Monday, November 17, 2008

Fantasy sports, the student athlete and the NCAA

Recently, two items related to fantasy sports have appeared in the news. One story is tracking the NCAA's concern over, but apparent inability/unwillingness to address, the decision by broadcast partner CBS to create a fantasy sports league that is based on the performance of college athletes. The concern is that fantasy teams and games based on collegiate athletic performance will further erode the myth of the student athlete as an amateur. (This is a topic that is worthy of extensive debate in and of itself, but for many athletes, they are already receiving compensation in the form of an athletic grant-in-aid that can cover tuition and fees, room and board and books. Some suggest that this compensation is insufficient relative to the amount of money that coaches and schools make from the athletes, but this is a topic for another day.)

The second item is a study that was just reviewed in the November 17, 2008 edition of the Sports Business Journal, that finds fantasy sports participants outspend the public generally and sports fans specifically in many product categories that have strong relationships to the corporate sponsors regularly associated with athletics (alcohol, air travel, restaurants, athletic shoes, video games, etc.).

While the NCAA and the Knight Commission have been anxious about the erosion of amateurism and are also concerned about the exploitation of rights of individual rights of athletes, these concerns seem to be attracting a lot of misplaced angst and energy. The reasons these concerns are misplaced are two fold - 1) Its hard to understand how a student athlete becomes less amateur (or said differently, professionalized) since the student athlete isn't personally benefiting financially from the fantasy sports league. 2) While student athletes and/or the NCAA may take issue with a student athlete's name and statistics being used, the ability to protect these rights individually or collectively seems tenuous at best since the courts recently ruled that Major League Baseball (an organization with Congressional anti-trust exemptions) did not own the statistics related to their athletes (who are represented by one of the most powerful sports collective bargaining units, the Major League Baseball Players Association). The courts have ruled that these statistics are part of the public domain. Clearly this standing extends to college athletic contests as well.

It seems this is an inevitable development and a natural outgrowth from the ever increasing expansion of technology, the World Wide Web and sports interest. The power of fantasy sports leagues should be harnessed. Rather than reflexively resisting this development, the NCAA, colleges and universities and other entities associated with college athletics should look to the study that was referenced above and consider the potential benefits of this arrangement.

Rather than worrying that people across the country are playing a game that is based in part on the performance of the starting quarterback at Stanford as compared to the performance of the wide receiver from Eastern Michigan - fantasy leagues could be used as a means to harness the passion that surrounds college sports for even greater benefit to the Association, member institutions and the athletes.

Of significant concern to the NCAA is its $6 Billion television contract with CBS Sports, which expires in 2014. This contract is responsible for more than 90% of all revenue to the NCAA and funds most of the 87 other championships the NCAA offers in Divisions I, II and III. When the renegotiation of this contract occurs, CBS, ESPN or any other entity that has interest in obtaining the broadcast rights to the Men's Basketball Championship is going to have significant interest in making sure that the rights fees they are paying to the NCAA can be justified through corporate sponsorships - sponsorships that could be enhanced through fantasy sports fans who spend more in product categories important to the NCAA.

Further, as the NCAA loves to say, there are 380,000 student athletes and most of them are going pro in something other than sports. For so many athletes, this could be a way for their story, professional aspirations, as well as on AND off field success to be tracked at a level of detail that makes them more attractive employees, athletic or otherwise. Fantasy sports, Facebook, myspace and countless other technologies that we haven't even heard of yet may be the impetus that allows more athletes to build their personal brand, which is increasingly important it today's Google driven world. While compensation for the athlete isn't forthcoming right now, it may happen after their eligibility expires with the help of this type of activity while fantasy sports can simultaneously help the vast majority of colleges and universities balance their athletic books, since many programs do not currently operate free of institutional funds.

As an incredibly image conscious organization, the NCAA associates with only the most acceptable and controversy free sponsors. In this instance, it should consider fantasy sports a vehicle by which value is returned to corporate sponsors who are supporting college athletics while promoting and celebrating student athletes throughout the association via an endeavor in which many are already participating.
-ultimate sports insider

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