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College athletes can now get paid. A sports economist says that could hurt UConn basketball

Connecticut guard Tristen Newton celebrates after their win against San Diego State during the men's national championship college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament on Monday, April 3, 2023, in Houston. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Brynn Anderson
Connecticut guard Tristen Newton celebrates after their win against San Diego State during the men's national championship college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament on Monday, April 3, 2023, in Houston.

March Madness commences this week as both the NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments take center stage. Yale has made the men's field for the fourth time in the last decade. Sacred Heart University and Fairfield University are both making their second appearances in the last three seasons in the women's tourney. The University of Connecticut has made them both for the fourth consecutive year.

With 16 national championships, UConn women’s and men’s basketball programs have perennially been not just the best in the state, but also among the best in America. The UConn men are the defending national champions, and the two programs have won a total of five championships in the last decade.

But Smith College Sports Economist Andrew Zimbalist said the next decade could be much tougher for both programs, now that boosters are allowed to pay players to play for their favorite schools. Zimbalist said there are many wealthier schools that can pay more for the talent UConn wants.

“One of the major reasons for that is the introduction of NIL – name, image and likeness – payments that are going to athletes and the formation of collectives, which are booster groups that pretend to be paying the athletes money for their property rights or the publicity rights,” Zimbalist said. “But what's really happening is they're getting paid money for their ability to generate victories on the field or on the basketball court.”

“Coaches are going to be able to go to the best players in the country and offer them big time NIL money — could be $1 million; could be more. UCONN simply doesn't have the ability to reach out to its donors and to its alums, like some of the Power Four schools do, and, as such, it's going to be harder and harder for them to attract the top basketball stars, both on the men's and women's side.”

“Power Four” schools are universities that belong to the four richest athletic conferences in America: The Big Ten, The Big 12, The Southeastern Conference (SEC), and The Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). This used to be known as The Power Five. But, starting in 2024, 10 of the Pac 12 schools will join one of the other power conferences. What all 67 schools in the Power Four have, that UConn does not, is a revenue-generating football program.

“That’s (football) the big money maker in college sports,” Zimbalist said. “In the case of UConn, without a conference affiliation, they're at a big disadvantage.”

“I think UConn got half-a-million dollars from CBS for the rights to broadcast their football games this past year. Compare that to what a Big Ten school gets,” he said.

In 2023, The Big Ten signed broadcast rights deals that Neilsen research estimates will funnel $80 to $100 million to member schools during each year of the deal. “UConn is at a very large disadvantage, and it's one of the reasons why the UConn Athletic Department runs in regular deficit," he said.

While UConn’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament appearance won’t erase the athletic department’s debts, Zimbalist said it should put some money in the coffers.

UConn is in the Big East Conference, and each of the Big East Conference’s 11 schools this year will get just north of $545,000 for putting three teams in the NCAA tournament. Each additional gameany men’s team plays in the tournament is worth an additional $2 million to that team’s conference per year for six years. Each $2 million payment is split evenly among the 11 Big East teams. And winning a second consecutive national championship could positively impact UConn’s bottom line in other ways.

“That presumably provides some good PR for the school,” Zimbalist said. “It presumably leads to some additional applications and makes it less likely that they're going to have empty beds in the dormitories during the year and probably makes it somewhat more likely that UConn graduates will donate money, either directly to the athletics department or to the school in general.”

As for the other men’s basketball teams in the 2024 NCAA Tournament, Yale has already brought in $2 million to the Ivy-League for making the tournament. And, just like UConn and the other schools, the Bulldogs will bring in $2 million more for every additional game they play up to the Final Four.

“The-Ivy-League, of course, has eight schools and not eleven, so it's divided amongst the smaller number of schools.” Zimbalist said.

However, Zimbalist said Yale probably needs their share of that money less than any other school in the tournament. Yale’s endowment of over $40 billion is second in America only to Harvard.

Unlike the two Connecticut men’s basketball programs in the NCAA Tournament, Zimbalist said none of the three women’s programs, including Geno Auriemma’s powerful UConn squad, will be bringing any windfall to their respective universities.

I believe that it's scheduled to change next year, but the amount that the women will be allocated will be substantially less,” Zimbalist said.

“The women's game can generate an enormous amount of interest and has enormous popularity. But the NCAA has been retrograde, and they've just stuck to the traditional male custom of rewarding the male sports heroes and not the female sports heroes.”

John Henry Smith is Connecticut Public’s host of All Things Considered, its flagship afternoon news program. He's proud to be a part of the team that won a regional Emmy Award for The Vote: A Connecticut Conversation. In his 21st year as a professional broadcaster, he’s covered both news and sports.