Rupert Cornwell: Unlike our boat race, US college sport is big business

Out of America: University games are meant to be strictly amateur – but there are millions of dollars at stake

Share
Related Topics

Both, on their respective sides of the Atlantic, are national rites of spring. Both are sporting events, involving well-known universities. But there the similarities end. Britain yesterday celebrated the 157th rowing of that faintly dotty Corinthian throwback known as the Boat Race. America meanwhile is gripped by the month-long extravaganza known as "March Madness".

Never heard of it? Don't worry, outside the 50 states of this great union (and a few people in Canada), nobody has. It is the annual men's college basketball tournament, now at its quarter-final stage, and whose final takes place in Houston a week tomorrow. You may, like me, find basketball a rather tedious exercise, where one team runs down the court and a very tall man scores, and then the other team immediately runs to the opposite end and another very tall man plops the ball into the basket. But that's beside the point. March Madness is the ultimate example of that multibillion-dollar, uniquely American institution known as college sports.

In Britain, the phenomenon – insofar as it ever existed – has today shrunk to the annual contest between Oxford and Cambridge over a stretch of the Thames. Here though, at least in its two principal manifestations of basketball and American football, college sports is a money-spinning religion, and growing more lucrative and commanding a more devoted following with each passing year.

The tournament now features a record 68 teams. The organisation that runs it, the National Collegiate Athletic Association or NCAA, has just signed a 14-year TV deal worth $10.8bn. The audience for the March Madness round-of-16 was 14 per cent higher this year than in 2010, while the final will probably be watched by more people than baseball's World Series or even the best-of-seven NBA championship in June, the showcase of US basketball and the very pinnacle of the sport.

In Las Vegas, more bets will be placed on the final in Houston than on any other American sporting event barring football's Super Bowl. It's amazing (to a foreigner at least) but true, that where football and basketball are concerned, college sport in the US is as big a deal – some would say an even bigger deal – than the professional major leagues. More remarkable still, this new surge in popularity comes at a moment when experts complain the players are not as good as they used to be, largely because the best ones either curtail their time at university or skip it entirely, to partake of the riches of the NBA.

This lack of stars has undoubtedly tended to make March Madness more even and unpredictable, and thus more exciting. But it is safe to say that nothing that happens in Houston will resonate down the years as did the winning shot for the University of North Carolina in the championship game of 1982, made by a certain gangly freshman called Michael Jordan.

All, however, is not well in this seeming financial paradise. The Boat Race may be an anachronism, innocent fun tarred only by the odd grumble that some postgraduate participants may (perish the thought) have been awarded their university place morefor their rowing skill than their academic prowess. In US college sports, however, that is the norm.

On the basketball court or the football field, all must be snow-white amateur probity, the NCAA insists. Its athletes perform solely for love of the game, it maintains, and any payments to them are illegal. Payment, though, can take many forms: backhanders, lavish perks and inducements, and of course all-expenses-paid sports scholarships. And they must chart their unsullied paths through an ocean of money and commercialism that surrounds them.

At some American seats of learning, sports are more important than any academic discipline. Athletic success brings fame, money and prestige – which is why the football or basketball coach can be the most important individual on campus.

Success breeds money. Millions watch on TV, so the sports equipment makers pay extra millions for teams to wear their shoes or jerseys. The University of Michigan reportedly received a $6m (£3.75m) signing bonus from Adidas, merely for switching from Nike. Then there's merchandise revenue. Think Manchester United team shirts and you get the idea. But things may be spinning out of control. A recent study found that spending per athlete at some big sports colleges was up to 10 times more than the outlay on education per student – at a time when recession has put even greater financial pressure on universities.

Since 1989, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics has been trying to reform college sport, recommending among other things that an NCAA team should only be eligible for a tournament if at least 50 per cent of the players were on course to graduate. By one reckoning 10 of this year's 68 qualifiers would have been ruled out. The commission's message is sobering. If the current business model of college sport continues, it warns, the result could be "permanent and untenable competition between academics and athletics" and "a loss of credibility not just for inter-collegiate sports but for higher education itself." At least the dear old Boat Race doesn't cause problems like that.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£13000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to be part of a ...

Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Technical Support Engineer

£19000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT and Telecoms company ar...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

£23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

Recruitment Genius: Developer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
An investor looks at an electronic board showing stock information at a brokerage house in Shanghai  

China has exposed the fatal flaws in our liberal economic order

Ann Pettifor
Jeremy Corbyn addresses over a thousand supporters at Middlesbrough Town Hall on August 18, 2015  

Thank God we have the right-wing press to tell us what a disaster Jeremy Corbyn as PM would be

Mark Steel
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future