At some point, every debate over pay-for-play will turn away from fairness, competitive equity, and the recruiting arms race toward the fans. One side will argue that nothing will change. Fans will still come to games, alumni will still donate to the university, and students will still come and cheer. The other side will argue that everything will change. Fans come to college sports because they aren’t professional sports, and if you professionalize them, they won’t come.
The troubling thing is not that one side or another is right in this debate. The troubling thing is that it is still a debate.
Whether or not fans would want major change in college athletics is always presented as an article of faith or a point to be fought over in the larger battle. It is not though. It is a fact, one that we could determine within an acceptable margin of error. This is not complicated debate or rule making but simple market research.
The NCAA, reform groups, and conferences with aspirations of major changes should be scrambling not to win some argument, but to find out the answer to this question, and a few others:
- Do fans care if student-athletes are students?
- Do fans like a large Division I or would they prefer a smaller top level of collegiate athletics?
- Even if they don’t attend the games, do fans want athletic departments to operate non-revenue sports programs?
The answers to these questions are critical. It seems crass to bring market research into a debate largely framed as individual rights vs. the NCAA’s principles, but it cannot be ignored. If deregulating amateurism or academics in some way means fans will stop coming, that’s a useful nugget. Not because revenue needs be maximized, but because sufficient revenue is needed to operate college athletics at all.
Conversely, if getting rid of some NCAA regulation would make college athletics more popular, that should frame the discussion as well. Again, not just because there is some untapped gold mine, but because additional revenue means additional or better participation opportunities.
This is just a guess, but I think you’ll find that the majority of fans do not care. They watch NCAA football and basketball for the high level of play and the pomp and pageantry, neither of which require academics or amateurism. And right now, those fans are driving the ratings and gigantic TV contracts that are shaping college athletics.
But I think you’ll also find that those fans are fickle. When the economy sours or a team is performing badly, they take their eyeballs and their dollars elsewhere. It’s the sizable minority of those that do care who will keep coming to games, keep watching, and keep donating through thick and thin.
Thus ending amateurism or academic requirements would not cause visible change right away but would make college athletics a more volatile enterprise. But that’s just a guess. It’s time to stop guessing and find out.
The opinions expressed on this blog are the author’s and the author’s alone, and are not endorsed by the NCAA or any NCAA member institution or conference. This blog is not a substitute for a compliance office.