Does student aid provide fair compensation to athletes?

Photo by Gene Gallin on Unsplash

As a new era of College Football Playoffs emerges, the numbers don’t seem to add up

In the 21st century, college sports have become a billion-dollar business. Lucrative television contracts and sponsorships bring in an excess of money for universities to spend on luxurious athletic facilities, stadium renovations, and increased salaries for the coaching staff.

The NCAA football program is a profit-generating powerhouse. Yet, it still clings to a principle of amateurism — meaning it is a competition for athletes who “have not profited above his/her actual and necessary expenses or gained a competitive advantage in his/her sport.” However, as more money is poured into college sports, this principle has become a topic of fierce debate. “Money flowed to practically everyone except the athletes on the field.”

Image retrieved from
A recent South Park episode about the NCAA and its relationship with student-athletes

In June of 2021, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that strict limits on compensating college athletes violate U.S. antitrust law. This ruling allowed schools to offer compensation beyond the cost of attending college and opened the door for states to permit athletes to earn money from their name, image, and likeness. Student-athletes and the NCAA are now in uncharted territory, riding the wave of the athletes’ rights movement into a growing push for employment, where athletes share in the revenues generated.

In September of 2022, the College Football Playoffs were expanded from four teams to twelve. The target year for this expansion is 2026, but the sport’s commissioners are pushing to implement it as soon as 2024. This decision is primarily driven by the massive paydays from television and media rights. Some have forecasted that the expanded playoffs would be the largest annual television rights deal in college sports, at nearly $2 billion per year.

Only time will tell what happens to the NCAA, the College Football Playoffs, and student-athlete compensation. Still, in the meantime, there is a lingering question: If student-athletes are not allowed to be paid, but the amount of money being made from broadcast rights is increasing substantially, where is all the money going?

It’s not hard to understand why there is a growing movement toward the employment of student-athletes. Let’s take a quick look at the numbers from for the Big Ten Conference over the past ten years (excluding 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic):

  1. The average amount of Total Revenue generated by each college increased 57% (from $89M to $139.3M)
  2. Average Athletic Student Aid increased 61% (from $10.5M to $16.9M)
  3. The share of money coming in from NCAA/Conference Distributions, Media Rights, and Post-Season Games increased a whopping 211% (from $232.1M to $722.3M)

So, student aid has kept pace with the increased revenues?

Well, not exactly. Let’s break down the specific expenses for the Big Ten Conference over the past ten years as a percent of total expenses:

  1. The share of expenses for Athletic Student Aid decreased 5% (from 12.8% to 12.1%)
  2. The share of expenses for Support and Admin Compensation increased 16% (from 16.6% to 19.2%)
  3. The share of expenses for Coaches’ Compensation increased 23% (from 15.4% to 18.9%)

2010 Big Ten Conference Expenses
2020 Big Ten Conference Expenses

Now we’re starting to understand what is going on. The share of the money that goes to coaches and support staff has increased substantially, which leaves a smaller percentage of the pie for everything else. This trend occurs across all conferences, regardless of size or overall revenue.

Let’s take a broader view of all NCAA conferences. The most noticeable trend is the difference in the percentage of expenses that go toward student aid between smaller and larger conferences.

This difference in the share of student aid expenses reflects the current reality of college football. The Mid-American Conference generated $407.2M in revenue for 2020; the Southeastern Conference generated more than four times that amount at a staggering $1.9B. The difference in Media Rights revenue can explain this gap: the Mid-American Conference made $33.3M in 2020, less than 5% of what the Southeastern Conference made ($711.8M).

Lately, there has been a trend of well-known schools moving to ever-richer athletic conferences. This is driven mainly by the massive increases in media and broadcast rights for football games. With the addition of the College Football Playoff, this trend has only accelerated. Everyone seems to be chasing the money, but the core producers of the product (student-athletes) are left behind under the guise of “amateurism.”

In July 2022, USC and UCLA announced they plan to switch conferences, migrating from the Pac-12 to the Big Ten. This is one of the latest moves driven by money — where schools are switching to richer conferences in pursuit of ever-increasing payouts.

In 2020:

  • The University of South Carolina made $133M in Total Revenue
  • The University of South Carolina spent $15.1M on Student Aid
  • There are 100 players on the active roster, so the average Student Aid per player is roughly $151,000 per player
  • Athletic Student Aid was equal to 11% of Total Revenue
  • The University of South Carolina’s head coach made $4.8M
  • Coaches’ Compensation and Admin Compensation were equal to 40% of Total Revenue

Based on these numbers, the average player receives roughly 3% of what the head coach makes. There are plenty of arguments for why the head coach should make more money than the players, but let’s avoid those for now and stick with the numbers. The players, who produce most of the product and risk personal injury, receive good compensation compared to an average job. However, none of the money they receive can be used for anything except overpriced tuition, room & board, and textbooks. So, in reality, a majority of this money never leaves the university.

In conclusion, the NCAA and college football are going through a wild period of transformation. Lots of money is flowing into the industry, but the main producers of the product don’t see any benefit from this. It appears that most of the money is being funneled to the top, with coaching & admin staff reaping most of the rewards.

Curious to see how a specific college or conference compares to others? Or are you interested in digging deeper into this data?

We created an application to help visualize the financial trends in college football to help democratize this data and shed some light on this interesting topic.

Below is an outline of the tool and how to use it.

Main Page: NCAA Revenues & Expenses Overview

When you go to the dashboard, you will find that it is separated into five pages. At the top of each page are filters for the time period and college/conference (excluding the last two pages, Data and Data Key). These filters allow you to sort the data by whatever years and colleges/conferences you would like to see. The first page gives a general overview of all FBS colleges’ total revenue and expenditures. It allows you to see a breakdown of a specific college’s revenue or expenses.

Pages 2 & 3: Student Aid Compared to Revenue/Expenses

The second and third pages have two bookmarks that are not on the main page. These allow you to view the data by conference or by individual colleges. The second page has three visuals, with one showing how athletic student aid has changed over time, one showing how total revenue has changed over time, and one that compares athletic student aid to all of the different factors that go into revenue. The third page has three visuals as well, with one that shows how total expenses change over time, one that shows the share of athletic student aid compared to other costs, and one that displays athletic student aid by college/conference.

Pages 4 & 5: Data & Data Key

The fourth page is a data table that shows all the raw data used to produce the report. The fifth page is a data key to help define each sub-group for revenues and expenses.

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