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Paying players could mean fewer teams at CT colleges, sports economist says

March 28, 2015: Players dribble the ball on the NCAA logo at half court during the NCAA Division 1 Men's Basketball Championship Elite Eight round game between the Arizona Wildcats and the Wisconsin Badgers at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. (Photo by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Ric Tapia
Icon Sportswire
Sports Economist Andrew Zimbalist warns to expect schools paying their athletes to field fewer athletic teams.

The NCAA's proposed agreement to allow colleges and universities to directly pay players could mean profound changes for Connecticut's 22 college athletic programs.

As part of a lawsuit settlement, the NCAA and the five largest athletic conferences recently agreed to draw from a nearly $3 billion pot to pay past student athletes as far back as 2016 for their athletic contributions. They've also agreed to allow the schools to provide up to $21 million annually to athletes or up to 22% of the average power league school’s annual revenue.

“This is a very major event,” said Smith College Sports Economist Andrew Zimbalist. But he cautions that this agreement is still preliminary.

“There's still some questions about whether this gets implemented or not,” Zimbalist said. “The judge in the case, Judge Claudia Wilken in California in the 9th Circuit, has to approve it and it’ll probably take her several months to consider and decide.”

Impact for UConn Husky athletics

While the University of Connecticut is unquestionably the highest-level program in the state, Zimbalist said in one respect, the Huskies are in the same boat as all the other schools in the state for one reason: football.

Not one school in Connecticut has a football team that plays in one of the richest five conferences in America.

Those conferences, known as the “Power Five,” include the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Big Ten Conference, Big 12 Conference, Pac-12 Conference, and Southeastern Conference (SEC).

With all but two of the Pac-12 schools leaving the conference after the spring 2024 season, there is some question if the Power “Five” will become known as the Power “Four” in the near future. But as of now, remaining Pac-12 schools Oregon State and Washington State are considered by most to be Power Five schools.

“Football is the major revenue generator in college sports by a factor of four or five,” Zimbalist said. “It's not just a little bit more lucrative than basketball, it's a lot more lucrative.”

For example, Boston College Football, a member of the Power Five’s Atlantic Coast Conference, isset to bring in $37 million from its TV deal in 2024. Meanwhile, independent UConn football’s TV deal will only bring in just $500,000.”

Without Power Five football revenue, Husky Athletics ran a nearly $36 million deficit in 2023 and a $50 million deficit in $2022. That’s even with the men’s basketball team’s national title run in 2023, which brought in just under $2 million to the university from six tournament games.

Zimbalist said those, and any other payments the NCAA regularly makes to member schools, are going to decrease if the NCAA has to create that $3 billion pot to pay former players.

“I don't think there's any question that distributions from the NCAA will go down,” Zimbalist said. “I think what we'll see at Connecticut, and I think what we'll see throughout the NCAA Division I, is a significant cutback in the number of school sports that are sponsored by the athletic department. That will hit particularly the women's sports and the non-revenue men's sports over time.”

If schools need to pay athletes, what will happen to Title IX? 

The idea that women’s sports could suffer if the NCAA’s agreement to pay athletes gets final approval raises the specter of schools having difficulty complying with Title IX. That 1972 federal law prohibits sex-based discrimination in educational programs and activities that receive federal financial aid.

Zimbalist said that while the lawyers who negotiated the NCAA settlement made assurances that Title IX will not be impacted, he’s not so sure.

“They've also said that the formula for how the $2.8. billion over the next 10 years is going to be distributed amongst the athletes will include a part that says athletes can be paid according to their market value,” Zimbalist said. "If the settlement moves in that direction where there are no women's teams which are receiving pay anywhere near what the men are receiving, then it seems to be a violation of Title IX.”

Zimbalist said he expects either legislators to re-write Title IX if the NCAA payment plan goes through, or for adjustments to the law to come through the courts following a series of lawsuits.

Impact on other CT colleges and universities 

Besides UConn, other collegiate athletic programs in Connecticut also get payments from the NCAA. Division II programs like the University of New Haven get a share of the 4.37% of total NCAA revenues the organization allocates to all of Division II. For Division III schools like Wesleyan, the total allocation is a 3.2% slice.

Zimbalist said those schools seem likely to get less, too, if the NCAA plan to pay $3 billion to former players goes through.

“Where is the NCAA cutting back to generate this amount of money every year? They're cutting back primarily on the non-Power Five schools,” Zimablist said. "The way the NCAA political structure has existed since 1997 is, it gives overwhelming majority authority to the Power Five schools. And so the Power Five schools led the vote in the Board of Directors that approved the settlement. So they made a settlement that puts most of the burden on the non-Power-Five schools and non-Power-Five conferences.”

If the federal judge approves the agreement, schools not in the Power Five are going to suffer financially, Zimbalist said.

“This is going to be a financial catastrophe for athletic departments,” he said, “and also for university athletic departments and universities.”

John Henry Smith is Connecticut Public’s host of All Things Considered, its flagship afternoon news program. He's proud to be a part of the team that won a regional Emmy Award for The Vote: A Connecticut Conversation. In his 21st year as a professional broadcaster, he’s covered both news and sports.

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