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How to Handicap College Sports in the Coming Era of Paid NCAA Student-Athletes

Someone Betting on Florida Football

I’m always struck by the simple, clean logic of great athletes and sportsmen.

For instance, Jack Nicklaus was never the smartest guy in the world from a book-learning point of view. Big Jack’s claim to fame was his understanding of simple, basic truths, and his iron-fisted adherence to them. When other golfers complained about a course layout or moaned about bad breaks, Jack would pass them by and think “gotcha.” He understood that all golfers had to play on the same course.

In the same way, I think a personality like Tim Tebow – easily the most famous student-athlete of all time – doesn’t get enough credit for his subtlety and willingness to separate wheat from chaff. For instance, Tebow never teased or hazed a teammate unless they were too full of themselves and not all about the program, in which case he would carefully apply the needle within earshot of teammates.

Surely the Chosen One would never be in favor of multi-million dollar contracts for NCAA athletes, or any other obvious corruption of his cherished Southeastern Conference. Not that it’s not already corrupted, of course, as all Power-5 leagues are driven to be – but consider that Tebow has never spoken out as a “hard-liner” against student-athletes receiving some kind of compensation. In one hilarious yet telling turn, Timmy told Jon Stewart on The Daily Show that colleges should provide scooters and mopeds free-of-charge to athletes who must run to class after running all day.

The implication from wise graduates (of Florida’s QB ranks and elsewhere) is that the corruption in modern NCAA sports comes not from SMU paying $500,000 wholesale to an NFL-prospect defensive tackle, but from the ruling body’s out-of-touch stipulations and restrictions that once got Boise State nabbed for a senior buying McDonalds for a recruit.

As Skip Bayless once put it, when you screw The Lid down too tightly, ethics and morals begin oozing out of the sides. Why shouldn’t every college program cheat when everyone has to cheat anyway?

The solution is in compromise, as it always is in the 21st century. Those houses, cars, and 6-figure payments detailed in Pony Express will never be legal.

But to paraphrase a line from James Earl Jones, payment for student-athletes is coming, Ray. Coming fairly soon, in fact.

NCAA Sports in 2019-20: Brands Rule, Boosters Drool

A landmark federal court ruling in March of 2019 has allowed universities to begin looking at Tim Tebow’s “scooters and mopeds” and other amenities to include in student-athletes’ scholarships. That’s an important step toward fairness in a landscape where Nick Saban is paid untold riches (and, let’s be real, gets a free hand everywhere in the state of Alabama) yet his starting DT’s get free classes and not much else.

But the ruling was actually more-significant for what some activists hoped it would be – a more-comprehensive and more radical move toward real compensation and salaries.

It bears noting that there is a division of college sports in which student-athletes are paid salaries – the NAIA. As a test case, it hasn’t necessarily worked out all that well. The NAIA has become a system in which a few “tycoons” with big budgets can manipulate the system and produce title-worthy rosters while everyone else suffers in the doldrums, not unlike prep football in many states.

Meanwhile the NAIA’s darker side is legendary for its “armpit of the sports world” reputation.

It’s not a model for the NCAA – but the NCAA enjoys advantages and resources that an upstart college division does not.

The power of branding could eventually “save” college sports, or at least drag the genre kicking-and-screaming into a new era.

Stop the Presses: A Power Conference Does Something Right

Big East commissioner Val Ackerman has a – cough – Val of an idea.

The commish played politics earlier in 2019 when she told reporters that the NCAA is “considering” a plan to allow student-athletes to accept product-endorsement deals.

NCAA officials denied her remarks. But the fact that Ackerman wasn’t reprimanded speaks volumes.

Obviously, endorsement opportunities would blow the lid off any real restrictions on student-athletes getting paid. Just think of how Jerry Jones colluded with big business to keep Deion Sanders in Dallas, Texas for longer than the NFL’s salary-cap structure ought to have let Prime Time stay.

But I’m not here to moralize and think of the inherent dangers. Instead, think of a product-endorsing body of NCAA students who do business out in the open, in public, where Uncle Sam can keep some kind of tabs on it.

Instead of behind closed doors with shady boosters, tennis rackets and groupies in-hand.

There are many other positive outcomes to a compensation-through-sponsorship arrangement for NCAA superstars. Underdog teams from less-heralded leagues, women’s teams, and all kinds of upstart brands with strong public relations teams and sponsor-ties would have a better chance to knock-off the Clemsons and Villanovas of the world. Players who took dirty money instead of taking a sponsorship or endorsing a popular product would stick out like sore losers.

But as Alex says to the Priest in A Clockwork Orange, we’re not here to bother about the why’s and wherefores. Sponsorship deals and brand-advertisements on college athletes is going to be a trend at some juncture in the next 5 to 10 years. Everyone had best get prepared.

That includes handicappers and college sports bettors. How can we prepare for the “Wild West” incumbency period of the compromise that’s sure to come – letting college athletes collect a paycheck so long as it’s not from the Dean of the University…or one Ms. Val Ackerman?

Handicapping the Top Echelon…and Identifying it First

As a Chinese proverb states, “to make rabbit stew…first capture a rabbit.”

Bettors probably think that the FBS and Division 1 college basketball ranks are already quite-competitive from a top-down POV. After all there are many, many more NCAA hoops squads who have a legitimate shot at a Final Four berth in a given season than the number of professional basketball teams which could conceivably reach the NBA Finals.

But get ready – when business interests can sponsor college athletes it’s going to be a whole new ballgame.

It’s already time long-since-past for gamblers and handicappers to re-calibrate our conception of college and amateur sports. We think of value in terms of leagues, conferences, and divisions. “Oh, I wouldn’t take anybody out of the ACC Coastal, ha ha,” said the bowl speculator who lost a bundle on the 2014 Orange Bowl between Georgia Tech and Dak Prescott’s Mississippi State.

Modern underdogs in college athletes use branding to catch-up with the big shots. Boise State is just 1 fantastic example, utilizing a bright blue field to catch the eye of curious TV viewers. Quick – what conference do the Lady Huskies of UConn play in? You know, that basketball team that has won 99 out of the last 100 NCAA Tournaments. Maybe you knew it was the American. But consider that the top brands in women’s hoops, like Notre Dame, Connecticut, Tennessee and so-on really belong in a separate “division” outside of their conferences.

The same goes for the Clemson Tigers and the Alabama Crimson Tide. Handicappers will continue to make terrible mistakes (like thinking that Ohio State wouldn’t overachieve only to let-down at unexpected times so long as Urban Meyer was coaching) until if and when they’re able to conceive of the brands of those schools transcending any conference affiliation. Clemson doesn’t play like an ACC team and Alabama doesn’t play like an SEC team. From a football recruiting point of view, they’re brand-name competitors on a separate level.

The Hierarchy Will Tighten Further

There’s already a “staggered” hierarchy in college and international club sports, something that few gamblers understand and all could benefit from knowing more about. People assume, for instance, that the Baltimore Orioles could always win a 7-game series against the best Nippon Professional Baseball club in Japan on a neutral diamond. The hierarchy of talent-acquisition doesn’t work that way.

If a QB has an opportunity to start for North Carolina State and also an opportunity to go to Clemson or Georgia and be the 3rd-wheel backup emergency stand-by practice squad Spring Game quarterback, why, he’s going to go and start for NC State.

Not that promises to recruits are always kept anyway – but such promises will be better-kept in the public eye when McDonalds instead of a shadowy “uncle” is sponsoring a frosh kid.

Boise State already has a deal with Albertsons that once drove my colleague to write, “I guess they have a steak in the place.” What if the Broncos took things a step further and cannily referenced the infamous “McDonald’s incident” with some good-old hamburger revenue for a few star players in various sports?

In that case, the western lands of Idaho might start to look more-appealing to young ballers from New York or Miami.

Pay attention to the following factors when handicapping players and teams in this new brand-heavy, mass-media, publicly-compensated era of student-athletics:

  • The prevalence of more juniors and seniors on powerhouse NCAA basketball rosters
  • 40 or 50 potentially top-ranked, nationally-competitive football teams instead of just 20-30
  • Popular women’s teams growing in stature and publicity (and shrinking on the betting board)
  • “Cult” sports such as college wrestling getting more gambling markets thanks to star/advertising power and social media
  • Schools with social insensitivity or poor public relations will suffer consequences on the field of play
  • Recruiting will become more streamlined as coaches seek the right fit for top roster spots at glamor programs like USC, Miami and Texas
  • Players’ lives will become more complex – much more likely to find a “distracted” superstar in a big moment
  • Teams with excellent coaching and smart guidelines for endorsement deals with thrive

Payment for NCAA Athletes: NASCAR Ball 2020?

Mitch Hedberg’s classic NASCAR joke revolved around Mitch as a race car passenger. “Hey, man, why do we keep goin’ in circles?” the comedian would muse, then, after a pause: “You must really like Tide.”

Hopefully it doesn’t get to that point. I don’t want to see “Tide” on any student-athlete’s jersey, or “Emirates” for that matter.

I’m an optimist on all fronts. The spirit of compromise and the oversight of public deals will keep college athletes practicing and studying at least some of the time, not merely smiling for the cameras…even in 2025 or 2030.

Meanwhile, speculators can find value in looking at the top college teams for what they are – constant recruiting brand-advertisements for themselves.

Conference moguls can still strut and brag on their prowess on the field or court, but the power to succeed or fail lies in each specific program’s ability to navigate new waters in a new age of media.