State ended the Bruins’ reign in the 1974 Final Four semifinals. The next few years brought some pretty good teams to the national forefront: Bobby Knight’s undefeated Indiana Hoosiers in ’76, Marquette and its charismatic coach, Al McGuire, winning it all in ’77. The tournament really took off in 1979, when the title game between Indiana State and Michigan State, featuring the college game’s two biggest stars in Larry Bird and Earvin “Magic” Johnson, became a ratings bonanza for NBC.
Three years after that epic, CBS and ESPN acquired the rights to televise the tournament, which had expanded to 64 teams. Since then, the event has seen nothing but growth, especially in the amount of money it generates. Ticket sales for the 67 games bring in a ton of revenue, but the real money comes from TV rights. In 2010, CBS and the Turner stations signed a 14-year deal with the NCAA to tie up the rights to the tournament for $10.8 billion. Six years later, the deal was extended through 2032, and the average annual payout by the networks to the colleges is now over a billion dollars. That means the NCAA is earning almost $15 million a game for the tournament, just from television. Revenue from ticket sales, souvenirs and marketing is just so much gravy. And this windfall doesn’t even count the revenue the colleges get from TV for the zillions of regular-season and conference tournament games. The Big 10 Conference, in which my beloved Wisconsin Badgers play, struck a TV deal with ABC/ESPN and Fox last summer to cover football and basketball rights. Each of its 14 member schools will make about $50 million a year from that deal. In UW’s case, that single deal is enough to pay for more than 1/3 of the athletic department’s budget. In 2014, ESPN studied the college revenue stream and found that Wisconsin was second in the nation in total athletic department revenue, only a hair behind Texas. What was especially surprising about that report was the fact that Badger backers contribute about 40 percent of the department’s revenue in donations and contributions, over and above buying tickets and merchandise. It’s a sign, I think, that Badger fans in Wisconsin and around the country really appreciate what Athletic Director Barry Alvarez and his staff and coaches have done with our flagship university’s teams. No matter where it comes from, though, the money the colleges bring in from sports is huge.
And how much of this cash do the players get? Zero.
Big-time college sports makes money…except for the players.
There’s no doubt about it, athletic events generate a lot of money, when you’re talking major colleges and professional teams. The difference is that in the pros, a lot of the money goes to the players. In the National Basketball Association, where many of the college players who competed in this year’s tournament hope to end up, the average revenue of the league’s 30 teams is $245 million per year. Of that, about $112 million goes to its players. The average annual salary for an NBA player is $6.2 million per season, more than players in any other pro team sport receive.
On the professional level, basketball is a business and everybody understands that: owners, players, fans, everyone. Players come and go on every roster, every season. It’s rare that a player will spend his entire career with one team. Magic Johnson played 12 seasons for the Los Angeles Lakers after leaving Michigan State following his sophomore year. He retired in 1991 and came back for a half-season in ’96. Larry Bird, who stayed for all four of his eligible seasons at Indiana State, played 13 years for the Boston Celtics. The superstars who followed them were more mobile. Michael Jordan, who broke into the league in 1984 after three years at North Carolina, played nine seasons for the Chicago Bulls, retired to play pro baseball for a year, then came back for the final quarter of the season in ’95 and played another three full seasons. He retired again, only to come back for two years with the Washington Wizards, in which he had an ownership stake, beginning in 2001. LeBron James joined the Cleveland Cavaliers right out of high school in 2003, played seven seasons there and then signed with the Miami Heat for four before coming back to Cleveland in 2014. James can opt out of his contract with the Cavs after this season and there’s talk he might head elsewhere to finish out his career. Shaquille O’Neal came out of Louisiana State after two years in 1993 and played for six teams over 19 seasons.
Nobody really holds it against the players for making the most money they can, wherever they can, although some fans throw fits when a superstar leaves their city for a new team willing to pay him more. When James left Cleveland for Miami in 2010, he was ripped by Cavs fans for abandoning his home-state team for more money. But when he came back four years later, they welcomed him with open arms. For his part, James delivered, bringing the team its first championship in 2016. Fans of my home-state team, the Milwaukee Bucks, had gone through the he’s-jilted-us phase before James was even born. I remember watching that 1969 NCAA championship game, largely because it featured the college game’s greatest player of that era, 7-2 center Lew Alcindor of UCLA. He entered the NBA that fall with the Bucks, leading them to the title in 1971. Shortly after that he changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and in 1975, disgruntled with the team and the city, he forced a trade to the Lakers, for whom he played another 14 years. But today, Bucks fans don’t hold it against him. Whenever he comes back to Milwaukee, his arrival is always celebrated and fans turn out in droves wherever he goes.
Wisconsin fans have passionately followed their top college teams, too. This season, the Badgers didn’t do so well, finishing under .500 and missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998. The state’s other big-time team, Marquette University, had a better season but still missed out on the big tournament. They played in the NIT, which nowadays is owned by the NCAA and operated as a 32-team consolation tournament, losing in the quarter-finals.
The Bucks, after years of mediocrity, have made some shrewd personnel moves in recent years and are now one of the NBA’s up-and-coming teams. The city of Milwaukee is building a brand-new arena for them, opening next fall. (Marquette will play there, too.) The Bucks’ young superstar, Greek native Giannis Antenekounmpo, is making over $20 million this season and Bucks fans will tell you he’s worth every penny. The team’s attendance is up and there’s real anticipation for the new arena, which will be one of the best in the world.
This weekend, though, the college game will dominate the basketball world, and deservedly so. Two of the game’s blue-blood programs, Villanova and Kansas, will meet in one semi-final Saturday night. The other game will feature Michigan of the Big 10 and this year’s Cinderella team, Loyola University of Chicago. Loyola won that first-televised title game back in 1963 and hadn’t been even close to returning to the Final Four until this season, and surely they’ll be the fan favorites. I haven’t watched any of the games, since my Badgers weren’t playing, but I might tune in to see if the Ramblers can keep their glass slipper from falling off.
But no matter who hoists the trophy Monday night, none of those players will get a dime from the NCAA’s millions for their efforts. Is this fair? That depends on who you’re asking.
What is college sports supposed to be about, anyway?
This is nothing new. Top athletes in the team sports have been dropping out of college to go pro for a long time. Football star Red Grange quit the University of Illinois after the final game of his senior season in 1925, signing a $100,000 contract to play for the Chicago Bears. Two years earlier, Lou Gehrig left Columbia after his sophomore season to play baseball for the New York Yankees. The great majority of Grange’s and Gehrig’s contemporaries never played professionally, but the same is true today. Of the several hundred players whose teams competed in this season’s NCAA Tournament, only a handful will ever see the floor in an NBA game, unless they buy a ticket to watch.
Sportswriters have been debating this issue for years. This week, a writer for USA Today chimed in with his viewpoint: The flawed amateur model.
Wolken makes some good points. College coaches are certainly doing well, in many cases making more money than the administrators who hire them. Theirs is a volatile profession, where the pressure to win is enormous and tenures tend to be short. An unknown coach who leads his team to the Final Four will almost always be lured to a bigger school by bigger money very quickly; Loyola coach Porter Moser will undoubtedly be the subject of recruiting efforts in the off-season, regardless of how his team finishes. Only a very few college coaches ever make it through their careers unscathed by forced job changes or scandal. John Wooden of UCLA comes to mind, along with Dean Smith of North Carolina. Bobby Knight was one of the game’s greatest coaches, but he was forced out at Indiana when his temper tantrums got to be too much for the new, heightened levels of sensitivity prevalent on modern campuses. Mike Krzyzewski has largely avoided trouble during his long tenure at Duke, and so did Bo Ryan at Wisconsin, but it was only a year or so back that another highly-respected veteran coach, Rick Pitino of Louisville, was forced to resign.
Personally, I’d like the NBA to adopt the Major League Baseball model when it comes to basketball. For over half a century now, MLB has required that incoming players who elect to enter college out of high school are thus ineligible for its draft until three years later. There are lots of high school kids who wait to see where they end up in the June amateur draft before making their decision, since all the top players will have college scholarship offers on the table. If the player feels his draft position isn’t high enough, he will usually head off to a campus somewhere. The Milwaukee Brewers’ top choice from last year’s draft was a second baseman out of the University of California-Irvine. About half of the first-round picks in the draft are college players. Major college baseball teams play about 50-60 games per season, and the better players then play summer semi-pro ball in leagues like the Northwoods League, which has several teams up here in Wisconsin, giving them another 60-80 games there. So a kid who elects to play college ball will have plenty of seasoning by the time he goes pro in three years, although he won’t have any money in his pocket to show for it. He will, however, have three years in toward his college degree, and that’s certainly worth something, isn’t it?
When LeBron James turned pro, the NBA allowed high school players to enter its draft, provided their class had graduated (even if the player had not). But guys like James were the exception, not the rule, and the number of instant pros who failed to make the leap to the big time was high, so the league modified the rule to require a player to be at least one year out of high school. Thus we got the “one-and-done” era, and some colleges, like Duke and Kentucky, have gone all-in with that model, frequently recruiting players who have no intention of staying in school beyond the final game of their freshman season. Every year these schools turn over about half their roster, but the recruits keep coming because they realize going to those schools is the fast track to get to the NBA. One of Wisconsin’s top high school players, Tyler Herro of Hales Corners, spurned a scholarship offer from the Badgers to sign with Kentucky, where he’ll be a freshman next fall. Will Herro be good enough to jump to the NBA in 2019? Only time will tell, but you can bet he’s thinking along those lines. A player from my own kids’ high school, Rice Lake, went pro in 2016 after spending one season at Marquette. So far, Henry Ellenson has seen plenty of bench time with the Detroit Pistons, but his wallet is certainly heavier now than it would’ve been had he stayed in school.
Although I enjoy watching the Badgers play, for the most part I prefer college sports at the Division III level. No scholarships are given out for players at those schools. Most of the players who compete at that level don’t have the talent to attract the attention of the upper-level Division I schools, but they’re still pretty darn good, and watching a DIII game at my alma mater, UW-Platteville, can be just as entertaining as watching the Badgers, and certainly a lot cheaper. UWP has outstanding facilities and in recent years the Pioneers have been solid contenders for their conference’s football title. This season, the men’s basketball team, which finished last in 2016-17, turned it around and won the conference championship, qualifying for the DIII playoffs for the first time in nine years. I was able to attend their second-round win over St. Olaf down in Platteville, and it was a great experience.
The Pioneers lost in the next round, giving up a basket to Nebraska Wesleyan with just three seconds to play to lose by one. Wesleyan went on to win the national championship, beating a team from Platteville’s conference, UW-Oshkosh, in the title game. Only a few thousand fans will be in attendance at any given DIII game, frequently fewer than that, and only the national championship game is televised, but these young men–and women–play hard and with a level of enthusiasm that you sometimes can’t find on the DI level. It’s the rare DIII player indeed who makes it to the NBA. These kids truly play for the love of the game. And really, isn’t that what college sports is supposed to be about?
We will never be able to turn the clock back to the days when Division I college ball was like DIII still is, if it ever was in the first place. There’s too much money involved, and the quasi-professional aspect of big time college sports is too ingrained in our culture. And to be fair, the great majority of the athletes at these schools really are playing for their love of the game, because they know their chances of making the pros are slim. But still, a high school kid who has good size and a deadly jump shot will know he has a much better shot at the NBA if he plays for the Wisconsin Badgers instead of the Nebraska Wesleyan Prairie Wolves, so guess where he’ll go if given the chance? And can we blame him? Not in the slightest.
But there’s got to be a way to make the system more fair to all concerned than it is. If the NBA adopted the MLB model, it would undoubtedly produce better-rounded players in the long run. The rigors of baseball, which requires a degree of athleticism, mental discipline and maturity not always seen in basketball or football, make it almost mandatory that even the best prospects spend four or five years in college and/or the minors for seasoning before they can establish themselves in the big leagues. There’s no question that a young man of 23 or 24, with five or six seasons of increasingly tougher competition under his belt, is better prepared for that challenge than the kid of 18 or 19 who is only a year or two out of high school. The same would surely hold true for basketball.
Some sportswriters who cover major college basketball are now voicing opinions against the NBA adopting the baseball model. They say it’s unfair to the athletes, unfair to college fans, etc. What they’re really upset about, I think, is the possibility that most of the top high school talent would choose to go pro right away, even if it meant a couple years in the minors or in the European leagues, and these writers would find themselves covering glorified DIII games. No self-respecting sportswriter would eagerly trade a beat covering Duke or Kentucky to cover the same kids playing minor-league pro ball in Oshkosh or Grand Rapids. But anybody who follows college baseball knows that isn’t true in their sport, and it wouldn’t be true in basketball. Over the past twenty years a few big-time college teams, like Wisconsin and Michigan, have disdained the one-and-done approach and have managed to compete strongly for national championships. These writers might be surprised to discover that a lot of very good athletes will choose college anyway, even if it means committing to at least three years, and they’ll develop into even better players. And of course they’ll have the value of getting at least most of a college education, free of charge.