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Nice Work If You Can Get It

The Fairly Detached Observers

Apr. 8, 2009
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Big-time sports isn’t recession-proof. Major League Baseball enters its season fearful that attendance will drop. The NBA recently took out a $200 million line of credit to help financially ailing teams. NASCAR sponsorships have disappeared and teams are shrinking. Milwaukee’s PGA tournament won’t have a sponsor, and may die, after this year. Arena football’s top league simply shut down for 2009. Yes, the signs of economic pain and belt-tightening are everywhere in sports. Well, perhaps not everywhere…

Frank: Good news! The recession is over, at least in one state.

Artie: Fill me in; I’ve been busy trying to secure a federal bailout for “Art Kumbalek Notions and Sundries.”

Frank: The commonwealth of Kentucky must be an oasis of prosperity. How else could the University of Kentucky give its new basketball coach, John Calipari, a contract worth as much as $35 million over eight years?

Artie: Kentucky Blue becomes Kentucky Green! How great that a public institution that uses tax dollars can afford such a deal. But I’m sure there’ll be sacrifices in academic programs, like the horse jockey studies program.

Frank: The governor of Kentucky, Steve Beshear, is sacrificing 10% of his pay this year and will make $111,000—about one-fourth of Calipari’s base salary of 400k. The coach’s “total compensation package” includes two cars, a country club membership, multiple tickets to home basketball and football games, media deals and income from youth camps.

Artie: What, no Meals on Wheels service? Not much sacrificing in the Wildcat hoops program, ain’a?

Frank: Only the sacrifice of the principle that a university should have education as its top priority.

Artie: That sacrifice burned up on an altar of TV gold a long time ago.

Frank: This ties in with the recent Jim Calhoun incident. The Connecticut coach was confronted—in truth, ambushed—after a game by a guy who questioned his million-plus pay at a state university.

Artie: You could find a lot of states where the basketball or football coach at good ol’ State U is the highest-paid “public employee.” Hell, the guy Calipari replaced, Billy Gillispie, was making $2.3 million.

Frank: Calhoun handled it poorly, telling the questioner to “shut up.” But I don’t think it’s Calhoun’s duty—or Calipari’s—to defend the salary he gets.

Artie: Or coaches’ salaries in general.

Frank: Nor does Bruce Pearl have to justify his renegotiation at Tennessee, which kept him from pursuing Calipari’s old job at Memphis.

Artie: Successful coaches always leverage job offers, real or rumored, to get more dough. Tom Crean did it for years at Marquette. In any business, you get what you can if you’re in demand.

Frank: But here’s who should be confronted: the university presidents who preside over a system that pays sports coaches astronomical salaries while tuition keeps rising and academics face cutbacks. Not just at public schools, but any place that has a big-time basketball or football program.

Artie: Calhoun said, “We make $12 million a year for the university.” The figures I read were $7 million from the UConn men’s program and $5 million from the women’s.

Frank: But how much goes to the university as a whole? Calhoun made it sound like the students get vouchers courtesy of the basketball program.

Artie: “Here, kid, buy yourself a book.”

Frank: I’ll bet virtually all the sports revenue simply goes back into the athletic department budget.

Artie: By the same token, coaches’ pay comes out of the athletic budget and donations from boosters, not general university funds.

Frank: Then let’s be honest about the system. These big-time basketball and football programs are self-contained corporations that are allowed to use schools’ names and facilities and have the students and alumni as their clientele. It’s a business arrangement.

Artie: They should get corporate sponsorships and be, say, the Jim Beam Wildcats or the Wal-Mart Razorbacks.

Frank: People say, “Well, a good sports program draws more students to your school.” It’s nice to have something to root for, and it’s great if the players get an education, but for 99.9% of the students tuition and housing costs just keep rising. So how do they benefit from basketball or football success?

Artie: They can buy merchandise that’s respected when they go on spring break. “Hey, you go to Kentucky? Cool. They’ve got a good basketball team. Let’s make out!”

Frank: The big sports say, justifiably, that they pay for the minor sports. But still, that involves a microscopic portion of the student body. And most revenue stays in “the corporation” to pay for five basketball assistants, loads of travel, lavish training facilities, four sets of uniforms.

Artie: And to give people more things to buy.

Frank: I’m not saying Al McGuire wasn’t overpaid, too, but athletic programs have become enormously more elaborate since TV created this bazillion-dollar industry. And university presidents have gone along for the ride.

Artie: Hey, you get what you pay for in amateur athletics.

Frank: Myles Brand, the NCAA president who used to run Indiana University, last week said, “You have to ask…whether we’ve reached a point already that these high salary and packages for coaches have really extended beyond what’s expected within the academic community.”

Artie: Boldly spoken.

Frank: Then he said the NCAA couldn’t do anything because “it’s anti-trust if we were to try to regulate any salaries. But I would hope our university presidents and our conferences would ask those questions themselves.”

Artie: Yeah, but don’t hold your breath.

Weakness at Center?

Frank: The Bucks’ noble quest to get smoked in the first round of the NBA playoffs is over. Now they might lose one or both of their restricted free agents, Charlie Villanueva and Ramon Sessions.

Artie: The Bucks were pretty close to the NBA salary cap this season, and the cap will probably drop this summer. A year from now, when big contracts for Michael Redd, Richard Jefferson and Dan Gadzuric run out, the Bucks will have some flexibility for the long term.

Frank: But how long of a term will it be in Milwaukee? Again we hear that the Bradley Center, all of 21 years old, is obsolete and can’t support the franchise.

Artie: Jeez louise, I haven’t noticed it tilting dangerously off its foundation.

Frank: The building provides relatively comfortable seats; a relatively good view of the court and scoreboard; and nice wide walkways to an adequate number of concession stands.

Artie: In other words, it’s completely adequate for Joe Fan.

Frank: Not good enough. The team wants restaurants and more waiter-service seats and more opulent suites and, what, even more stores to buy overpriced T-shirts?

Artie: Don’t forget those foam hands with a finger sticking up.

Frank: Wrong finger, economically speaking.

Artie: Exactly. Meanwhile, Kansas City has a swanky new arena waiting for an NBA franchise. But if this team moves, there’s no way they could be anything but the Las Vegas Bucks!

Bearing Big Risks

Frank: Hey, what about the new situation for the NFC Central and the Packers?

Artie: Let’s see what the Bears gave up to get their latest savior/quarterback, Jay Cutler, from Denver. Their first-round draft choice both this year and next, a third-rounder this year and Kyle Orton, a failed savior/QB. All of this to bring Cutler to a team with no one special to throw to and not a very good offensive line.

Frank: And what makes Cutler a prospective savior?

Artie: Good stats, a rating of 87.1 in three seasons. But zero playoff appearances and a 17-20 record as a starter. There’s sure no guarantee he’ll make it in Chicago.

Frank: Instead of the next John Elway, he could be the next...

Artie: Jeff George? And here’s another thing I love: Cutler first said, “I want to be traded,” then said, “I never said that,” and then he wanted out again. And who’s his agent?

Frank: None other than Bus Cook.

Artie: Who also is the agent for another “I want to be here…there…anywhere else” guy, Brett Favre. This wheeling-and-dealing by the Bears could turn out to be a beautiful thing—for Packer fans!

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