Fair-Pay-To-Play Act Response Could Be NCAA’s Defining Moment

Leveraging SLRG research data, Jon Last questions the appropriateness of California’s controversial Fair Pay to Play Act on the fabric of collegiate sports..the lead item in Marketing Insider for October 8th.

Our research has long maintained that a key differentiator of college athletics is that institutional equity overshadows individual players in driving fan allegiances. The college-fan bond is enduring, while the athletes that pass through the programs are secondary to longstanding traditions.

Sure, numerous breaches to the perceptions of the purity of amateurism have generated rightful skepticism.  But the overwhelming majority of college athletes across both revenue- and non-revenue-generating sports adhere, in principle, to the notion of the student athlete.

Numerous voices, mostly from outside of sports, have amplified the outcry that college athletes should be compensated for their participation. These folks are quick to note that students toil for free while lining the coffers of the colleges that they play for,  ignoring the value of scholarships for many who would otherwise not gain admission if not for their athletic achievement. Then there are the large subsidies that television rights fees provide to non-revenue-generating sports, creating further scholarship opportunities.

This debate has now come to a head with the signing of California’s Fair Pay to Play Act, last week. Subsequently, other states have jumped into the fray to consider similar legislation.

On the surface, one can argue that the Fair Pay to Play Act, which mandates that colleges in California cannot punish their athletes for collecting endorsement money for use of their name, image and likeness, seems tame relative to other proposals that these students be treated as direct employees, entitled to free-market-driven compensation.

Beyond the grandstanding and posturing that accompanied last week’s actions are deeper implications that threaten the entirety of college sports as we know it.

Bifurcation of current NCAA rules would create recruiting advantages and competitive imbalance for those schools that can now offer booster-driven endorsement deals.

California’s unsolicited instigation also opens the floodgates for agents to infiltrate high school athletics, propagating the fool’s gold of future pro careers that presently follow for less than 2% of all college athletes.

If an athlete out of high school is truly good enough to go professional, he or she can do so, even in basketball where one can go abroad — and in football, where the soon-to-debut XFL is seeking to establish a toehold as a minor league funnel for the NFL.

So why upset the apple cart of a beloved sports product enjoying unprecedented popularity?

As a sports marketing researcher, I find the strongest case against this legislative interference in an understanding of what the customer actually wants. Our most recent sports fan study showed less than a third strongly agree that college athletes should be compensated for their participation in D-1 sports.

The NCAA has commissioned a committee to report on the issue later this month.  Members need to dig their heels in before we allow a vocal minority’s subjective notion of “fairness” to tear down a cherished institution.