BY Art Thiel 06:00AM 04/03/2020

Thiel: College sports in for overdue haircut

A survey of NCAA athletics directors says they fear losing up to 20 percent of revenues because of COVID-19. How about using this downtime to re-think the enterprise?

Boy, did Chris Petersen know when to fold ’em, or what? / Art Thiel, Sporspress Northwest

Only 42, new University of Washington football coach Jimmy Lake doesn’t have a lot of room to talk about “back in the old days.”

Nevertheless, during an update teleconference call this week with area reporters, he did. And said something perhaps unintentionally prophetic.

“I think back to the old days when football wasn’t 12 months a year,” he said. “People used to show up to training camp and you used to get in shape in the first two weeks, and then the next two weeks you were kind of getting dialed in on the scheme, and then the season began. That’s how it used to be.”

That’s likely how it shall be again, at least this season, in pro as well as college football.  And done once, at considerable savings in expenses, why not do it again, and year after year?

From 2020, things won’t be the same.

Surrounding the tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic is the immense impact of the economic shutdown. Few industries will escape major consequences, none with a higher public profile than the sports-industrial complex.

As we await solemnly the achievement of the peak of the graph that is suddenly ubiquitous in our lives, a glimpse of the post-virus financial future for college sports was published Thursday via The Associated Press.

A survey of more than 100 FBS athletics directors, done by LEAD1 and Teamworks, a company that created an app to keep teams and athletics directors connected, revealed that 63 percent of ADs agreed that a worst-case scenario is likely in which their revenues would decrease by up to 20 percent in the 2020-21 school year.

To a Seattle restaurant owner who has already seen a 100 percent cut in revenues, a 20 percent drop is a screamin’ deal. But to members of an increasingly desperate, creaky association whose vast majority has been operating in the red for years, the 20 percent forecast should be cause for alarm, maybe panic.

At most big schools, football revenues and the men’s basketball tournament cover nearly all the annual expenses for every non-revenue sport, including most coaching salaries. But a national public health crisis forced the NCAA March 12 to shut down all winter and spring sports so abruptly that one men’s hoops game was stopped at halftime.

The survey didn’t ask about how the shortfall might be managed, but it’s reasonable to anticipate entire sports being eliminated, services cut and salaries reduced. Iowa State is already cutting coaching pay to make up for the absence of hoops tourney money.

Much can change regarding the pandemic between now and late August that could forestall the worst-case financial scenario in college sports of canceled football games. But even if the federal government regains its wits to help mitigate the most catastrophic outcomes of COVID-19, the NCAA and all its competing constituencies are unlikely to respond coherently when the re-start is signaled.

Nevertheless, amid the darkness, there is a flicker. It’s possible to see an outcome, albeit very messy, that offers long-term hope: A collapse of the NCAA arms race.

Underway for years, the arms race among football and men’s basketball schools has separated the haves (about 10 percent) from the have-nots, creating several professional leagues with world-class salaries, world-class facilities, world-class debt and no hope of sport-wide balance, financial sustainability or meaningful self-regulation.

The NCAA, a trade association lacking the basic rules of corporate governance but with a mandate to preserve an archaic economic concept, amateurism, which has no place in a capitalist society, cannot help itself.  It is a wafer-thin mint away from becoming late-stage Mr. Creosote.

The pandemic was a black-swan event for many individuals and businesses. But with problems come opportunities. Serious-minded people around college sports should look at this down time as a chance to re-imagine the entire enterprise.

I have, and have made, a thousand suggestions over many years. But I’d like to take the moment to offer a single absurdity and use it as a question worthy of pursuit of a solution:

Since a football coach or a men’s basketball coach is the highest-paid public employee in 39 of the 50 states, how do we reform the industry to restore balance and a sliver of integrity?

College sports poohbahs will say they’ve heard these lamentations before. But they’ve never had the FBI arrest hoops coaches on corruption charges. They’ve never had a state legislature create a law specifically to allow NCAA players to receive income. They’ve never before been dead-stopped for a national crisis that threatens to devastate their people and their money.

The ask for a re-imagining follows a basic premise of sports: Get ahead, not behind.


  • Alan Harrison

    I’ve seen this in the arts world as well, a world where, similarly, a tiny few get paid a lot of money. Large arts organizations are like the “haves” in the NCAA – and they have tended to fail in the last few years due to the lack of flexibility. Sadly, their response has been akin to “If we just do it harder, it’ll work,” rather than “If we change the way we do it, it might work better.” Football, especially because there is no Title IX equivalent sport for women, is the greatest culprit of NCAA inflexibility. Of course, I appreciate that so many students are getting a full scholarship in so many schools. Given that, and the truest aims of the sport, perhaps it’s time to reward high graduation rates with a relegation system. With structure, perhaps we can head off the worst offending schools (I’m looking at the SEC, except for Vandy) using grade inflation to keep their standing. Just spitballing…I’m sure they would have a million responses as to why something like this is impossible, which is sad. Maybe if they just do what they’re doing, but harder, it will work.

    • Kevin Lynch

      Amen, brother…(full disclosure: Alan and I worked together at a prominent Seattle arts organization). I just love the line about the wafer-thin mint meeting Mr. Creosote.

      • art thiel

        Hey, wait a minute. Are you guys pals, sneaking around together? I insist you keep at least six comments between you on this site. I don’t want your thoughts to become infected.

        • Alan Harrison

          Too late for both of us.

          • art thiel

            So it is too late to wrap my face in a scarf. Sad.

          • Gary

            How about we eliminate college sports and turn the schools into institutions of higher learning and hopefully take ESPN & FOX SPORTS with it!

    • art thiel

      Thanks for the arts-org perspective. The one big difference I see is that the NCAA is dependent on the preservation of an outmoded economic system, amateurism, which sustains Nick Saban’s $8M annual stipend. An outside entity, the Cali legislature, is forcing amateurism’s death, and the NCAA is fighting it to the point of self-destruction.

  • ReebHerb

    High school sports could use some scrutiny also including the parents. The requirements to attend high priced summer camps seems a little overboard. I enjoyed small school varsity basketball but summer time was for work and my family could never afford this new expense to participate. A young friend of mine was on the state basketball championship team. She made a stop at her grandparents house each evening to sort of meet the school district’s residency requirements. Mercer Island and Bellevue have this down to a science.

    • Husky73

      …and Federal Way.

    • art thiel

      If athletes are talented enough, summer camp money will find them, usually from shoe-company shills. As far as eligibility, WIAA long ago lost control of high school eligibility rules and requirements. It’s been a low-boil scandal for years, but no authority above WIAA wants to demand enforcement, because it isn’t a priority and there’s no money to force compliance. Bellevue High School was busted, but it took the Seattle Times to blow the whistle.

  • Husky73

    When this crisis is over, there will be a new normal for just about everything, including big time sports. None of us will be the same. Like the post WW2 generation, we shall mourn the dead, and have an opportunity to make things different and better.

    • Husky73

      Jimmy Lake longs for a hair cut.

    • art thiel

      True that nothing will be the same. Whether anything becomes better in the U.S. is dependent largely on whether we stay as divided as we’ve been.

  • DJ

    Thanks as always, Art! It’s a timely take. Change for the better may have to be forced by no other choices, unless those that are making the decisions aren’t direct financial benefactors.

    • art thiel

      To shake up the system, it would take a program of some profile to close its doors, and even then, admins would dismiss it as a one-off due to bad management.

      Everyone at the NCAA top benefits from the current system, so even of it is obviously doomed to fail, no one has the guts to say the trestle up ahead is out.

  • Hockeypuck

    All well and good. So how is this going to happen, which school becomes the first to unilaterally disarm? No AD in their right mind would do this, it would be career suicide. Are we asking the NCAA to do this for us? Yeah you’re right Nicolae Ceaușescu was a great guy once you got to know him….

    Would you trust Congress to come up with a solution? Really? And what would that look like? I’m guessing a salary cap of some sort – which would be in place for as long it took the lawyers to limo down to federal court.

    This is all driven by money of course, which means it is drive by TV which means it is driven by us. If you don’t like the system, don’t support the system. We’re not innocent bystanders here. And BTW Art, mid-life career changes are a real b%@@#!.

    • art thiel

      You’re tracking well, puck. I will elaborate in a future column, but as I’ve written in the past, the answer is to completely professionalize the two revenue sports. Eliminate amateurism, pay the players working class wages, rent from the university its facilities, logos and season-ticket lists, and cut coaching salaries and staffing by more than 50 percent, then charge the TV/streaming nets and in-house fans what the market will bear.

      The solution comes comes from within the industry, not imposed by outside agencies. The fat cats have to realize they are all Creosotes.

      Indeed, you and I are not innocent bystanders. We are perps. There’s my solution. What’s yours?

      • Husky73

        Would you proposal include women’s basketball….or softball?

        • art thiel

          To respond briefly to both of you, my proposal has always made class attendance optional. Athletes disciplined enough to do so should get a free education, those who can’t manage it can still play. That ends the current “student-athlete” hypocrisy.

          Regarding all the non-rev sports, I believe there are enough revs generated by FB and MBB to subsidize all big-university sports programs. But not when you’re paying Saban and Ol’ Roy close to $10M each, and big salaries to Emmert/staff, funding a compliance operation that has the budget of a European principality and creating facilities as expansive as the debt incurred to build them.

      • Hockeypuck

        Art – I appreciate that you have raised this issue. And your challenge is a fair one – the easiest thing in the world is to be a naysayer without a constructive solution. So I will think about this and come up with something of a answer – trying not to borrow shamelessly from the points you’ve already made above.
        Question though – by way of professionalizing the athletes, would they actually be required to have an association with university academics at all? If not, it kind of looks like the major-junior hockey model – players get a living stipend, professional exposure and off they go..
        If you wish to defer your answer until you unveil your comprehensive solution in a future column that I’ll wait until that time…

  • woofer

    What college athletics needs is a tireless visionary leader with courage, integrity and selflessness who will fearlessly challenge the corrupt network of corporate and media interests, opportunistic politicians, academic lackeys and snake oil hucksters who have captured a secondary recreational activity and converted it into a ruthless money machine that has come to dominate and control the entire university culture.

    This looks like job for Mark Emmert.

    • art thiel

      Wow, woofer. Irony marbled with satire. Well done.

      • woofer

        Thanks for the kind words, Art. But all glory goes to Mark. He is the inspiration behind whatever small success I’ve managed to achieve over the course of my career. Through all the ups and downs, the highs and lows, Mark has always been there for me.

        • art thiel

          Good to know. Actually, I enjoyed numerous conversations with Emmert when he ran the Montlake shop. I just don’t know why he wanted to run the sports equivalent of Enron.

          • woofer

            Yes, Mark Emmert is a world class schmoozer. No one ever questioned that. Pete von Reichbauer thought Emmert walked on water. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure why I find him so intolerable. He left town long before he could do any permanent damage here. But there just something about the guy that makes my skin crawl.

  • Seattle Lifer

    What will become interesting is when the projected “boomerang” of Covid 19 comes through in the fall with no immunization in sight, Schools will learn what it is like to do without big money. (As will most of us learning to do without much if any money.) I would be curious what will happen to not just empty stadiums, but networks. Who will be able to afford PAC 12 TV Network or any of the specialized sports networks? Sports in general are a disposable income event, (sorry Art,) if there is no disposable income, where will they end up?

    • art thiel

      Public health records over decades verify that pandemics usually have waves. The Spanish flu pandemic in 1918-19 had three, the last of which hit Seattle hard, stopping the Metropolitans in the Stanley Cup.

      Since we’re a recession now, discretionary spending on things like sports, arts, restaurant dining will plunge. The unique and powerful economic damage in this crisis is that we will have dedicated $2 trillion to relief, not a stimulus. My media colleagues who keep calling it a stimulus are confusing their audiences.

      I’d very much like it if you were to donate part of your $1,200 relief check to SPNW, but I get why you won’t. I think most sports leaders understand that, too.

      We’ll have to make do, or do something else.

  • Quackhead

    ” . . .how do we reform the industry . . .”

    Since you mention the absurd coaching salaries, why not start there.
    Fund the coaches with a dollar for dollar match of coach salaries with dollars put into a players fund to be split among the “amateur” talent in question. Just a thought, but it would be a start in the right direction.

    • Husky73

      Coaches salaries reflect the marketplace. Would you favor your salary being reduced? People often want the salaries of OTHERS (politicians, movie stars, athletes, etc) reduced…but never their own.

      • Quackhead

        Agree that salaries reflect the marketplace. But the marketplace is about to undergo massive changes going forward; the scales will tilt toward the players.

        • art thiel

          Regarding the issue of marketplace, big-time college sports is an outlier in the capitalist system. High salaries result from a free labor pool that exists nowhere else in the legal world (scholarships are not the same as compensation for labor; they are simply permissions to sit in classes), and revenues produced by the big sports subsidize unrelated activities (the non-rev sports), which is socialism.

          This system is archaic, anachronistic and wrong.

  • jafabian

    The best thing to create revenue for any athletic program is winning. All coaches now have the time to plan on how to approach that goal. The key is to be ahead of what their opponents are planning because they’re doing the same thing. I remember when MLB realigned Lou Pinella did exactly that where his contemporaries did not. Consequently the Mariners gave us a near memorable season. ( Sadly the necessary changes needed for a playoff run or to grow as a team never happened.) IMO the earliest sporting events could kick off is September. And that’s being wishful. We really don’t know.

    • art thiel

      In college sports, even winning programs run deficits. There’s no comparing it to pro sports.

      And as far as integrity in college sports, there are good people doing good things, but the the system is set up to reward cheating with little consequences. Even the sainted John Wooden cheated, via booster Sam Gilbert.

  • Tim Sullivan

    Great article. Do we really need $500K a year tight end coaches? Do we really need football staffs of 30 to 50 people (see Alabama), Taj Mahal facilities? College sports doesn’t adhere to the rules of basic economics. If they opened up the tight end coaching position at Washington for $85K a year, they’d get 2,000 applicants, and they’d all be as good as the guy making $500K a year. “Hey Joe, block this guy, run this pattern” … for $500K a year? Big time collegiate sports isn’t very self-aware, however, and I expect just more spending to occur. Personally I think Clemson and ‘Bama should just play for their national title every year and every other D-1 school should pull out of the arms race. It’s insane.