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Big Ten Schools Are About to Cash In, But Don't Expect Athletes to See Any Money

Big Ten athletic departments are about to a massive influx of television rights fees. Where will the money go? Everywhere but to athletes.
Caitlin Kelly

The Big Ten—which, with eight of its 14 athletic departments bringing in over $100 million annually, is already drowning in cash—is about to get even richer.

The conference is reportedly set for a massive expansion of its media rights deal, with television rights increasing from an already impressive $32 million per school per year to a potential $60 million.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Big Ten schools have been spending like crazy on sports—for example, the Department of Education reports that Ohio State spent $56 million on football alone in 2015. Going forward, those same institutions will have almost $30 million more annually to play with.


So the question is, what on Earth will they do with all that money?

Read More: NCAA Coaches Are Paying Recruits with Retweets Because They Can't Pay Them Cash

The logical solution would be to give more money to the athletes whose physical labor makes all of those dollars possible. That's how it usually works in the business of sports: revenues go up, and so do player salaries. Just ask all of the NBA players who cashed in this summer thanks to the league's lucrative new television deals.

Of course, we're talking about the National Collegiate Athletic Association here, so how things usually work isn't really applicable. Thanks to amateurism—the sacred moral and educational principle of college athletes being allowed to earn whatever amount a cartel of schools agrees to allow them to earn—the only cash payment athletes can receive is the gap between their athletic scholarships and the actual cost of attending their universities.

As such, don't expect players to see a pay bump. Or any additional payment that NCAA lawyers can't semi-plausibly claim isn't actually, you know, payment. Never mind that some coaches, like Indiana's Kevin Wilson, sound as though they'd be perfectly fine with giving players more money, and calling that what it is.

"Oh, I'm all about (giving money to players), but my thing is, the way it's set up, it's going to players but it's not consistent in rate, because we don't want to pay the players. So we have cost of attendance, and every cost of attendance is different," he said at Big Ten media days. "It ought to be a flat fee–you're getting $400 a month, $500 a month. I'm about those guys—they can't work a job.


"My thing with paying players, I wish it was like a set flat fee, but because we're going to be 'amateur,' we take that out. We're gonna do cost of attendance, whatever that—whoever came up with that? Someone a lot smarter than me."

When you're cool with a flat fee, but someone smarter decided to go with cost of attendance. Photo by Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Our question still stands: What's going to happen with all that new loot? As nonprofits that do not want to look like normal businesses—lest federal courts force them to behave like normal businesses—college athletic departments have a vested interest in making sure their costs keep pace with revenues in order to hide the fact that they are making lots and lots of cash. At the same time, those athletic departments want and need to attract the best athletes possible, because talented athletes win games, and winning games means selling tickets, encouraging alumni donations, juicing television ratings, and ultimately making even more money.

The solution? Pay players without paying them. Spend money on indirect recruiting inducements. The most popular way of doing that likely will be through facilities upgrades.

"If you said, 'Where is the money going?' most of the money is probably going to the facilities, certainly personnel. It really varies across the country, program to program," Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. "But I would guess that the No. 1 biggest expenditure would be the facilities, probably."

Wisconsin is no stranger to facilities upgrades. The Badgers spent $86 million on a new training facility in 2013, complete with a game room and a fancy showcase of all the team's NFL alumni. It's essentially a way of convincing recruits to come to Wisconsin: We can't pay you a salary, but we can put you up in swanky digs, and look! We'll help you get to a league where you'll actually be able to realize your market value.


With more money flooding into the conference, it's hard to imagine that today's game room won't become tomorrow's gaming floor. How about a Laser Tag arena? An indoor roller coaster? Given that Alabama has already gotten a dang anti-gravity treadmill for its locker room, nothing seems totally implausible.

For the Big Ten schools whose facilities are already swanky enough to attract premier recruits, additional athletic department personnel could be the way to go. Consider Michigan, the conference's star money-maker. Yahoo! Sports' Dan Wetzel found that between 2011 and 2015, the Wolverines' revenue increased by 30 percent; over the same span, the number of support staff in the school's athletic department increased by 32 percent, and the average salary grew by 22.4 percent to almost $90,000 per year. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has been particularly savvy in hiring personnel, choosing to bring on the coaches, family members, and friends of top recruits.

Are all these coaches necessary? Probably not. But the money has to go somewhere, and if athletes can't get a raise, why not hire more people to watch game film?

"We've got nine coaches, what about those quality control coaches?" Wilson said. "Some guys have got 15 or 20, some guys have two."

Iowa, which brought in $105 million in 2015, has traditionally kept a small staff, but even the Hawkeyes have hired an "analyst." Why? Because they can.


"It's something you see everywhere, and some places it's overkill, but we're comfortable with where we're at," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "The costs are spiraling now, but the good news is the revenues are spiraling also."

"Good news! Revenues are spiraling!" Photo by Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Ferentz isn't wrong, not entirely, but he has things a bit backward. College sports costs continue to spiral precisely because revenues are spiraling. Go back to the NBA's revenue leap. Imagine a world where it doesn't correspond with a jump in the player salary cap; moreover, imagine that NBA player salaries are limited to room, board, tuition, and a small stipend.

Now imagine that owners like Mark Cuban have no incentive to turn a profit and pocket their extra earnings. Instead, they have to spend. How inflated would coaching salaries become? How many assistants and shot doctors and sideline foam roller guys would teams employ? How freaking nice would the average NBA locker room be? How many waterfalls would it contain?

When asked where some of the Big Ten's windfall could go, Wisconsin running back Dare Ogunbowale mentioned outside personnel, such as sports scientists, and new technologies that the Badgers have used to study performance. But before that, he said with a laugh, "I know what you're trying to get me to say."

It's too bad he couldn't mention the one thing that makes the most sense.

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