Big numbers hide big problem

rseibel@macon.comMay 29, 2014 

This is the one day each year that SEC university presidents just love.

It’s tote board day at the SEC spring meetings in Destin, Florida. It’s the day when the conference announces its revenue distribution to member institutions.

The conference makes a big deal out of it. It’s the highlight of commissioner Mike Slive’s end-of-the-week news conference at the Hilton Sandestin.

Anything less than a record distribution would be shocking. Forget Jerry Lewis’ pleas for “just one dollar more” that he used to make during his telethons. The number Slive reveals likely will be tens of millions of dollars more than last year’s figure, which was the previous conference record.

The crazy thing is, this year’s record number likely will be dwarfed by next year’s announcement. That’s because revenue from the SEC Network cable channel, set to launch in August, will be included for the first time when school officials meet next spring.

Getting into the television programming business has proven to be quite profitable for the big college athletics conferences. According to a report in the San Jose Mercury News, the Pac-12 surpassed the SEC in terms of total revenue during the 2012-13 fiscal year, the first year of the Pac-12 Network, bringing in $334 million. That’s nearly double what the Pac-12 brought in during the 2011-12 fiscal year ($175 million) and triple the 2010-11 fiscal year ($111 million).

The SEC, meanwhile, distributed $289.4 million in profit sharing to member schools for the 2012-13 fiscal year, an increase of $45.4 million from the previous year.

That’s some big-time money.

Those figures show that collegiate athletics programs, at least at the top end of Division I, aren’t hurting one bit financially. College football is as popular as ever, and there’s a large following for other sports, as well. Fans are remaining true to their schools. And there’s no shame in riding the wave of that interest.

That said, let’s face this fact: Schools are profiting off their student-athletes. And while those student-athletes are mostly on scholarship, those scholarships do not cover the true cost of attendance.

The NCAA is going through discussions right now as to what the organization should look like. Some reforms, such as liberalizing the association’s policy on student-athlete meals, are being put into place already. And there is serious talk about granting autonomy to the major revenue producing schools -- the so-called “Big Five” conferences -- to give them permission to run things differently than the rest of the NCAA membership, a membership that by and large isn’t bringing in the same sort of revenue.

But enough talk. It’s time to cover the true cost of attendance for Division I student-athletes. Include a stipend for incidentals so that these student-athletes -- who have severe restrictions placed on them in terms of being able to pick up part-time employment while at school -- can enjoy a decent living.

Schools have the money. If they don’t, then maybe they should reconsider being a Division I member and drop to Division II, where the spotlight isn’t as bright. Or at least subdivide Division I, like the FBS/FCS split in football, to reflect the financial situation of the institutions involved.

It’s only fair. Student-athletes are the ones doing the work to bring in the revenue. They should receive a cut, as well.

Contact Ron Seibel at 744-4222 or rseibel@macon.com

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