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Don’t miss the point about all the money the NCAA tournament makes

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The players involved get exceptionally little.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four Championship Game-Gonzaga vs North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The NCAA will get $857 million from Turner for the broadcast rights to this spring’s Division I men’s basketball tournament, the organization said in a financial statement out Wednesday. A few years from now, the NCAA will clear more than $1 billion annually on that deal.

Here’s a tweet that has many problems:

To be clear, “athletes” is a broad term, which conceivably include every college athlete playing in any sport under the NCAA’s massive umbrella. “Programs” is a broad word, too. But there’s no reading of this sentiment that isn’t at best missing a key point.

Let’s do some math on a napkin, really quickly:

  • There are 68 teams in the Division I men’s hoops tournament, which is the source of that entire $857 million windfall the NCAA will get from Turner.
  • Those teams all have 13 scholarship slots. Let’s assume they’re all using all their scholarships, meaning the tournament will feature 884 scholarship players.
  • The value of a scholarship is hard to pin down exactly. Scholarships aren’t as expensive to schools as they’d seem if you just assumed their value was the same as tuition, because schools don’t have to pay much if any extra money just to let a player go to school. But schools do spend money on housing, food, and various athletic support for players.
  • The average cost to a school for taking a Division I basketball player probably isn’t more than $30,000, even if you do favorable accounting for the schools.
  • But let’s pretend that the average cost to a school for hosting a player for a year is $50,000. That’s ridiculous and way more than the real number, but bear with me.
  • If we multiply that cost by the number of scholarships in the tournament, we get $44.2 million. That’d be the total compensation from schools to players in March Madness.

But wait. $44.2 million isn’t even close to half of $857 million.

Right. It’s not. That’s 5 percent of the money the NCAA will make on the tournament’s broadcast rights. The accounting I just did there is a joke, designed to be as favorable as possible to the colleges that don’t pay their players. And it still doesn’t get us close to a world in which schools are sending half the money to the players in the tournament.

Everything after that point is, to a significant extent, irrelevant. The players who make up the NCAA tournament are the reason it’s one of the most valuable properties in television. They barely get a drop in the bucket of the revenue they produce on this massive event.

It’s not that NCAA money doesn’t help athletes at all. It does.

The NCAA does pay out lots of money to schools. Of the $1.05 billion in total revenues in reported in 2017, most of it coming from tournament TV rights, about $560 million got paid out to Division I schools. That was a little less than 60 percent of the NCAA’s total expenses.

A lot of that money goes to scholarships and the funding of athletic programs in non-revenue sports. Football and men’s basketball often subsidize the existence of other sports on college campuses. It’s impossible to evaluate how efficiently each of the roughly 350 Division I schools spend that money and how much of it’s really used to help athletes.

But saying “most” of the tournament money goes to players is a reach, and it doesn’t address the most obvious problem with the tournament model.

If the money really went to athletes, they’d be allowed to take it and spend it on what they wanted. But NCAA rules prohibit schools compensating players beyond scholarships and certain cost-of-attendance payments. Believing that most of the NCAA tournament money goes to athletes requires a lot of faith in the NCAA and its member schools’ word that their system that prevents athletes from getting paid is somehow meant to be pro-athelte.

At root, there’s no good way to verify how much of the money schools get from the NCAA tournament goes toward helping athletes across sports. Athletic departments make plenty of bad investments that don’t help players at all. Pick your favorite bad coaching hire! Schools have great freedom over how to spend the money they get.

What we know for certain that the players in the tournament get almost nothing out of its total pot. That’s even if we make the most generous assumptions possible about the value of the few things their schools actually give them.

If you’re focusing on anything else about that system, you’re missing the point.