If We Paid NCAA Basketball Players What They're Really Worth, This Is What They'd Earn

And here's a cockamamie plan to get it for them.

Kansas Jayhawk Andrew Wiggins (AP)

According to many NBA draft “experts,” Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid are two of the top prospects in the 2014 NBA draft. Next year, assuming each player is indeed taken in the top five, they will earn more than $3 million to play basketball. This will be quite a pay raise for both players.

During this past season—when both players worked for the University of Kansas—each was paid considerably less. According to estimates offered by USA Today back in 2011, a student-athlete receives about $120,000 in value each year, or $125,250 in 2014 dollars. This calculation includes such factors as a scholarship, health care, coaching, and media exposure. Although economist Andrew Zimbalist called this calculation “wrongheaded” (and yes, there are some real problems with how USA Today did it), let’s treat it as a very high estimate of the upper-bound of “student-athlete” pay.

Let's accept that number. Is that what Wiggins and Embiid were worth in 2013-14? To answer this question, we need to figure out each player’s economic value. Back in 1974, economist Gerald Scully devised a simple method to measure an athlete’s economic contribution to a team. First, one determines how much revenue each win is worth to an organization. And then, one measures how many wins each player produces. Multiplying the wins a player produces by the value of those wins gives us an estimate of the player’s value to his employer.

To illustrate, prior to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, Embiid had produced 4.67 wins for the Kansas Jayhawks (calculated essentially according this approach used for the NBA). Using college revenue data from the U.S. Department of Education, economist Robert Brown (for research Brown, I, and a few others are working on) estimated that one win for the Kansas men’s basketball team was worth $159,601 in 2010-11 ($166,585 in 2014 dollars). Given these two numbers, Embiid was worth approximately $777,286 (again, prior to the tournament). If we take the USA Today number seriously, this means the Jayhawks have underpaid Embiid by a bit more than $650,000.

Repeating the same calculation for every player on the Jayhawks, we see, as the following table illustrates, that Andrew Wiggins (who some people think is worth the number one pick in the NBA draft) was only the fourth most productive Jayhawk this year.  Even though Wiggins has underperformed relative to expectations, he has still been underpaid by more than $450,000.  And combined, this entire team has been underpaid by about $2 million.

Now let’s imagine for a moment that the Kansas Jayhawks hired this talent in a competitive labor market. In such a market, a firm underpaying their employees would face a problem. If a worker like Embiid generates more than $700,000 in revenue and is paid less than $200,000, another firm would be more than happy to pay more.

But in the NCAA, this option doesn’t exist. Paying more money is a violation of NCAA rules. If a school violates these rules it will first face penalties, and, as Southern Methodist discovered in 1987, can actually be prohibited from playing. Such a prohibition reduces the revenue of the program to zero, hence making the practice of paying players more money a very bad deal.

There is, though, a simple solution. Again, one team going “rogue” won’t have anyone to play. But let’s imagine a scenario where more than one school decided to create a “professional NCAA.”  A collection of “rogue” teams could both pay their employees (i.e. student-athletes) more money, and have someone to play (hence be able to produce revenue). And if they did this, the following would likely happen:

  • The best college athletes would probably play in the “professional NCAA.” After all, why would a top talent play for a college that both restricted his earnings and refused to pay him in cash?
  • The “professional NCAA” could be immune from anti-trust laws. Right now, several court cases are challenging the NCAA’s employment practices (a new case was filed this week). If courts rule that student-athletes are employees, it follows that the NCAA restrictions are a violation of the law. But if a professional league negotiated compensation with employee representation via collective bargaining, then restricted pay would be legal. At least, that is how the courts have ruled with respect to professional team sports in the United States in the past.
  • The “professional NCAA” could thwart a challenge from the NBA’s D-league. Again, college athletes are producing far more revenue than they are being paid. So an opportunity exists for another league.  Mark Cuban recently suggested that alternative league could be the NBA’s D-League. If a collection of colleges formed a “professional NCAA,” they could maintain their respective fan bases and prevent the NBA from stealing the best college players.

And there is one more benefit to establishing a “professional NCAA.” If a few college teams break from the current NCAA cartel, it seems likely that more will follow.  Once the top talent flows into the “professional NCAA,” the revenues earned by the current NCAA members will decline. That will place pressure on schools to change how they compensate their student-athletes.

One should note there are a few losers from this approach. More money to athletes means less money to coaches and other university employees. In addition, the networks that signed the $10.8 billion television contract with the NCAA might see the value of this deal decline considerably. A “professional NCAA” would be a far more attractive league for television viewers. But the contract signed through 2024 is with an amateur league that might struggle to find viewers if faced with a professional college league.

We can expect the losers to this approach to fight for the status quo. But given the economic incentives outlined above, we should not be surprised that this becomes a losing fight over time. And all it will take to get the ball rolling is just a few schools going rogue.