Amateurism Is Dead In NCAA Sports And Data


Last season, attendance for major college football games rose for the first time since a slide began in 2014. March Madness on the women’s side set a bunch of new television ratings marks, including a final that drew in 9.9 million viewers, per ESPN, the tournament’s broadcaster.

The trend of increased interest in college sports continued in the spring. The College Baseball World Series, the Women’s College World Series and the men’s lacrosse title game all enjoyed big bumps in television ratings, ESPN has said.

Why mention all this?

Because two years and a little bit of change after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 9-0 against the NCAA in a fight with the people who play college sports, opening the doors to compensation for the use of athletes’ name, image and likeness, the data is showing that a key NCAA argument about the very sports it governs was wrong.

See, back in 2021, as ESPN reported at the time, NCAA lead attorney Seth Waxman argued before the high court in NCAA vs. Alston that the unpaid status of college athletes was a major attraction for fans. To paraphrase, college sports fans wanted to see players competing for the love of the game and glory of their alma mater, and athletes having a financial benefit tied to playing would dilute the product on the field and impact attendance and ratings.

College sports would become pro sports, only not as good as pro sports, and fans would turn away.

But fans aren’t turning away. That’s exactly what’s not happening.

There could be a lot of reasons for the trend, fans’ return to sports after the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, or big brands doing well, but the fact remains attendance for FBS football – the top division – rose about 5 percent to 41,480 fans per game in 2022-23, according to CBS Sports. Then there was this run of ratings bonanzas in less adulated sports as well.

The news cycle runs in overdrive all the time these days, so it’s easy to forget about that the NCAA was wrong in predicting the direction fan interest in college sports would go in an NIL world, but it’s worth taking a moment to think about why that happened.

To get the view of someone who has thought deeply on the topic of fandom, I spoke by phone with Larry Olmsted, author of “Fans: How Watching Sports Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Understanding.”

Olmsted’s take is that fans began to accept amateurism at the highest level of sports simply wasn’t financially feasible once the Olympics went professional. There’s a big jump from a U.S. men’s hockey team of college kids upsetting the Soviets and then the Fins to win gold in 1980 at Lake Placid and the Michael Jordan-led Dream Team of 1992.

Even at the time of the Miracle on Ice, amateurism was under pressure. Part of what sparked euphoria among Americans at beating the Soviets was that the Russians were essentially a pro team.

Another point, Olmsted noted, is that as a child, “you don’t really choose your teams, they’re chosen for you – based on where you’re born and what your parents believed in.” In that way, he added, sports are a bit like religion.

But when it comes to college, the students heading to Big State University this fall had some say in that decision. And from the moment those freshmen attend their first football game to the time they hit the 25th reunion weekend – and beyond – they are tied to that school and those teams.

Their college’s sports teams “are their team in more of a sense than, I think, in any other team sport because they chose it and they lived it,” Olmsted said. Whether or not college athletes receive some kind of compensation – particularly in an industry where the highest-paid coaches make more than $10 million a year – is basically immaterial for fans because coaches, athletes, students in the stands and alumni all in some way still represent the same institution.

Which gets us back to explaining why the NCAA was wrong. Because college sports fandom isn’t about chasing some purist ideal of amateurism. It’s about being true to your school.

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