- Mike Fish, ESPN Senior Writer
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Down in Gator Country, where the Tebow name has a following rarely witnessed in the annals of college sport, Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley is imagining the headaches if -- remember, please, this is only a whimsical exercise -- he had to sit across from a high-powered agent and negotiate a contract for the services of his star quarterback. Think Tim Tebow might be worth something beyond the $13,000-a-year athletic scholarship Florida has given him?
"Yeah, I imagine those would be interesting conversations," chuckles Foley, the Gators' highly successful department head. "Again, if you could pay them and if he did have an agent, I don't think it is much different than Sam Bradford [Oklahoma] or Colt McCoy [Texas] or a number of players in this country."
In other words, it would be costly. Very costly. Tebow is a franchise, an iconic presence on the collegiate level akin to Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in the NFL, a player who puts W's in the left column and $$$$$ in the university's coffers. It might not be reflected in the relative worth of the pro contracts these players eventually will sign -- Tebow isn't rated by scouts as a can't-miss pro quarterback prospect -- but on the play-for-no-pay level, it can be argued that his market value to Florida is greater than Bradford's to Oklahoma or McCoy's to Texas. Or, for that matter, the value of running back Mark Ingram at conference rival Alabama or Toby Gerhart out west at Stanford and a handful of others whose names have been mentioned in connection with the 2009 Heisman Trophy that will be awarded Saturday night.
So if a top college player could be paid, what would he be worth?
Good question. There is no market structure in place, so even super agents such as Scott Boras and David Falk say they don't quite know where they'd start their spin and any speculation has to be loaded with enough disclaimers to fill Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at Florida Field. But one college economics professor who has written several academic papers on the value of collegiate athletes in the past two decades estimates that Tebow and other marquee talent could be worth close to $3 million a season if the college game were subject to market forces similar to those that govern the NFL.
Robert Brown, a professor at Cal State-San Marcos, crunched the collegiate football revenue numbers available in federal documents and obtained by ESPN.com, putting them into an economic model that suggests the typical elite college player -- one who will be drafted into the NFL -- has an average value of $1.3 million to $1.36 million over the course of one season. Brown based his calculations on a fairly narrow revenue stream that can be traced to the player's presence on campus and includes figures provided by ESPN.com on football ticket revenues, contributions, media rights and game-day program sales. Obviously, the figure varies from player to player and school to school; the NFL-bound player from the University of Texas, for example, has a value exceeding that of the future pro from Texas-El Paso.
Likewise, the number goes up for Tebow, McCoy and others in the Heisman conversation.
"That would be a franchise player, one of the best players on an NFL team," Brown reasons.
Extrapolating from the NFL model, Brown says his research on the college level confirms that quarterbacks tend to be the players with the highest value to their schools. The top professional signal-callers, from Carson Palmer in Cincinnati to the Manning brothers in Indianapolis and New York, typically account for 7 to 12 percent of team payroll. Under the NFL's collective bargaining agreement, the players currently are guaranteed 59.5 percent of all football revenues, and that number goes up to 60 percent next season.
Because college football revenues are smaller than the amounts in the NFL, and because college coaches get a greater percentage of them than do their NFL brethren, Brown takes a conservative approach and lowers to 40 percent the revenues that would go to collegiate payrolls in his model. Thus, in Florida's case, the player payroll figure last year would have totaled $26.5 million, and a modest 10 percent share of that would have brought Tebow more than $2.5 million.
"To me, I don't think that seems crazy," Brown says of the estimate. "I wouldn't think that is outlandish."
Fellow economist Andrew Zimbalist says Brown's figures are too low. Among other things, Zimbalist says Brown's projections don't take into account potential income such as endorsements and media opportunities, none of which is allowable for players under NCAA guidelines, so it tends to go to already-deep-in-the-money college coaches, who in their hometown markets can be seen and heard, at times awkwardly, pushing everything from pest control services to carpet stores to car dealerships.
"I think those are underestimates," says Zimbalist, a Smith College economics professor and author of several books on sports economics. "The very clear fact is that because the players are not getting paid, the coaches are getting paid the value of the players that they recruit. It is almost as if you said that nobody on the New York Yankees should get paid more than $30,000 a year [the average cost of a scholarship]. Well, what would happen? It wouldn't all go to the bottom line of the Yankees. More of that money would go to [general manager] Brian Cashman and [manager] Joe Girardi and the people who are responsible for bringing A-Rod [Alex Rodriguez] and C.C. Sabathia and so-and-so on board.
"So this notion that the coaches are getting market salaries and therefore it is OK is absolutely fatuous, because it is a completely rigged market where the real producers don't get paid. And the coaches, moreover, are getting paid by institutions that benefit from extensive tax privileges and also extensive subsidies from the university and the state. So none of that is free market, but they like to wrap themselves in the cloth of the free market to say that their salaries are justified. It is idiotic."
But as the dollars continue to grow, the system -- built for generations on the backs of unpaid football and basketball athletes -- continues to be accepted as good business, from Oregon to Penn State. It's especially true at big-time football powers, where anything short of contending for a national title is almost unacceptable, and where presidents and department heads -- sometimes with help from nonprofit athletic associations -- eagerly dole out major bucks to the honchos running their football programs.
At Florida, after two national titles in three years, the school is waiting for coach Urban Meyer to put his signature on a new six-year, $24 million deal.
At Oklahoma, Bob Stoops earns just shy of $4 million a year, including "stay benefits" paying $700,000 on every Oct. 1 and July 1 that he remains as the Sooners' coach.
At Texas, Mack Brown, who is preparing his Longhorns for another BCS title date, is college sports' first $5 million man after the university system regents bumped his salary up by a couple of million earlier this week. If his unpaid players beat Alabama's unpaid players in the Citi BCS National Championship Game next month, Brown also gets to pocket a $450,000 bonus. His top defensive assistant and "head coach-in-waiting,'' Will Muschamp, is compensated to the tune of $900,000 annually -- almost $300,000 more than the university president, William C. Powers Jr., makes.
Prowling the sideline opposite Brown next month, Alabama coach Nick Saban, after a brief and humbling NFL gig with the Miami Dolphins, will be armed with a contract guaranteeing at least $42.35 million through the 2017 season. A source familiar with Saban's contract says it averages $4.7 million a year, which makes him the runner-up to Brown, at least in the salary matchup.
David Falk, the agent who helped turn Michael Jordan into a marketing machine, acknowledges the controversy in the disparity between the megadeals for coaches and the scholarships for players that cover only a fraction of the top athlete's worth. But Falk is an old-school agent who believes in the separation of amateur and pro and isn't inclined to think the system should be flipped topsy-turvy, as Scott Boras does. (More on that later.) Still, Falk says it's simpler and cleaner to assess the value of a star college basketball player, who is on the floor with just four others, than a hot-shot quarterback or tailback.
In his book, "The Bald Truth,'' Falk writes about the need during negotiations to focus on the economic impact of the marquee player. He cites the New York Knicks' selling $6 million in new season tickets in the days immediately after they drew the top pick in the 1985 NBA draft lottery, which the public knew would be Patrick Ewing. He says the Chicago Bulls' attendance nearly tripled in Michael Jordan's first couple of seasons, and MJ's presence led to new sponsorship deals for the team, as well. Those things help determine a player's value.
Falk says the issue with placing a value on top college players, if they were to be compensated, is that the system is already institutionalized. For example, Southern California historically churns out tailbacks, so no one player's value is off the charts. Because good running backs are so plentiful, USC can win and make money no matter who plays the position. Or, as Falk says about the University of Texas, "There are probably six more Colt McCoys in the wing. You just plug them into the system and the value is not as great."
Likewise, Alabama and Oklahoma, other than an occasional glitch or two over the years, have been fielding winners since the Eisenhower administration, and likely will recruit well enough no matter who is under center to keep on rolling long after the BCS goes the way of the Edsel.
The one player who catches Falk's fancy, though, is Florida's Tebow.
This is hardly the school's first taste of success in its 103-year football history, but those upticks that the agent in Falk looks for can be found in the Tebow Years, or what future generations might look back on as the Golden Age of Florida Football. Tebow -- with his Jack Armstrong presence, passionate leadership and clutch play -- has been a huge factor in winning football games, generating money, and influencing people's fortunes and lives.
Consider: The program was in an ugly funk after the 2004 season. Ron Zook was run out of Gainesville after an unacceptable three-year record of 23-15. Meyer upgraded the program to 9-3 in his first season, but it wasn't until Tebow arrived in 2006 and played a key reserve role behind starting quarterback Chris Leak that the Gators went on to win their next national championship. With Tebow as the starter, they won another national title in 2008. Florida is 47-7 in the Tebow Years, and 34-6 in the seasons he started.
That makes a big difference in his value, according to Falk.
"You'd have to ascertain the incremental revenues that a school like Florida is getting," he says. "In the five previous years before Tebow, say their average record was 7-5. And when he is there, it is 10-1. They're winning national championships, conference championships. Before, they went to minor bowls, and now they're in big bowls. [Look at] bowl revenues and sponsorships. I'd try to say he is, or was, a major factor in the increase in revenues."
Tebow has won a Heisman Trophy, finished third last year and will be at the ceremony at the Nokia Theatre in New York this weekend as the first-ever three-time finalist. With him in uniform, the Gators have won two national titles and two SEC crowns, and they played for a third conference championship this past weekend. Win the Sugar Bowl against Cincinnati next month and they're guaranteed another national top-five finish.
In four years, Tebow has never played in front of anything less than a home sellout; a total of 2,401,532 sweaty people crammed into "The Swamp" to see him play in his college career. In his sophomore and junior seasons (his first two as the starter), Florida football revenues totaled $132 million, according to records Florida and other universities are required to file with the U.S. Department of Education. (This year's numbers won't be available until November 2010.) It might not be inaccurate to suggest that the buzz Tebow brings to the college game played at least a bit part in landing new 15-year TV contracts for the Southeastern Conference -- a $2.25 billion contract with ESPN that kicked in this year and another $825 million deal with CBS that was executed before Tebow's junior season.
During the Tebow Years, the salaries of the head football coach and the athletic director have doubled. Meyer's salary has spiked from an original $2 million deal to $4 million a year. Foley, who has also overseen two national titles in basketball as well as the Gators' football successes, was earning about $500,000 when Tebow first set foot on campus; he makes nearly $1.3 million today.
Probably because he doesn't have to fork over the money himself, Foley sounds as if he would gladly pay Tebow $3 million every fall if he would keep coming back. He describes Tebow as a "cult figure, almost" to Gator Nation, suggesting he is a once-in-a-lifetime college football talent.
"He is certainly one of the best," Foley says. "Is he the best? That is certainly for others to say, but there is no question people will talk about him in the same vein as they do other greats that have played this game. He has earned it, deserves it and he is a great, great football player."
And from a business perspective, the greatest Gator ever is one of the key cogs, alongside Meyer, in Florida's money-churning team.
"Dollarswise, I have no idea," Foley says about Tebow's value to Florida. "Obviously, he has been part of a program that has been extremely successful. Any time you win national championships in two out of three [years] and SEC titles, it helps you sell tickets. It helps you sell merchandise. It helps you fill your stadium. It means you sell concessions. And people feel good about your program. Donations are up in a difficult economy. So obviously, it is huge."
Times are so good, in fact, that the Florida basketball and football programs generated enough revenue last year to fund a full slate of vibrant nonrevenue sports. And Foley proudly notes that in the midst of a recession that has schools across the country looking hard at the bottom line, the Gators' athletic program also contributed $6 million to the university to help out with academic endeavors this past year.
This week, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who has long been on the Tebow bandwagon, lobbied for the Jacksonville Jaguars to draft his favorite quarterback in a bid to juice up the pro team's fan base and perhaps prevent the economically pressed franchise from leaving town.
If Tebow had ducked off to the pros this past spring after his junior year, maybe the economic picture wouldn't be quite as bright in Gainesville. Or in Austin and Norman if McCoy and Bradford, the other heavy Heisman favorites entering this season, had declared early for the NFL. They each chose to wait an extra year to be compensated by the pros; but ironically, by staying in school for an extra season, they might have lost millions each as their draft status has declined for an assortment of reasons.
ESPN's draft expert Todd McShay projects that Tebow and McCoy both fell from possible late first-round picks a year ago to perhaps the middle of the second round in April, which could cost each quarterback more than $3 million in guaranteed money. Bradford, the reigning Heisman winner who injured his shoulder in the season opener, went into an even deeper financial free fall. McShay projects that Bradford would have been, at worst, a top-five pick a year ago, but that now will be fortunate to be selected among the top 10. The potential payoff difference is a staggering $11 million in guaranteed money.
So, at least the quarterbacks pocketed a few thousand on licensing deals tied to the sale of their college jerseys, right? Wrong. Everywhere you look on university and campus store Web sites, the jerseys of Tebow (No. 15), Bradford (No. 14) and McCoy (No. 12) are widely and proudly offered for purchase, typically at $79.99. It's clear in every case that the shirts in question are the star quarterback's uniform, even though they come without his name on the back. However, the athletes are amateurs under NCAA guidelines, and thus the profits are kicked back to the athletic department rather than to the players, despite the coy marketing.
In a telling twist, the University of Oklahoma's athletic site offers a No. 14 jersey next to variations on former Sooners tailback Adrian Peterson's old No. 28. One of the differences? Peterson's name is spelled out across the shoulders; Bradford's isn't. Peterson's agent, Bill Henkel, says the sale of Peterson's jerseys is part of an arrangement with Nike, as Peterson is now a major company spokesman and Oklahoma is a Nike-sponsored school.
"So now you finally get to see Peterson's name on the back rather than the old generic 28, and we're sharing [financially] in that project," Henkel says. "Whereas before [while playing at OU], he didn't. And Bradford is not. Though it really is not Bradford, right? It is No. 14."
What Bradford and the others aren't getting in jersey income is more than chump change. An NFL star such as Peterson has his own separate endorsement deal, but most NFL players are covered under a group licensing arrangement through the players' union, which sources say typically amounts to about $3 per jersey sold. Steve McClain, a spokesman at Florida, says the university received almost $77,000 from Nike-licensed sales of jersey No. 15 last year (2008) and acknowledges that the marketplace also offers plenty of unlicensed versions of a Gators No. 15 jersey, the sales of which can't be traced.
Florida, McClain says, gets permission from the football and basketball players whose numbers they use on replica jerseys as a matter of courtesy. So Tebow and his family signed off on his jersey number being marketed.
The NCAA doesn't allow the use of players' names on replica jerseys to avoid the appearance that its member schools profit off a player, under the premise that the numbers aren't directly identified with individual athletes. Some top NCAA officials, including late former president Myles Brand, at least at times in the past have recognized the inconsistency and have been uncomfortable with it.
As one high-ranking NCAA official told ESPN.com, "I understand. I wish they wouldn't sell stuff out of the novelty shops like that, but they do."
The jersey situation is just one of the things that makes Boras, the baseball uberagent, highly critical of what he terms the NCAA's "corrupt" practices. Boras believes the NCAA's restrictions on the athletes' ability to profit are potentially a violation of the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution. He says that college athletes have been unfairly stripped of individual rights and should be allowed to benefit from the sale of their jerseys as well as profit from autograph signings. And if their stardom affords the opportunity, according to Boras, they should be able to appear in commercials and sign endorsement deals.
"Not only do they make revenues off them in the institutional form, they prevent the athlete from gaining compensation for his individual rights," Boras contends. "They say you can't make money with your notoriety, which is an absolute joke. These young men lose millions of dollars. They lose rights. They deny the athletes the basic right of representation.
"It is just a corrupt element for the kids. My point is, if the kid is that good, wants to go to college and do those things, the fact of the matter is there should be limitations because he is getting the right to go to school. But those limitations should not require him to have a scorch-the-earth policy where he cannot make any money. There needs to be a balance there."
The balance Boras fancies likely would drive NCAA executives and college athletic administrators utterly bonkers. Among other ramifications, paying college athletes would dramatically diminish the funding that now goes for nonrevenue sports and federal Title IX requirements for women's sports. If Boras had his way, elite college athletes could ink endorsement deals just like their coaches do, and a sizable percentage of the profits would be shared among teammates. Athletes also would share in a percentage of TV and bowl revenues. Programs failing to graduate athletes would be slapped with fines rather than the current loss of scholarships, with the money going into a general pool for athletes.
In response, an NCAA official was not surprised to learn that Boras views the college model from a purely economic standpoint. He says that if college athletes were paid, college sports would be no different from professional athletics.
"I understand the financial aspect of it, but they are students," says the official, who asked not to be identified. "They happen to have a gift of being good athletes. The institution is marketing that gift. Whether that means that the kids ought to be compensated, I still don't think so. I still think there should be a category for amateurs. And if a kid wants to use his athletic ability for fame and fortune, then he should leave college and go play."
Boras counters that top athletes shouldn't have to leave campus to be paid.
"If those kids can generate revenues, they deserve to have the money in their pockets," he argues. "And help their families, help their other brothers and sisters go to school and who knows what else. If a brother or sister is academically qualified, they can come to school, too.
"And schools are going to come back and say, 'If we did that, we wouldn't be able to survive.' That is so untrue. How you negotiate this thing is, you say, 'You go back to running these programs on the basis of the money you made in 1990 versus what you are getting paid now. Don't tell me your programs can't run on 1990 base fees because they did then. What you are talking about is the cost of education. We're allocating for that, a 5 percent-a-year increase. But other than that, you are just profiteering. You are profiteering to the point that you don't need that much to run these programs from 1990 on, other than the cost of education goes up.' So yeah, the cost of scholarships goes up, but the amount of licensing fees they participated in versus the cost of scholarships is not proportionate."
Is Boras about to shut down his lucrative California-based sports agency and spearhead a campaign to free the unpaid college athlete? Not likely. He says that the fight would be too costly and time-consuming and that the best battle plan is class-action suits and involvement from state legislatures and Congress.
So the college sports model is what it is, and it isn't likely to change dramatically short of an uprising among basketball and football athletes. Odds on that are long, too, given that a fair number of elite football players stay in school less than four years before they bolt for the pros, and the tenure of basketball stars is even shorter.
Athletic administrators suggest the system will be blown up altogether before any of its riches are shared with the student-athletes.
"Our goal is to educate and graduate these kids," says SEC commissioner Mike Slive, whose conference led all others with net assets of $65 million as of June 30, 2008, according to the most recent federal documents available. "If they go on to professional sports, fine. If they don't, fine. Our presidents and chancellors are going to do everything they can to try and keep a balance.
"And I really believe that before they would professionalize what we do, they would stop doing it. There is a distinction. It is a balance, like the scales of justice. And I would agree that sometimes it tips heavy in a certain direction. But we are not in the business of professionalizing intercollegiate athletics. If we did, this whole thing would change dramatically."
Still, it's a provocative thought, isn't it? Tebow, McCoy & Co., armed with high-powered agents, sitting across from athletic directors who are about to make them very rich college kids with a piece of the new multimillion-dollar contracts their coaches just signed.
Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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