College basketball fans are about to embark on a month-long orgy of tournament basketball, betting, brackets, trash talking, buzzer beaters, triumph and heartbreak.
I’ll be watching, pulling for my standbys (since Illinois is limping along these days) Wisconsin (our son Gus’ team) and Michigan State (we love Tom Izzo and Beth’s sister in Michigan is a big fan).
But March Madness has lost a lot of luster for me. Some of it is just endemic to modern life—overblown overexposure, familiarity breeds contempt.
Also, though, there is this: This notion of “college sports” is just harder and harder to swallow. It’s really a giant industry that enriches pretty much everyone associated with it except the athletes and – this is the kicker – the educational institutions.
Athletic departments are intentionally set up as essentially independent affiliates of universities. Athletic departments have their own budgets, staff gets company cars and other perks that are donated by local business, and corporate sponsorship money. Universities provide scholarships and in many cases, help fund sports facilities in one way or another. But revenue does not flow back to the institutions for educational purposes.
Colleges and universities do get publicity from their sports teams. Theoretically, that could translate into donations directly to the university, but the evidence just isn’t there. To be sure, universities receive licensing fees from the sale of goods that have their logos. But that’s about it. That TV money? It goes to the athletic departments.
College costs are increasing radically (largely because of administrative bloat, but that’s another subject for another time), while the NCAA and college sports is minting money.
Jay Rosenstein is a journalism professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an award-winning documentary filmmaker. He just penned what is in my view a completely reasonable proposition to reduce tuition costs at the U of I. The Big Ten is about to get a windfall from a new TV contract. Jay’s proposition in a nutshell: Keep athletic budgets exactly where they are, and divert the new TV money to reduce tuition. He says the TV money would be enough to reduce tuition by 25 percent.
Several outlets picked up Jay’s piece, and I hope you’ll give it a read. Another piece at the Washington Post titled 5 Myths about college sports is also worth the time.
In short, right now we have an industry that derives all of its branding and legitimacy from colleges and universities without contributing a whole to the true business of the institutions. That is indeed madness.