You can’t turn on a firehose of cash and expect it won’t change anything. And in the last 40 years, that’s just what has happened in college sports. Although it took far too long, the revenue has finally disrupted the system and who sports fans believe should benefit from it.
And with March Madness about to start, the students filling those stands to watch women and men play for NCAA titles have very different ideas than their parents did about how relevant the idea of amateurism is.
In the 1980s, college athletes weren’t lured to institutions with plush locker rooms and custom training facilities, and their coaches weren’t leaving multi-million dollar contracts for even bigger deals.
Now, a majority of sports fans (51 percent) want athletes to get paid, too, according to a Marist Poll done in conjunction with the Marist College Center for Sports Communication. (Full disclosure, I am the director of the Center there.)
The poll, which can be found here, revealed that the younger the demographic, the more sports fans wanted college athletes to be paid. So, although only 28 percent of sports fans over 75 years old thought they should be paid, 70 percent of Gen Z and Millennial sports fans say colleges should pay athletes.
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As it stands now, college athletes can only generate revenue via Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) deals, say promoting a product. But now fans want to see the schools that have for so long benefited from having free labor start ponying up.
It’s a significant shift in attitudes, and one that reflects the modern reality where annual broadcast deals start with a B, as in billions, rather than the grainy black and white footage of players in leather helmets with nicknames like Red and Slingin’ Sammy.
Back in 1938, a Gallup Poll asked if colleges should pay athletes, and just 30 percent of adults said yes.
But there is more to it than that. 68 percent of sports fans say if college athletes are going to get paid, it shouldn’t just be the revenue generators. That means women, squash players, lacrosse, water polo players, should be on the payroll as well, and that is a huge change. I can remember the hysteria (I deliberately picked that word) around the idea of playing athletes because it would mean paying women to play sports.
And it wasn’t so long ago. Not to pick on Gerald Ball or Bleacher Report, but who can forget his 2010 column insisting that college players shouldn’t be paid that led to this crescendo:
“The best reason why we can’t pay football (and basketball) players is Title IX. Because of Title IX, universities would not just be able to pay only the athletes that generate revenue, or the athletes from sports who generate revenue. Instead, thanks to Title IX, you would have to pay everyone. Everyone from the star QB of the top 5 football team to the third stringer on the badminton team would have to get a check. And that, people, is why it wouldn’t work.”
Title IX was once the preferred argument to prevent paying college athletes, and generally by those who weren’t fans of either women playing sports or college players getting paid.
To be fair, a lot has changed since that piece was written. College athletes are now able to make money off of their name, image and likeness, a fact that has disrupted what was left of the idea of amateurism. And the idea that women could be paid to play college sports has also evolved, given the growing popularity of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.
And the recent polling reflects how quickly attitudes can change, since now just 26 percent of sports fans say only the revenue-generating athletes should be paid.
Of sports fans under 45, 67 percent say colleges should pay athletes. For those 45 and older, just 36 percent agree. This schism between older and younger sports fans can also be found in our earlier polling about who is adopting streaming platforms, and who is watching women’s sports. If the future can be glimpsed by looking at what young people are doing, then companies are smart to invest in streaming, and invest in women’s sports.
When it comes to NIL rights however, young and old were more likely to agree since 75 percent of sports fans supported athlete compensation in this area.
The Marist Poll also asked fans about where they stood on sports betting. That’s another area where the landscape is changing quickly, and a generation that watched New York’s college basketball teams rocked by the infamous CCNY cheating scandal in the 1950s, sees the potential for corruption very differently from a cohort where gambling apps are promoted on many professional sports broadcasts.
Among sports fans, 60 percent of those under 45 don’t think gambling will encourage college players to cheat, while only 46 percent of those 45 and older agree.
Polls like this are just a snapshot of fan attitudes, but ideas about sports and money are changing in both college sports and when it comes to sports betting. Given that the NFL just suspended the Falcons’ Calvin Ridley for a year for betting on NFL games (including Falcons games, though he was not with the team at the time) on an app while in Florida, there is plenty to debate when it comes to what is harmless entertainment and what crosses a line.
But it’s just a snapshot as attitudes on these issues are on the move.