College football fans tackle player-union debate
“I just wiped tears from my eyes,” said Paul Elder, a fan who writes about Auburn University’s football team for a website called Track ‘Em Tigers. A clip from last year’s game-winning pass against the University of Georgia had just appeared on the jumbo screen at the school’s annual “A-Day” exhibition in April at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Elder is 65 and towers at six feet four inches tall. “It just brought me back to that moment when I was here to watch that play last year,” he said. “Moments like that are like a drug, you keep coming back for more.”
Many Auburn football fans, for whom following the team involves long drives, good barbecue and waiting for the nirvana of the gridiron, proudly say they are a “family.” The crowd at the spring game Elder recently attended hosted 70 thousand fans on a weekend that both overlapped with Easter and threatened to rain. They are also driving a business that is growing so fast, athletic regulating bodies can’t keep up. Television contracts, ticket sales and wealthy booster donations place Auburn’s football program among the most lucrative in the nation.
Against the backdrop of this passion and the NFL’s draft this week, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) faces a challenge from a regional National Labor Relations Board decision that said in March that football players at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois qualify as employees who are eligible to unionize.
Labor rights advocates, too, have brought cases to court on behalf of athletes who are generating millions for their sports and never see a dollar. A case brought in California by a former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon and a handful of former college athletes is challenging the NCAA for the right to share the profits generated from television and video games using their likenesses.
Court victories for the athletes could shake up the athletic programs of many schools. “An overall reallocation of spending might take place, with low-revenue but high-expense men’s sports being targeted first,” said David M. Carter, executive director of the USC Marshall Sports Business Institute.
“Should athletes be able to unionize and eventually become university employees, the broad impacts on athletic departments may be even greater,” said Carter.
After the “A-Day” game, some fans sided with the players who are demanding money. “Yeah, they work hard, I think they should be paid,” said Darrell Fails, after the game.
Others, like Elder, argue that a union would destroy college football. Unions may allow players to air legitimate grievances, such as the ability to get enough nutrition to sustain rigorous training schedules, excel in academics or win a competitive post-college career in football and keep it. However, the treatment of student athletes as employees rather than students would mar the ideal of a well-rounded student and athlete and the idea that the teams are teaching these students “how to be young men,” said Elder.
NCAA players are equally divided on the issue. Philip Lutzenkirchen, who holds the record for touchdowns scored by a tight end for Auburn, said on Twitter after the NLRB decision allowing players participate in a union vote:
“Athletes should be thankful for their free $200k education. … I agree there needs to be some sort of change but creating a union for amateur sports I do not agree with.”
Even Congress has joined the debate. On May 8, Minnesota Republican John Kline, chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, held a hearing on the consequences of unionizing student athletes. Kline drew attention to concerns over the unionizing effort that are common among both schools and fans.
“There is no question the legitimate concerns of student athletes must be addressed, but doing so at the collective bargaining table will do more harm than good,” Kline said in prepared comments.
In order to protect the big-money athletics programs at Division I schools, the NCAA approved a revamp one day before the Northwestern players union vote. The proposal refers to a “confused public sentiment” about the issue of player compensation and suggests that more autonomy be given to the Big 5 conferences – Pac 12, Big 12, SEC, ACC and Big Ten.
The question for Elder and all who live and breathe college football is how much these changes may affect the fans.
Ticket prices throughout the Division I field have climbed higher in recent years. An average ticket to a non-championship bowl game cost $162 last year, according to Seat Geek, an 18 percent rise from the year before. Game attendance has also grown steadily over the last decade, as schools expand their stadiums. The attendance for the highest Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) tier of Division I teams reached a record of over 38 million fans in 2013, up 8 percent from 2003, in part because the big conferences are playing more games than ever before.
The most profitable football school last year was the University of Texas, which brought in $34.5 million in revenue from ticket sales, according to Forbes. The team collected nearly that amount in contributions and capped off $109 million in total revenue with media deals and distributions from the Big 12 conference and the NCAA.
Auburn fans pay a preliminary donation to the Tigers Unlimited booster club to secure the right to purchase season tickets. Tickets were set at around $450 for regular season tickets for the 2014 season. The cost makes it an expense that many have to plan for, “like a vacation,” Elder said. But thanks to its conference championship and one extra game last season, Auburn led the nation in game attendance in 2013 and pulled in $27 million in ticket sales.
Tickets to big bowl games can generate big money when they are held in a football region like the South. An average ticket sold for $1,600 at the January, 2013 championship game between Alabama and Notre Dame, played in Sun Life Stadium in Florida, according to the resale website StubHub.
This year Auburn will open a $10 million practice building for the school’s marching band to which the athletics program donated $1.5 million in 2013. With recent media deals, more money will be flowing through these athletic programs than ever before.
A 20-year partnership between ESPN and the Southeastern Conference (SEC) was announced last year. The ESPN deal will create a channel dedicated to SEC sports, including 45 football games a year. John Mansell, a sports business expert in Great Falls, Virginia, estimates a 50 percent boost to the SEC’s broadcast revenue, making it more than $300 million a year.
A recently-released promo features a tracking shot through Toomer’s Corner in Auburn, which had been draped by thousands of toilet paper rolls after a win – a school tradition. “Oh What A Beautiful Morning” plays as the camera moves through the white forest of toilet paper. The scene simultaneously suggests emotional ebullience and deep seriousness. It belies a passion that is underneath the business of college football at many schools.
To glimpse that passion, one only needs to look to the fans. “I already have it made,” Elder says of his gravestone. It says “He was a Christian man, he was a family man, he was an Auburn man.”