The NCAA is facing an existential crisis, just not the one Mark Emmert thinks they’re facing
On Wednesday, Mark Emmert made the rounds on twitter with some on-the-record comments that were reported by CBS Sports.
He asked California lawmakers, who are working to make amateurism illegal in their start, to “tone down some of the rhetoric” and added that he doesn’t believe every athlete will be getting rich in college, that only “one or two will be making some significant amount of money. Nobody else will.”
These are precisely the things that the sitting president of an organization that exists almost entirely to prevent athletes from getting paid is going to say.
He job is to defend NCAA rules. His purpose in life is to be the whipping boy that hammers home talking points that are logically indefensible. What else is he supposed to say? “My salary and the salary of all the other administrators at my level would take a major hit if we actually paid the talent” probably wouldn’t play well.
What did you expect?
But the more that I’ve thought about this, there actually is an interesting point that Emmert makes, although I’m guessing it’s not the point that he meant to make.
Emmert called the debate over name, image and likeness rights “an existential threat” to the collegiate model and the “single biggest issue” that the NCAA has faced during his decade-long tenure as NCAA president.
And I actually believe this is true.*
*(Jerry Sandusky and Larry Nassar are bigger than college sports. Don’t conflate something as serious as serial sexual predators with things like basketball and football. Just don’t.)
Just not the way that Emmert meant it.
From September 2016 through August of 2017, the NCAA reported $1.06 billion in revenue. That year, they made $761 million off of the television rights for the NCAA tournament. In other words, roughly 75% of the NCAA’s annual revenue comes from the deal they signed with CBS and Turner to broadcast the NCAA tournament, and that number is only going to go up as the price of the rights fees goes up; in 2016, the NCAA signed an eight-year, $8.8 billion extension that runs through 2032 to a 14-year, $10.8 billion deal that ends in 2024.
Put another way, college basketball and the NCAA tournament keeps the NCAA afloat, and this isn’t exactly a secret. You think that the kids actually playing for these schools are blind to the fact that their coaches are making more than NBA coaches or that their ADs are flying private for vacation while their parents have to fly coach out of pocket to watch them play?
The movement for athlete rights has never been stronger, and the thing about basketball is that college is far from the only option that these kids have. They can go overseas and play. They can go to the G League and play. They can sit out a year and then enter the draft. They can do a year in prep school and then enter the draft. By 2022, the best young players in the country - the Zion Williamsons of the world - are going to be going straight to the NBA.
Hell, there are people on American soil right now that are trying to build an alternative option to the NCAA. We’ve written about the HBL, the Historic Basketball League, before. That league will have team in eight cities in the mid-atlantic region that will be set up to allow kids to receive a scholarship, earn a salary and access their NIL rights. They won’t have to deal with amateurism rules or worry about whether or not accepting a gift will jeopardize their eligibility. That league is set to launch in June of 2020, and with the names involved there - David West, Mitch Richmond, T.J. Warren, Terrell Owens, Darren Collison, Champ Bailey, Etan Thomas, Mahmoud Abdul Rauf - it’s not hard to imagine the concept gaining traction.
As it stands, we’re looking at about five kids every year that opt out of playing in the NCAA, and at this very moment, it’s not a huge issue. R.J. Hampton going to Australia is going to break the NCAA. Losing out on the chance to market a talent - and a viral celebrity - like LaMelo Ball isn’t ideal, but that ship sailed years ago. Arizona missing out on Terry Armstrong is barely a blip on the radar. K.J. Martin turning pro is more or less irrelevant.
Point being, there is enough talent coming through the college ranks to keep the level of play high, fans and alums interested in November and bettors losing money in March.
But what happens when, instead of just five kids a year, that number jumps to 50? Or 100?
What happens when the 15-20 best players - all the guys that are one-and-dones - in every recruiting class are going straight to the NBA instead of playing in college? And what happens if another 30-40 (or more?) of those guys are going to play in the HBL, or heading to Australia, or just opting to sign with an agent, get a cash advance and workout on their own until they have a chance to get drafted?
We’re already dealing with an extremely problematic talent drain in the sport. If you are a top 100 draft prospect, you are turning pro. There were 87 players with eligibility remaining that turned pro after the 2018-19 season. There are 60 draft spots.
My four-year old son can do that math.
At least the NCAA had a chance to get those guys on campus for a few years.
What happens when those players stop going the NCAA route? What happens if it becomes clear that playing in the NBL’s Next Stars program becomes the best route to get drafted for future first round picks? What happens if the HBL takes off the same way that the Big 3 or The Basketball Tournament has taken off?
March Madness is the NCAA’s cash cow.
What happens when that cow’s milk is no longer as valuable as it was before?
That’s what the NCAA needs to be concerned about.
That is the existential crisis that the NCAA is facing.
And it doesn’t seem like Mark Emmert realizes it.