No, Fans Won't Stop Watching If College Players Get Paid

Defending itself in the Ed O'Bannon lawsuit, the NCAA has made some stunning claims. One, backed by an NCAA-commissioned poll, is that people so hate the idea of paying players that they will stop watching college sports if amateurism ends. In the filings, ex-CBS Sports President Neal Pilson estimated that ratings would drop 15-20 percent if the players were paid.

This is horseshit, for two reasons:

A. The NCAA's poll is crap

The poll in question, provided to the NCAA by market researcher J. Michael Dennis, found that 68.9 percent of respondents opposed "paying money to student-athletes on college football and men's basketball teams in addition to covering their college expenses," with 37.7 percent of respondents reporting that they would be less likely to watch, listen to, or attend games if the players were paid a salary of $20,000. Hal Poret, a researcher brought in by the plaintiffs, found two major issues with these results:

  1. The poll was vague about its definition of "paying players," and thus did not address compensation for use of likeness. It's clear from the poll results—which included some more in-depth responses—that the vast majority of those polled associated "paying players" with impermissible-benefit scandals (like Ohio State), or plans to pay student-athletes set salaries or stipends. The O'Bannon lawsuit is seeking over-the-table compensation for the use of student-athletes likenesses in video games. This sort of payment—where the players get a cut of money being made directly from their likeness—is different from the types of payment that the respondents assumed was being discussed. (Compensation for use of likeness is at least fractally related to payment under a pay-for-play regime, but the two are still different enough in the popular imagination that a poll conflating them isn't telling you much.)
  2. The poll surveyed a bunch of people who didn't give a shit about college sports anyway. Fifty percent of respondents reported that they had watched zero college football games in the last year, and 64 percent had watched zero basketball games. Those who don't watch college sports were the most likely to claim they would watch less if players were paid. If you're making the case that ratings will decline, you should probably listen to the people who are actually generating those ratings.

B. Polls say nothing about consumer behavior

Let's say that a better poll had been commissioned, and it found that a good chunk of actual college basketball/football fans reported that they'd be less likely to watch games if the players were being compensated for their likeness in video games and such. Would these fans actually put their money where their mouths are? Daniel Rascher—an economist at USF (and the author of another study discussed elsewhere)—argues no, using these five points and one excellent chart:

    • Universities already pay college athletes, as Defendant's economists have noted.
    • College sports are popular – but this says little about the importance of amateurism.
    • Sports that have transitioned away from amateurism have not experienced decreased consumer demand.
    • Defendant's evidence from polls and surveys does not speak to consumer purchasing decisions.
    • In the past, the NCAA itself has argued that amateurism decreases, rather than increases consumer demand.

    No, Fans Won't Stop Watching If College Players Get Paid

    The chart accompanies that fourth bullet point. After a long history lesson on sports that only became more popular when they went from amateur to professional, Rascher comes to baseball. Fans have bitched about MLB salaries ever since free agency threatened to "destroy baseball," and yet MLB revenues have done just fine. If college basketball and football players start getting compensated for their likenesses, some fans—probably way less than 69 percent—will complain, but they won't stop watching.