May 25, 2024

College sports are changing, not ending, and there are plenty of signs that things are as healthy as ever


The transfer portal for NCAA Division I men’s basketball players closed as Wednesday morphed into Thursday, but don’t worry, griping season will continue long into the summer.

For instance, one college head coach told John Fanta of Fox Sports: “Poll the veteran coaches. You should have a poll out there. How many coaches are going to withstand it? How many veteran coaches are going to stick around for this?”

Great question.

John Calipari just took a new job at age 65. Michigan State’s Tom Izzo is 69. Miami’s Jim Larranaga is 74. Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton is 75. Apparently the answer to the anonymous coach’s question is: all of them.

And then there was Jeff Goodman of the terrific Field of 68 podcast network using his favorite eight-letter obscenity to describe transfer portal activity. It rhymes with “hit show.” But Goodman is anything but a fan of how the portal has impacted college hoops: “It has been an absolute disaster, with agents being involved, with kids again … with coaches having to make these decisions so quickly. I just think it’s going to be a mess next year. I think the quality of the game is going to suffer.”

Interesting point.

Despite similar transfer activity a year ago, the recently completed 2023-24 season set a record for efficiency according to the stats at KenPom.com. There had been only one season since statistician Ken Pomeroy began compiling his data – first season was 1996-97 – in which the composite number for Division I was above 104 points per 100 possessions. But this year it was 105.2. Turnovers were at a 28-year low. Scoring reached the third-highest figure in that period.

Many of the coaches complaining about all of this make certain to keep their names out of it, lest they be labeled as something other than a friend of the athlete. There is no doubt their jobs are more difficult than they’ve ever been. It’s one thing to be almost constantly recruiting the next class of athletic prospects from high schools and junior colleges. It’s another to be constantly re-recruiting the players on one’s own roster.

Money in college sports is not slowing down

Here’s the thing about all of that hard work, though: It’s never been more lucrative. College athletics reached another level of fiscal frivolity when the University of Georgia judged football coach Kirby Smart to be worthy of a $13 million annual salary. Because, you know, $11 million obviously wasn’t enough to be dealing with all these portal headaches!

In such an environment, the environment such avarice created, of course athletes are going to be searching for as many digits as possible in “NIL” money. Coaches who change jobs almost always do so to earn greater paychecks; they can claim there is a price to be paid for this, that there contracts inevitably have buyout clauses included. What they won’t so often admit is those buyouts rarely come from their own accounts.

Those chronicling the route to this circumstance most often will point to the Supreme Court decision in the Alston case, or the resounding victory by the O’Bannon class in its case against the NCAA, or the move by the State of California to make legal “name/image/likeness” payments to college athletes, as the most important mileposts.

Mack Brown

It might all have begun, though, when the University of Texas determined in 2009 that their football coach merited a 67 percent raise over an already extraordinary salary. When Mack Brown was launched from around $3 million a year to more than $5 million, it was obvious the Earth had moved.

The disparity between the athlete receiving only a scholarship and the coach for whom $58,000 a week just wasn’t enough became too obscene to ignore.

Anyone complaining about a player getting a seven-figure salary for a single year at a time when Jimbo Fisher is collecting $75 million not to coach – and, there’s no doubt that is out there – merely is trying to hang onto a simpler time. And less fair.

Those calling for a quick “solution” to these circumstances are being unrealistic. Even if everyone involved decided today athletes will immediately become employees, the machinations regarding the establishment of players associations will take multiple years. And don’t fool yourself into believing there’ll be a single union for all sports. There’s no way men’s basketball interests will believe the football folks have their best interests in mind. And there’s less chance the Olympic sports will trust the revenue sports not to ignore their requirements and requests.

And once those unions have been established, collective bargaining agreements would need to be negotiated.

Major-college athletics spent decades constructing this circumstance. There is no quick escape available. As it continues, those toiling as coaches or as spectators can cease to work or watch. Retirements have been rare, though, mostly involving extravagantly wealthy coaches beyond their 70th birthdays. And the fans? The 2024 College Football Playoff final attracted an audience of 25 million, the best audience for the game since 2020. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament drew an average of nearly 10 million per game. The NCAA women’s championship game reached a seemingly impossible standard with an audience of 18.7 million viewers.

No one’s complaining about those numbers.

The future of college sports will be different, and there was a lot of fun in the past, but maybe the present situation isn’t the calamity so many describe.



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