The status quo cuts both ways.

A suggestion I’ve seen repeatedly offered as a way out of the NCAA’s amateurism trap is the European soccer model.  And this does sound appealing:

Players enter the Ajax academy when they are as young as seven, and train to become professional players. Though private tutors provide a secondary education, Ajax and other European clubs make no pretensions about the arrangement: they are training soccer players, not “student athletes.” After school, the worst players get cut and return to civilian life, the better players star professionally for Ajax, and the best players are “sold” when another team purchases their contract for an often exorbitant fee. Why so much cash? A fully developed star is a rare commodity, and big money teams like Manchester City are willing to be exorbitant fees to acquire one. Last summer, Spanish super club Real Madrid paid London’s Tottenham Hotspur a reported $132 million to acquire Welsh star Gareth Bale. The Dutch model (buy low, sell high!) has been copied across Europe. In recent years, the sale of five Ajax players netted the team $80 million in transfer fees as bigger teams purchased Ajax’s premier talent.

So what would a European-style development system look like in American sports? Imagine if the Cleveland Browns had to pay the Texas A&M directly for the rights to Johnny “Football” Manziel. Want LeBron James? Let’s start the bidding at $50 million. The days of the draft, the annual pro sports meat market where scouts drool over college prospects, would be over.

Money.  Yum.  Manna from heaven if you’re the school that won the lottery with a stud player.  (And, sure, you could tweak the system to make it more academically palatable.)

But there’s an obvious catch with this arrangement.

Big teams in big markets would pay top dollar and get the best players, and the relative parity that characterizes many American sports leagues would vanish. In such a competitive economic environment, professional teams would be incentivized to develop their own players; big-time college sports, long cloaked in a veneer of amateurism, could become a distant memory.

That’s what happened to baseball’s minor leagues in the first half of the 20th century.  Major league owners got tired of shelling out major bucks for stars developed by independent minor league teams, so people like Branch Rickey took the obvious step by co-opting the minors with their own controlled farm systems.  And that was the end of meaningful, independent minor league baseball.

Now, you can look at this as the author does and see it as a welcome, if radical development that might be necessary to save colleges from themselves, but I question whether coaches, athletic directors and presidents at schools with powerhouse athletics departments would share your point of view.  Does anyone think that Alabama’s current business model survives intact if Nick Saban is coaching kids who would have been at best lower-tier Sun Belt players?  I doubt Saban does.

Any sort of successor protocol to the NCAA’s amateurism model is going to have to be one that continues to allow the five-star studs to pass through the Alabamas of the college athletics world.  Put it this way – notice how articles like this never make an effort to get the players’ point of view?  Coaches want the talent, even if it’s for a limited amount of time.

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26 Comments

Filed under It's Just Bidness, The NCAA

26 responses to “The status quo cuts both ways.

  1. Scorpio Jones, III

    Yo…Bluto. They only so mucha this killing the game shit I can take. Even Georgia fans have a limit to how depressed we can get before the fucking season even starts.

    I am so bumbed; here it is July 4th or so and I have not been anywhere near a hat store.

    So…more music, less greed, more music, less greed.

  2. The NFL will never allow this to happen. Why would the NFL want to change anything about talent acquisition? They have their rules in place that haven’t been successfully challenged and have a feeder system to their established draft system. The structure of the draft is intended to maintain competitive balance where a struggling team has the chance to hit the jackpot by drafting a top player.

  3. CreswellKing

    Senator, do you understand how the “competitive balance” of the EPL and European soccer compares to the NFL?

    • The linked article makes that pretty clear, doesn’t it?

      • DawgPhan

        getting it coming and going. I didnt read the link guy and I read it and didnt want to guy.

        h/t internet commenters. I see you.

      • CreswellKing

        No, not at all.

        • Big teams in big markets would pay top dollar and get the best players, and the relative parity that characterizes many American sports leagues would vanish.

          • James

            Yeah, but: that entire doomsday scenario is predicated on the assumption that the current American sports league owners would all get together and undo the current parity safeguards they have in place, which in the NFL is never going to happen. If the entire NCAA feeder system is destroyed, for at least 26 NFL teams it costs a lot less money to prop up a farm system to replace it than it does to destroy the entire current ecosystem.

            • My point is that the feeder system isn’t going to be destroyed, because power schools are as invested in it as the NFL.

              • James

                Opinion here but I disagree. If the NFL had to spring up a minor league system to fully and completely replace the current NCAA system, I can’t really picture how it would become very expensive. I keep hearing “but they’ll have to spend speculative money on 18-year-olds, that’s unsafe!” Yet baseball and hockey do it already, and pretty effectively, especially compared to the current predictive power of the NFL draft, where half the first rounders are busts. The reality it very few of these guys can actually command any real money at 18, plus what would probably happen is that they’d force the minor leagues to join the union, and restrict their salaries under collective bargaining the same way rookie salaries are restricted now…so it’s even more controlled.

                Not to mention they would actually get to teach them directly. You think the Browns would rather their current high stakes gambling on QBs that’s been failing for over a decade now, or sign 5 or 6 kids every year out of high school and try to develop them? You could probably have run an entire minor league system for the lats 15 years on the initial contracts of Tim Couch, Charlie Frye, Brady Quinn and Colt McCoy alone.

                The more I talk about this the more I’m surprised the NFL doesn’t do it. The issue is probably that they don’t want to have to compete with the current NCAA system for top players, which makes me think there’s plenty of people in the league who might quickly be rooting for the system to fail.

                • James

                  Although — I’d be fascinated to see what would happen to NFL coaching salaries if there weren’t 120 other bidders in the marketplace propping them up. And vice-versa for that matter.

                • James, have you been to a minor league baseball game lately? They are absolute snooze-fests played in front of 1,000 fans. If the NFL owners thought there was money to be made in minor league football, they would have done it long ago. They tried it with NFL Europe, and it was a disaster. I may be in the minority, but you couldn’t pay me to go watch minor league football. Your comment below about brands and brand loyalty were right on. The reason college football and men’s basketball are so successful are the brands represented. IMHO, if you injected Roger Goodell with truth serum, he would say that his employers (the owners) want exactly what they have now and that the collapse of the college football system would be bad for the NFL.

                  If you had the opportunity to ask the MLB and NHL owners their preference, I imagine they would tell you they would love to have what the NFL and NBA have in the college system. They subsidize the operation of their minor league systems and would probably love to have players that were developed in a college system that are ready to enter the big leagues.

                  • Junkyardawg41

                    NFL Europe was a failure because it is cheaper for the NCAA to develop talent than for you to hone it. If the NCAA starts with rights arguments then the NFL model becomes a lot more viable. As with all things, follow the money.

                    • True enough – my only point is that if the NFL owners could figure out a way to make money with a developmental league made up of a subset of the players who play college football today, they would have done it years ago instead of depend on the college system. The bottom line is money from big-time college sports is so big that the universities have a vested interest in putting the best product on the field possible. People aren’t going to subscribe to the SEC Network for the swim meets, the equestrian competitions, women’s gymnastics or even baseball. They want college football and men’s basketball and the programming that supports those 2 sports.

                      IMHO, NFL Europe failed because there was no market for it – no one watched it, advertisers didn’t support it, and the quality of play was horrendous.

                • James

                  re: Thomas. Good points, but I’m not arguing that the NFL has to have a minor league system that is financially profitably on a standalone basis. I’m arguing that the NFL teams would probably be better off on the whole signing up 60 players a year at minor league rates (MLB is paying something like $3k a month on average) rather than drafting 30 of them and paying a mix of star-power salaries and best case league minimums.

                  NFL Europe was a pretty strange beast at the end, and really not very expensive (either $500k or $1m each per team, or 0.1% of current revenue), and in the end it wasn’t being used as a minor league system at all. What I’m speculating about is that $1m a year is a small price to pay to be able to develop players in house for three years rather than trying to gable on them, at NFL Draft prices, based on their playing widely varying types of football, against widely varying competition.

                  “If you had the opportunity to ask the MLB and NHL owners their preference, I imagine they would tell you they would love to have what the NFL and NBA have in the college system.”

                  I actually disagree. For starters, I don’t see why they couldn’t just back into it by instituting their own age minimum. Second, and I know less about the MLB system, but in the NHL it’s the best of both worlds. They draft players and own their rights, but they can leave them in college if they’d like, or pick them up to develop them in house if they feel that’s more advantageous.

                  Although: you couldn’t pay me to watch minor league football either :).

  4. Bulldog Joe

    Just think what can happen if the bottom three SEC teams got relegated to a lesser-paying division each year.

    Auburn wouldn’t have to wait five years to award a national title to last year’s team.

  5. Reipar

    Didn’t emmert just catch a bunch of flack for disparaging minor league baseball?

  6. James

    “Any sort of successor protocol to the NCAA’s amateurism model is going to have to be one that continues to allow the five-star studs to pass through the Alabamas of the college athletics world.”

    Part of me wonders, though. We’ve talked plenty about why the minor league system doesn’t stand on it’s own, because you’re not going to be able to build brands the way the colleges have, and do by default, because of the convenient fact that they’re (typically) regional schools that send people out into the region’s professional world.

    It’s never going to happen, because it means the end of insane administration salaries (which, if you boil it down, is in my opinion the single cause of all of this), but people don’t support the Penn State volleyball program, or the Vandy baseball program, or Boston U hockey because they’re the best players in the world at their age group (and really, what’s so significant about being the best 18-22 year old anyway?). No one wants it, but there’s a perfectly pleasant NCAA reality in which they cast this semi-pro stuff off and create an environment where the players can better integrate with the general student body.

    The thing is semi-pro is kind of the only way this can end, right?

  7. The Balance might suffer–but quality would increase in such an arrangement. The MLS is built (more so in the beginning) on College players turning pro at around 22…after 4 years of college where they have had NCAA dictated limited practice hours. Now compare the quality of the MLS to EPL. No comparison–I’d watch EPL all day if I could. Our players that turn pro are 6 or 7 years behind developmentally than their European counterparts. Our guys are much older with far less experience. That is no way to compete.

    I’d hate to think any gain in quality would have to come at the College game’s expense…but it sort of has to. There is no solution to this that will keep the NCAA happy. Any way you look at it they lose–it is a matter of extent now.

    • L.S. (I love that handle, by the way), no one will cry any tears for the destruction of the NCAA and its rank hypocrisy. I think a general consensus is becoming a super-D1 with greater autonomy (maybe even separated from the NCAA) from the mid-majors and lower D1 schools. Loss of influence of the NCAA isn’t a bad thing for the universities. Big-time college sports aren’t going away because there’s too much invested in television networks, administration, and facilities. It’s just whether the powers-that-be suck every bit of satisfaction and dollar out of the system to the point the customers decide it’s not worth it anymore.