If College Football Were Paying Players, How Many Programs Could Afford It?

Amy DaughtersFeatured ColumnistJune 26, 2013

SAN ANTONIO, TX - DECEMBER 29:  David Ash #14 of the University of Texas Longhorns celebrates a touchdown against the Oregon State Beavers during the Valero Alamo Bowl at the Alamodome on December 29, 2012 in San Antonio, Texas.  Texas won the game 31-27.   (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Though many folks get caught up in the argument of whether or not college football players should be paid, what may need to precede this decision is a discussion of which programs could afford to actually pay athletes.

Yes, it’s one thing to champion paying college football players who generate boatloads of money for their institutions, but it’s a different thing entirely as to which schools actually have enough cash to fund the paychecks.

So, which programs can afford to pay players?

To answer this provocative question, we’ll utilize the figures provided in USA Today’s Sports’ College Athletics Finances database, which offers up information from 225 Division I athletic departments in terms of revenues and expenses for the 2011 academic year.

Though this list is extensive, the data is limited to what can be collected from public institutions, which are required to release certain financial statements. Therefore, it does not include many privately held schools and those who hold an exemption in terms of providing the information publicly.

As far as determining which programs could actually pay, we’ve taken schools with an FBS program and taken the total revenue the athletic department hauls in, subtracted the expenses and then identified the schools which have an excess to play with it.

In our scenario, this “profit” gives programs the ability to pay players while those who operate without an excess cannot.

Based on this approach—again using the 2011 revenues and expenses in the USAToday.com database—only 79 of the 126 FBS programs could actually pay its players by virtue of posting a revenue number that exceeds expenses.

Though this number includes the bulk of BCS schools, notable exceptions are Florida State (which operated at an $8 million deficit in 2011), Arizona State (it was more than $1 million in the red in 2011), West Virginia (also over a cool million in the hole in 2011), Georgia Tech (posted a $700,000 deficit) and Missouri ($13,000 in the red).

Programs reporting zero revenue in 2011 include Rutgers, UCLA and Minnesota.

Using our formula, these schools and 39 others don’t have the cash to pay players a single dime, even if they were allowed to.

Of the 79 athletic programs reporting an “excess” or “profit” in 2011, the amount each institution has available to pay its football players varies widely.

Yes, the next interesting bit comes if you imagine each profitable team paying the 105 football players it can legally carry on its DI-A roster.

Any discussion of numbers beyond here of course assumes that the football players are being paid while other sports that potentially earn income such as basketball, hockey or baseball wouldn’t be paying its players anything.

Realistically, schools would likely spend only 20 to 40 percent of any potential excess on football "salaries."

For the sake of this argument, we’ll go ahead and assume that all of the excess is used to fund football paychecks, simply because it makes the approach more equitable and the numbers more comparable across the board.

So, of the schools that can pay, who can pay the most, the least and the middle-of-the-road in terms of “salary?”

Surprisingly, Kansas State tops the list with the most excess cash in 2011 to pay out—over $23 million—which, split between 105 roster members, comes out to $222,000 per man.

To be clear, the exact figure is $222,843.68 per player, per year.

K-State is the only program with enough “profit” to play players over $200,000 per season, and next up are nine schools which could afford salaries over the $100,000 mark.

Included in this group are Alabama, Texas, Florida, Oklahoma State, LSU, Penn State, Arkansas, Georgia and Michigan. The Crimson Tide are at the top of this subset being able to theoretically afford $185,000 per player, per year, and the Wolverines are at the bottom with $103,000 per man available.

In the $90,000 range are Oklahoma, Oregon and Ohio State, and then a big shocker comes at the $80,000 range, with San Diego State’s name paired with Texas A&M’s.

In the $60,000-$70,000 per man club are Mississippi State, Army, Tennessee and Purdue, while Virginia, Louisville and Iowa could all theoretically offer football roster members $50,000 per annum.

Programs in the $30,000-$40,000 salary range are Illinois, Virginia Tech, Auburn, Colorado State and South Carolina.

The $20,000 grouping is made up of Kansas, Clemson, Middle Tennessee, FAU, Ohio, Utah State, Cal, Texas Tech, Washington and Bowling Green.

At the $10,000-$20,000 range is a sizeable group which includes Ole Miss, Kentucky, Old Dominion (a FBS independent team for 2013), East Carolina, Nebraska, Eastern Michigan, Colorado, Indiana, ULM, Texas State, Northern Illinois, Fresno State, Marshall, North Carolina, Utah, New Mexico State, Houston and Arizona.

Weighing in with a paltry $5,000-$10,000 per player, per year are Ball State, Oregon State, South Alabama, Kent State, Texas-San Antonio and Wisconsin.

Programs with $1,000-$5,000 per man to spend are NC State, Michigan State, UAB, Hawaii, Air Force, UMass, Akron, Boise State, Idaho, Western Michigan and Iowa State.

Bottoming out at under $1,000 per player are UConn, Memphis, Central Michigan, UTEP, Louisiana Tech, Buffalo and Maryland.

The dubious honor of the least amount to spend per player—again based on the reported total athletic department excesses for 2011—is Maryland with $26.94.

To further illustrate our approach, following is a table which provides the excess or profit and associated money availabe per player for each team that finished in the AP Top 25 at the end of the 2012 season.

 School Profit   $ Available Per Player 
 Alabama  $19,434,460.00  $185,052.04
 Oregon  $9,545,557.00  $90,910.07
 Ohio State  $9,528,952.00  $90,751.92
 Notre Dame  not reported  
 Georgia  $11,581,569.00  $110,300.66
 Texas A&M  $8,985,727.00  $85,578.35
 Stanford  not reported  
 South Carolina  $3,287,515.00  $31,309.67
 Florida  $16,356,426.00  $155,775.49
 Florida State  -$8,374,016.00  -$79,752.53
 Clemson  $2,807,093.00  $26,734.22
 Kansas State  $23,398,586.00  $222,843.68
 Louisville  $5,899,269.00  $56,183.51
 LSU  $15,462,427.00  $147,261.21
 Oklahoma  $9,974,916.00  $94,999.20
 Utah State  $2,577,464.00  $24,547.28
 Northwestern  not reported  
 Boise State  $231,441.00  $2,204.20
 Texas  $16,609,111.00  $158,182.01
 Oregon State  $954,480.00  $9,090.29
 San Jose State  -$789,329.00  -$7,517.42
 Northern Illinois  $1,354,980.00


 Vanderbilt  not reported  
 Michigan  $10,894,499.00  $103,757.13
 Nebraska  $1,763,272.00  $16,793.07
 Schools of Interest    
 San Diego State  $9,147,472.00  $87,118.78
 Army  $6,921,562.00  $32,612.20
 Colorado State  $3,424,281.00  $32,612.20

This quick and very basic analysis takes the controversy surrounding paying players to an entirely different level on several different fronts.

First, the entire power structure in college football would be turned on its head if say Kansas State could sign players with fat $200,000 contracts, while in-state rival Kansas offered potential recruits a mere $25,000 per year.

Next, what would become of the programs that couldn’t afford to pay players, theoretically, such as Florida State, West Virginia and Arizona State?

Would these schools need to fudge their numbers, re-evaluate their athletic budgets or raise the funds needed to keep up with the Jones’?

Or, would they simply slip into obscurity and not be able to sign players with more lucrative options on the cards?

Even though you’ve got to figure that some sort of cap would be put on how much you could play players—if schools could pay them at all—this quick analysis makes it clear that offering up any amount would be easier for some schools and nearly impossible for others.

The playing field is not even, and the knock-on impact this could have on the game as we know it is immeasurable.

It’s like saying that every house in a neighborhood is suddenly required to put in a sprinkler system and hire a gardener, whether they could afford it or not.

Some families would be forced to move—out of the FBS or BCS subdivision—simply because they couldn’t fund the new scheme.

Another interesting angle involves non-BCS programs that can afford to pay big bucks like San Diego State, Army and Colorado State.

This begs for a discussion as to whether or not this feature would lure talent to the point that these schools would be the next to join bigger conferences, regardless of any other factors.

Beyond that, the emphasis on lucrative TV contracts would plausibly explode even further with programs and conferences desperate to up the ante and draw in as much cash as possible.

The world of recruiting would also be forever altered as “show me the money” becomes a public affair as opposed to a shady business operated in dark alleys.

At the end of the day it’s clear that even if we could agree on the concept of financially compensating players, the effect of actually paying them would go way beyond cancelling out amateurism and negating the ideal of the student-athlete.

Yes, suddenly the sport may become even more an arena featuring the haves and have-nots, the well-run and the poorly managed and the cash-rich and cash-poor.

And the sport could become even more elitist than it already is, making it even more difficult for the mid-size or small school to reach the national title game.


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