Expert Interviews:A chat with NYU professor Lee Igel on likeness, CFB changes and more
Enough of my jibber jabber. Let's ask an actual expert for his jibber jabber instead
Good morning! Thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.
The onslaught of news about SB 206 and various athlete likeness rights bills have thankfully died down a teensy bit, which gives me a chance to try and dig a little deeper into some of the accompanying issues.
I feel like I have a pretty good understanding of how recruiting works, and how basic NCAA policy works, and of the very broad, high-level financials of college athletics. I’ve been writing and following some of these issues for a long time.
But at the end of the day, I’m not an economist, or a lawyer, or an academic, and I’m sure as hell not an athlete. So maybe talking to some of those folks might help shed some light on how changing legislation might impact the sport we all care about.
I have a series of interviews lined up over the next few weeks that I hope may shed some new lights on the impact of likeness rights. I’ll be talking to academics, lawyers, at least one sitting athletic conference commissioner, and many more. If there’s somebody you’d like me to talk to, hit me up at Matt.Brown@SBNation.com.
Earlier this week, I spoke to Dr. Lee Igel of NYU’s NYU School of Professional Studies’ Tisch Institute for Global Sport. Among other things, Dr.Igel is an expert on the social and behavioral impact of sports, and how and why different sports organizations make various decisions.
Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Matt Brown: So one bit of feedback I’ve heard from some fans after SB 206 passed was, “you know, if we start paying players, I’m no longer as interested in college athletics”, or “this will ruin the magic of the sport”. Now, we know that the specific parameters of amateurism have changed quite a bit over the last 75 years or so…I’m wondering, do you think there is any point here, short of Clemson literally managing payroll and cutting checks to players as employees, where fan attitudes really would shift in an appreciable way?
Dr.Igel: Yeah, this is an interesting quirk of human nature, because this is a big change that seems like it’s coming, and when that happens, people tend to start to get their antennae up, and think about the world coming down, but you know, it’s college football Saturday, and then they’re back in front of the TV, or whatever device they’re looking at it on, and life will go on. That usually tends to be the way these things go, especially across sports.
One example of this is with stadiums. When a team transitions to a new stadium, it’s like, “I loved the old place, I’m never going to any new games”, and then we have a ceremony, and everybody goes. I think the same kind of thing may happen in this dimension.
And with college football, there’s so much wrapped up in it for so many people, and I’m sure some will tail off…but I’m not sure what it is that they think is going to change so much, if and when student athletes are compensated?
MB: Yeah, I want to interrogate that thinking a little bit more too. I feel like, depending on who you talk to, the projections are “this will be an enormous change”, or “this changes almost nothing.” Generally, if you talk to an AD, or a university administrator, and you think they’re opening up the seventh seal of the apocalypse or something, and if you talk to somebody in the business school of that same institution, and they’re like “ahh, I think this will only impact a handful of people.” From your perspective, very practically speaking, it’s 2025…we’ve had a few years to translate legislative changes…how different, in terms of the actual college athletic product, or what a fan may experience…how different do you think college athletics will be?
Dr.Igel: Well, to be fair, there’s a lot that goes on in there, and, I’d say it’s somewhere in the middle.
There is change going on here, right off the top, what it means for certain student-athletes in certain sports, and those teams and those schools, and how long they may stay at those schools. All of these changes start to flow in, and for sure, that changes the product.
Certainly for the people who look at the big money sports…how much time are the student-athletes actually spending on the student part? There are probably a lot of questions that are coming down the pike. How InstaFamous do you want to be? Now, I know that’s already happening, because I have students too, but you know.
There are all these different rabbit-holes to go down. And sure, by 2025, there will be changes to the product and it will look different, but it won’t look that much different from what we know now, because the real fundamental thing doesn’t change.
Matt Brown: This may go down one of those rabbit holes, but I don’t think I’ve heard a consensus on this yet. It’s this idea that I’m skeptical that likeness rights can really increase inequality that much, because thanks to scholarship limits, a big time program often can’t recruit that much better than it already is.
But there could theoretically be potential for a program that doesn’t typically get elite athletes to “outbid”, or be able to produce more money, to attract an athlete that wouldn’t otherwise go there. I have read some people say this system could be a big advantage for a mid-major program in a major city, like a Houston. Presumably, by being in a large population center, there’s more local endorsement opportunities. But I’ve also seen arguments that this could help smaller markets, like a Mississippi State or a East Carolina, where the economic activity is smaller, but everybody is much more likely to be invested in the local university, because it’s by far the biggest cultural engine in the area. Do you think either of those scenarios is more likely than the other?
Dr.Igel: No, to a point. There are a number of different factors that we don’t know yet. And we don’t know how they’re going to play out yet.
That said, do you want to be a big fish in a pond, or the small fish in a large sea, one aspect of that is all about these stories get told, about individuals and institutions. There will always be people who want to pick a big school, and ones who want to pick a smaller one. There are all sorts of incentives on an individual basis for recruits.
I think more to what you’re getting to here, is the arms race question. And who wins, who loses, who gets crowded out, and that is an interesting question. The biggest place where this conversation happens now, I think, is with international soccer.
That may be the best way to look at it, because it’s regulated in a lot of the same way. There’s no salary cap, no luxury tax, stuff we see in more in US sports. It’s who has the most money and wants to get the best players. And that’s a conversation with more than a few executives there, who worry that the wealthy clubs can just outbid everybody else, and there’s nothing left for the smaller clubs.
And that’s true, but it’s an incredible opportunity for innovation. And I really mean that. In sports, there are always teams that exploit opportunities, or weakness in the bigger teams, and they can come up and win. And I think there’s a similar kind of thing that goes on in college athletics. Of course the biggest teams are going to come up with the most money. But it’s an incredible opportunity to do something different in a place like Starkville. You’re not just recruiting athletes, but students too.
MB: Let’s talk about that a little more. I was reading recently that the president of Bradley University, where he was saying that this imbalance (between the rich and poor schools) could get to the point where they’d decide not to have sports at all. My understanding is that at Bradley’s level, the real purpose of the athletic department is for student recruitment, and to help your brand, rather than trying to win anything meaningful. Is it possible that endorsement opportunities could cause some D1 institutions to rethink that calculus?
Dr.Igel: Yes, sure. And they refocus on the meaning of the school and what they’re trying to do with students? Yes, absolutely. I’m at an institution where that’s part of the conversation about athletics. NYU is DIII, and in the past, they were a powerhouse basketball program (years ago), and after some seedy things that went on, the administration decided to refocus. Athletics are still an important part of the student experience, they just look differently at our institution. And sure, that could happen.
MB: That level of refocusing seems awfully rare though, doesn’t it? I know it took gambling scandals to spur that conversation at NYU. I know Chicago famously did it, and Idaho sort of did it, but even a low-major school leaving D1, unless they’re broke, like a Savannah State, seems pretty rare. You think this could cause that level of paradigm shift?
Dr.Igel: It could, because this will be a different landscape. What this law does, it really changes the definition of student-athlete. And I think if we go one step further with it, for the NCAA, that’s been the sticking point all along. We’ve known it since the early 20th century!
And the world around is going nope. It means something much different than it did 100 years ago. And the world has just gone on, and the NCAA isn’t. But it’s changed!
So now all schools, from the biggest and best to the Bradleys of the world, they’re all going to have to re-think what it means to be a Division 1 school.
MB: In my opinion, looking at a lot of the arguments against this legislation, either from the NCAA, or schools, or media members…a lot of them seem to not be in the best of faith. From your perspective, do you think there have been any arguments against such legislation that are persuasive?
Dr.Igel: Hmm, that’s a good question. I’ve seen a lot of the Thoughtful But Standard arguments. Have there been any that you’re thinking of?
MB: The only one that’s really jumped out to me…I saw some of the internal documents that Pac-12 administrators were circulating for their talking points, and the one that makes the most sense to me on paper, is a concern over olympic sports. Hypothetically, if you have a booster that wants to encourage recruits to come to campus, they donate to the school, and the school build stuff to recruit the athlete. But now a booster could just give to the kid directly, cutting the school out, and maybe that lack of revenue could hurt olympic sports. Do think that scenario is possible? Would there be other ways schools could offset that potential budget deficit?
Dr.Igel: Two great questions there.One, the changing definition of the student-athlete means schools need to rethink and revisit athletics. This is a real scenario.
But, there’s another piece to this. If you are the donor, you get a little more bang for your buck, don’t you, if you get that building named after you, and the athlete you want to monetize…it’s a short-term, long-term conversation. And if an administrator is focused on the short term, which is not unreasonable, and if you look at the long run, the bigger picture…and you start looking at individual relationships and various rabbit-holes.
But yes, it is true, that might happen, Pac-12 folks are correct in that estimation. But, it depends on the school, it depends on the donor, it depends on all of their relationships.
Personally, I think the idea that schools could simply reframe their pitch with donors, helping them understand that they may get a better optimization of their donation by continuing to work with schools, seems like a smart one. I can personally see a world where revenue may drop in the short term, but I don’t think that has to lead to cuts.
It’s interesting, other athletic directors seem to be coming around to the idea that likeness rights aren’t an apocalyptic event. In a survey conducted by AthleticDirectorU, a slim majority of surveyed ADs, 53.6%, support likeness rights in some capacity. 59.8% also thought that likeness rights would not decrease compensation for coaches or administrators, with only 6.2% voting that yes, it would.
Of course, as Dr.Igel mentioned a few times, there’s a lot we don’t know yet. We don’t know how open a rights marketplace we’re going to see. We don’t know to what extent schools, or the NCAA, can regulate it. We don’t really know exactly how big the market will be, or where it will be, or if it will correct itself, or how it may impact the black market for athlete labor. We can model it. We can guess. But we don’t know yet.
Maybe before, that would have been an argument to do nothing. Clearly, those days have passed.
Thanks again for supporting Extra Points. Your subscriptions really do make all of this possible, and the more folks subscribe, the more opportunities for new kinds of stories we’ll have. Questions, comments, concerns, suggestions and more can be sent to Matt.Brown@SBNation.com, or @MattSBN on Twitter dot com.