NCAA championships spotlight deep unfairness of college basketball and football funding

The recent controversy surrounding disparity in facilities and accommodations between the NCAA’s men’s and women’s basketball championships serves to underscore the inequity and downright absurdity in the funding of all college sports.

While college athletes are once again delivering inspired performances, their feats have been overshadowed by major shortcomings in the women’s tournament that display gender discrimination, as well as overarching questions about the fair treatment of all college athletes, male and female. Players in both tournaments have demanded a meeting with NCAA executives to urge swift changes to rules that restrict college athletes from earning compensation for the use of their name, image and likeness. Without question, it is time for change.

As we consider these critical issues in the courts, the legislative arena and in public, it is important to remember that NCAA college sports are part of an educational initiative spread across three divisions and more than 1,000 institutions of higher learning, rather than for-profit businesses competing against each other for market share and revenues. It shouldn’t matter, therefore, which sport brings in what money. Protection of the college athlete’s education, health and safety should be paramount, and all activities — men’s and women’s, high-profile or low-spectator sports — should be supported with equity and fairness.

Basketball funds football health, safety

Yet the current structure of funding and revenue in college sports only reinforces existing disparities. Consider college football revenue, for example. It is not well known but it is a fact that each year, the NCAA’s men’s and women’s college basketball championship tournaments fund all national costs for college football related to college-athlete health, safety and well-being, including but not limited to catastrophic insurance, concussion research, player eligibility, compliance protocols, and the development and enforcement of game rules to protect players. 

Counter to what most might think, the money does not come from football’s marquee championship, the College Football Playoff (CFP). These national costs are borne by the NCAA through its primary revenue source — the basketball championships. 

Unlike its basketball counterpart, the CFP national championship for teams in the big-time Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) is managed independent of the NCAA. Odd as it may sound, the NCAA actually receives no money from big-revenue football. 

March Madness on March 27, 2021, in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo: Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports)

You read that correctly: zero. The championship experiences of the 57,000 football athletes competing in divisions other than big-time FBS football only exist because the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments pay for them. 

The NCAA justly uses revenue from the basketball tournaments to support its mission for the collective good of college sports, providing national services and 90 championship events in three competitive divisions, impacting more than 500,000 college athletes. 

Meanwhile, the college football playoff revenue is not used to support any of the national football costs, but instead is directed to the 130 schools playing FBS football to use those funds how they choose. 

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The nearly $500 million in annual revenue generated by the CFP is managed by a group called CFP Administration LLC, which is controlled by the five richest Division I conferences, generally known as the “Power 5,” and their 64 member institutions (plus Notre Dame, which is independent). Less than 0.6% of CFP revenue goes to any football conference or institution outside of the FBS for any purpose.

Data shows that since the CFP’s inception, increased revenue to the FBS schools have flowed disproportionately to inflated football coaching salaries and facility enhancements. 

Football could help fix disparities 

The fragmented management and control of big-revenue football is one of the most misunderstood aspects of the NCAA — even by lawmakers designing rules to govern college sports. But if you are wondering why the women’s NCAA basketball tournament is so woefully underfunded, this is another place to look.

The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, an independent group that I am fortunate to co-chair, aims to change this dysfunctional dynamic by advancing bold recommendations for a much-needed evolution of the college sports model.

As a first step, the commission recommends changes to the NCAA’s badly outdated formula for distributing $600 million in March Madness revenue to its 351 Division I institutions. Since the NCAA does not sponsor the FBS football championship and doesn’t receive any of its revenue, we think it should remove the advantage that the sport of FBS football has as part of the NCAA’s distribution formula.

A Knight Commission-sponsored study by CliftonLarsonAllen estimated that removing FBS football factors would yield more than $60 million annually that could be redistributed. 

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It is important to note that this practical solution, detailed as part of our broader Transforming the D-I Model recommendations, continues to gain traction among member schools. The reason is that college sports leaders understand the unfairness in the current system and the need to make big-revenue football more accountable for the greater good of college sports. Without deliberate action now, the misalignment at the top will only continue to skew the system.

It’s time to stop the madness and start to have CFP revenue pay for national costs for FBS football in a manner that is transparent, accountable and in keeping with the goals of fairness that should guide all aspects of the college sports model.

Len Elmore is the co-chair of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. A former basketball All-American and NBA player, Len is a graduate of Harvard Law School, a sportscaster and a senior lecturer at Columbia University in the School of Professional Studies Sports Management Program. Follow him on Twitter: @LenElmore

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