This week USA Today followed in Kyle Whelliston’s venerable footsteps and termed college sports a “bubble” that’s sure to pop sooner or later. Something strange happened in between the piece’s inception and publication, however, because the final product turns out to consist of a labored and rather convoluted lede placed atop the latest iteration of what has long been an excellent and even invaluable set of data.
For starters the nominal news hook presented by the numbers — most athletic departments operate at what they are pleased to term deficits — would seem to be something of an awkward fit for our traditional stock of “bubble” iconography. Maybe it’s me, but I always assumed that tulip merchants in 1637, the South Sea Company in 1720, Webvan.com in 1999, and subprime lenders in 2006 instead showed astronomic operating surpluses. In fact I rather thought this was precisely the red flag in those cases.
Nor is it clear why a bubble would aptly describe a revenue model now entering its sixth decade of “Seriously! Any day now!” impending legal doom. Finally, fretting about those darned young people and their cord-cutting in a piece based in no small measure on a brand new TV deal whose lead signatory is a legacy broadcaster founded in 1927 qualifies as still another curious ratiocinative choice, surely.
Far from being an “unstable situation,” college sports in general, college basketball more especially, and the NCAA tournament in particular instead present a series of successively smaller and progressively more advantageously situated concentric circles characterized by an unusual degree of hardiness solely as media properties. There are variables in play, naturally, and it’s not too much to term the threat of legal exposure “existential” — with regard to the NCAA. I don’t know who or what will be governing the sport in 2032, and I do trust that by then the players will have long since been receiving their fair share of the resulting revenues.
But if we view the essentials of the tournament as nothing more or less than 68 college teams playing 67 games of win-or-go-home basketball over three weeks from mid-March to early April, I’m yet to see anything even remotely persuasive in the way of a Book of Revelation. The essentials are eyeballs and basketballs, and if a tournament that earned record-setting revenues for a decade before, during and after the largest economic calamity since the Great Depression constitutes a bubble, well, put me down as bullish on this particular bubble. Continue reading