Thursday, November 5, 2009

“Money, It’s Gotta Be the Shoes.”

“Money, It’s Gotta Be the Shoes.”

By Evan Weiner

November 5, 2009

4:00 PM EST

(New York, N. Y.) – American sportswriters can rejoice, the college basketball season has started and now American sports journalists like Seth Davis can get back to what they enjoy the most --- watching college basketball games --- without the little interruptions of the off season of 2009 like the troubles at the Binghamton University in central New York, Rick Pitino’s extortion problem with a waitress in Kentucky, and coach John Calipari jumping to Kentucky just before the NCAA invalidated his Memphis State 2008 NCAA tournament runner up finish because one of Calipari’s players -- Derrick Rose -- had his SAT invalidated by the NCAA. USC coach Tim Floyd’s resignation after the NCAA’s investigation of the recruitment of O. J. Mayo, some players backing out of their commitments to play at a school.

Davis wrote in August in his CNNSI column that college basketball needed some feel-good stories and that he was not feeling too good about the off-season.

Davis and his ilk don’t like it when outside business influences college basketball but college basketball is a business and in the college industry it is just second to college football complex in producing revenues for members of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

The sports writing community still buys into the student athlete fairytale that sprang up in the 1920s despite all the evidence that suggests that college sports is made up of money partnerships between the colleges and TV networks, colleges and marketing partners, money that pours in from boosters, the building of new or renovation of arenas and stadiums complete with revenue producing club seats and luxury boxes and in-venue eateries with big prices on parking and heavy duty sales of school related merchandise.

The NCAA gets $545 million annually from CBS following the 2006 signing of a CBS-NCAA partnership that is worth $6 billion over an 11-year period. The NCAA also enjoys a federal gift -- tax-exempt status.

The feel good start to the season has already evaporated because Michael Jordan’s son decided to wear an Air Jordan brand basketball shoe instead of an adidas shoe in a game. The problem is that Marcus Jordan is a member of the University of Central Florida’s basketball team and that school had a five-year deal with adidas that requires all University of Central Florida athletes to use and wear adidas products.

Jordan wore his father’s shoe, which is manufactured by NIKE, in a game against St. Leo. adidas didn’t like that so the sneaker company terminated the deal with the school and cost the school money.

College sports is a business and this is where the sportswriters created college sports fantasy meets reality. Marcus Jordan has lived very comfortably because of his father’s deal with Phil Knight and NIKE. Sure Jordan has a multi-year contract with the school and let’s get right to the point, a college athletic scholarship is a multi-year deal that gives him the right to play sports at the school in exchange for a scholarship. Any athlete also gives up various rights to the school including his (or her) name on merchandise which the school or the school’s license holder sells to consumers with the athlete receiving nothing in return.

The whole issue of sponsorships and marketing partnerships between NCAA member schools and the NIKE, adidas and other companies like EA Sports is never really addressed with any sort of constant seriousness. The old saw is the players get a scholarship and they should be happy with that and the schools run deficits in having many athletic teams with the only money makers being football and basketball.

So the attitude is shut up with any criticism and let us run our business and be grateful you are covering a major event and don’t make waves. Sports journalists who follow college usually tow the line and enjoy the game. That is the beauty of sports; newspapers give free coverage along with magazines which helps market the product.

Television networks, regional and national cable TV networks have to pay for games or engage in a revenue sharing deal and then colleges allow some highlights from games as the non-rights holders (and even rights holders) are restricted to a certain amount of time. Still there is some free coverage at news conferences and after game interviews. But over-the-air TV is not capable of producing investigative reporting and most cable TV news reporting is either endless highlights with grade D talent trying to deliver funny lines or like in the news division, people on talk shows saying nothing while making a lot of noise. Radio is just carnival barking so real issues are never brought up except in a few cases. Partners like CBS and ESPN will not do true investigative reports into the industry.

The NCAA is making millions off of football players even when they aren’t playing in the video game genre. The NCAA cannot use a players name but in the video games there a major similarities between well known college players and the players portrayed in a game, so much so that Sam Keller filed a class action suit on behalf of himself and others because he feels EA Sports and the NCAA used his likeness in a video game and he did not receive compensation.

The NCAA claims it does not violate any players rights and the sports organization has by-laws that prohibit the commercial licensing of a player’s name picture of likeness. Of course if that were the case, CBS would not be able to promote the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament with video of players in commercials pushing the tournament. Nor could ESPN, various regional sports cable TV networks or other NCAA partners. But there is a Form 08-3a that a player must sign in order to receive a scholarship that allows the NCAA or a third party NCAA partner (like CBS) to use a players name in championships, activities, events and programs.

The student-athlete gives up marketing rights. His or her coach does not nor does the school. The player is getting a scholarship and that should be more than enough. The players should be grateful that a sneaker company is giving them a shoe.

The school’s coach gets endorsement money from the sneaker company, the athlete – the stars of the show – get nothing. Jordan is in a unique position, he has money unlike a good many college athletes in Division I who are barred from making more than a NCAA dictated set amount of money for the year.

The whole college sports industry never gets a close scrutiny from Davis and his colleagues and that also may stem from the newspaper industry’s cozy relationship with sports. Newspaper executives (and sportswriters) believe that sports coverage is a driving force in newspaper daily sales (although the industry continues to lose readership and newspaper circulations have fallen about 10 percent in the last year). There is major interest in sports though as television ratings are up but people are getting sports news, really team and game information, from sources other than newspapers.

Perhaps if newspapers began reporting, real reporting, on issues that might attract more interest. It might even sell newspapers.

Jordan’s shoe story will produce a predicable response of he should be more of a team player, his decision is costing his school money and what do you expect from a spoiled rich kid? NIKE more than David Stern’s NBA publicity machine defined the Michael Jordan business brand in his early days with the Chicago Bulls. Jordan’s son understands business.

There is money in the shoes.

College sports is a business.

Marcus Jordan understood that when he wore his father’s shoes. As Mars Blackmon once said in a NIKE-Jordan commercial, “Money, It’s Gotta Be the Shoes.”

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