Dark Times Ahead for College Basketball

By Jack Belanger

The cancellation of this year’s NCAA Division I’s Men’s Basketball Tournament marked the end of a tumultuous year for the NCAA. In September, California passed the Fair Pay to Play Act which allowed athletes to sign endorsement deals without losing their eligibility. This was followed by the NCAA voting to extend this to all of its member schools. The NBA G-League also began offering contracts to players out of high school, creating a new outlet for high schoolers to play before going to the NBA. Already some of the nation’s best high school players have decided to forgo college to play for a contract right away. Financially, the NCAA lost its most profitable event of the year in March Madness. The tournament represents about 80 percent of the NCAA’s annual revenue.

Just one of the issues is pressing enough for the NCAA, but all three together may cause a drastic change in the structure of all collegiate sports. It is very likely college athletics will look remarkably different in just five years.

With the cancellation of the 2020 March Madness, the NCAA lost out on just under a billion dollars of potential revenue just through its annual TV deal. March Madness represents about 75-80 percent of its annual revenue. The revenue is important because it is used to help fund championships for other sports that are not as profitable. While the NCAA had extra money in its reserve assets, significantly less money was distributed to colleges.

Some schools that have popular football teams will be able to afford the lost revenue, but smaller schools that either lack a football team or have a team at a lower division level will be running a tighter budget come next school year. Without the necessary funds, some athletic departments may be forced to cut the number of scholarships allotted to athletes.

Another issue that has not received enough attention is the number of high school basketball players that are electing to play in the NBA G-League and skip college altogether. While the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic remains to be seen, three of the top 20 high school recruits have already decided to take this new opportunity (according to ESPN). While critics may say these athletes are missing out on the opportunity of higher education, these students see the NBA G-League option as beneficial to their careers.

First of all, the NBA is allowing these players to sign contracts anywhere between $125,000 and $500,000. The league will also help pay for those players who decide to attend college. For a group of athletes that often come from low-income families, this security holds a lot of value.

It may also be an underlying reason why the NCAA finally allowed athletes to profit from their name, image, and likeness.

Men’s basketball is the most profitable college sport behind football. In order to remain profitable in the long term it needs the best high school players in the country to participate in order to justify huge TV deals. Just two years ago, ESPN had some of its highest ratings during games in which Zion Williamson played for Duke University. Without his presence on the court, it would have been just a normal year for college basketball.

Now imagine if the top 10 high school players in the United States began to bypass college. There would be less star power to market as must-watch television, thus, fewer fans would tune into games which would lead to lower ratings. These lower ratings mean less lucrative TV deals, therefore, less revenue for schools. This may be an extreme scenario, but, nevertheless, one that no athletic department wants to test.

By opening the gates for athletes to sign endorsement deals while maintaining their eligibility, high school basketball players have a new financial incentive to attend college while preparing themselves for a career in professional basketball or in another field.

Additionally, the new legislation could even benefit athletes in less popular sports such as track and field, as they, too, could sign deals with specific track shoe brands. With the potential loss of scholarships looming, this extra money could go a long way for athletes in non-profitable sports.

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