When top-ranked Clemson takes on Alabama in the hotly contested Sugar Bowl this New Year's Day, Tigers coach Dabo Swinney will pocket a $150,000 bonus. His counterpart at Georgia, Kirby Smart, will earn a $425,000 bonus for appearing in the other College Football Playoffs semifinal, the Rose Bowl. And if Swinney or Smart leads their team to a national championship, they stand to collect an additional $450,000 and $1.45 million, respectively — all in addition to their respective $6.75 million and $3.75 million annual average base salaries.
But sure, schools can’t afford to pay their players.
For decades, the people who run big-time college football — coaches, athletic directors, conference commissioners — have argued that they simply can’t afford to freely and fairly compensate the athletes whose on-field labor makes a multibillion-dollar enterprise possible. That is, not without taking drastic, distasteful steps to cover the additional costs, like jettisoning non-revenue sports such as women’s lacrosse, or increasing tuition for other students.
Four years ago, the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s top lawyer, Donald Remy, even issued a statement claiming that an antitrust lawsuit brought against the NCAA by current and former football and basketball players that sought a bigger piece of the money pie via name, image and likeness rights “threatened college sports as we know it.”
Thing is, the sheer amount of wealth generated by the College Football Playoff alone — roughly $600 million per year — proves otherwise. How so? Let’s go back in time. All the way back to the 2013-14 season, the last one in which the national championship wasn’t decided by a four-team playoff, but rather by a single title game played under the aegis of the much-loathed Bowl Championship Series.
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Back then, the sport’s financial picture looked, well, awfully rosy. From ticket and merchandise sales to athletic department “donations” to multimillion-dollar television contracts, major college football brought in about $3.4 billion in revenues, according to Andy Schwarz, an economist who consulted for the plaintiffs in former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon’s antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA.
Then came the new Playoff structure — and with it, a fiscal windfall to make Rich Uncle Pennybags from “Monopoly” green with envy. By adding two whole games to college football’s existing postseason slate — just two! — the major football schools and conferences landed a television contract from ESPN worth a reported $7.3 billion over 12 years.
By adding two games to college football’s existing postseason slate, the major schools and conferences landed a television contract worth a reported $7.3 billion.
Let’s do some basic math. There are 130 schools in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, the highest level of college football and the one that divvies up almost all of the Playoff money. Each FBS school has 85 players on scholarship, which means approximately 11,050 athletes. Divide the annual $600 million Playoff jackpot by 11,050, and you end up with approximately $54,000 — an amount that could have been paid to every player, each and every year, all without touching most of the revenue that already was flowing through the sport.
Of course, that’s not how schools decided to use the money. To the contrary, they did what they always do: jammed it into their already-overstuffed pockets, the better to devote every last dime to whatever tickles their fancies, usually shinier facilities and higher compensation for upper management. Over the last two decades, major college sports revenues have steadily climbed — and not coincidentally, expenditures have magically risen to meet them.
Two years ago, the Washington Post reviewed financial records from athletic departments at 48 schools in the five wealthiest conferences in college sports and determined that over a decade, the combined non-coaching payrolls at the schools rose from $454 million to $767 million, a 69 percent jump.
When the powers that be cry that they’re too poor to pay athletes, it’s not because they don’t have the money to do so.
Meanwhile, The New York Times reports that football players like Clemson defensive back Van Smith are spending their minuscule cost-of-living stipends — in his case, $388 a month, which adds up to a whole lot less over the course of a year than $54,000 — on luxuries like car repairs, Christmas presents and supporting family members back home.
And speaking of stipends: Once upon a time, NCAA rules forbade athletes from receiving them, mostly because some schools complained they would be too expensive. So what happened after the "Power 5" conferences voted to allow them in 2015, and other schools followed suit? Middle Tennessee State funded its stipends by eliminating pay raises for its head football coach; Colorado State funded the same by repurposing a $7 million buyout it received from a departing coach; and Texas reportedly covered $10 million worth of stipends for 500-some athletes by trimming funds for its marching band. When the powers that be in college football cry that they’re too poor to pay athletes, it’s not because they don’t have the money to do so. It’s because they choose to spend that money elsewhere.
Tigers coach Swinney once said that he would quit coaching altogether if schools paid players, “because there’s enough entitlement in this world as it is.” On top of his $150,000 Playoff semifinal bonus, Swinney also earned $200,000 for his team’s appearance and victory in the ACC title game this year alone. He’s right about entitlement, but wrong about its source.
Patrick Hruby is a Washington, DC-based writer, editor, and journalist whose work has appeared in multiple outlets including ESPN the Magazine, Washingtonian, and the Best American Sports Writing anthology.