The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is one of the most popular televised sporting events in the… [+] United States. (Photo by Evert Nelson/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
This weekend, sports fans from around the United States gather to watch the opening two rounds of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament — one of the most lucrative sporting events in the United States. Last year, the tournament produced more than $1 billion in revenue. This year, the tournament is expected to bring in even more money.
The revenue derived from hosting the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament goes to many places. Among them, NCAA member colleges use some of the revenue to pay coaches’ salaries. For example, Duke University pays head basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski an annual salary of $8.9 million. Meanwhile, the University of Kentucky pays head basketball coach John Calipari a salary of just under $8 million.
In addition, colleges allocate some of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament revenue to paying executives. At present, the member colleges pay NCAA president Mark Emmert an annual salary of nearly $2 million per year. Meanwhile, some of the power conference commissioners earn salaries closer to the $3 million range.
The NCAA’s internal rules, however, continue to prevent member schools from using any tournament revenue to pay their athletes. Instead, based on the longstanding NCAA “principle of amateurism,” the college athletes remain just about the only individuals not to bring home a big paycheck from March Madness.
Given the outdated nature of this system, which keeps a workforce of primarily low-income African-American college athletes from sharing in the fruits of their labor, perhaps it is time for the players in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament to seriously think about forming a union.
From a financial perspective, the unionizing of elite Division I college basketball schools could lead to a much-needed reallocation of some of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament’s revenue away from coaches and administrators, and to the players.
The unionized athletes in the four premier U.S. sports leagues earn approximately 40-50% of all sport-related revenue. If one were to apply this same revenue percentage to NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament players, it would create a pool of $400 to $500 million to allocate among the players.
Of course, obtaining the right to collectively bargain against a member college or collection of colleges over the mandatory terms and conditions of employment could get quite political. A few years back, when Northwestern University’s grant-in-aid college football players attempted to form a union, the National Labor Relations Board used its discretion to decline jurisdiction, even though an NLRB regional board recognized that these football players met the federal law definition of employees.
There may be ways for NCAA college basketball players to overcome the same unionizing pitfalls that faced the Northwestern University football team, such as by proposing a bargaining unit that consists of numerous member colleges and not just one. Alternatively, the men’s college basketball players may wish to delay and hope for a favorable antitrust ruling in the lawsuit Jenkins v. National Collegiate Athletic Association — a result that could provide an incentive for the NCAA to simply recognize a college basketball players’ union as a means to mitigate future antitrust risk.
In any event, however, something just seems wrong with allowing the NCAA to pull college athletes out of class to play in a billion-dollar basketball tournament without sharing some of the revenues derived from the tournament featuring these athletes. Tangible change to the college basketball system is long overdue, irrespective of whether that change comes from a players’ union or a different, similar means of reform. If properly advised, college basketball players will not wait too much longer before legally pressuring for meaningful change.
Marc Edelman (Marc@MarcEdelman.com) is a Professor of Law at Baruch College’s Zicklin School of Business and the founder of Edelman Law. He is the author of “A Short Treatise on Amateurism and Antitrust Law.” His article, “The Future of College Athlete Players Unions,” appeared in Volume 38 of Cardozo Law Review.
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