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The influence of billionaires on college athletics

John Calipari was named the head men's basketball coach in April.
Courtesy
/
Arkansas Razorbacks
John Calipari was named the head men's basketball coach in April.

As the NCAA men’s basketball season was wrapping up in early April, the top news story in the sport was not about the University of Connecticut or Purdue. It was about Arkansas.

On April 10th, just one day after UCONN defended their national championship and won their sixth national championship overall, the University of Arkansas announced they would be hiring John Calipari to be their next men’s basketball coach. That evening the U of A held an event in Bud Walton Arena to welcome Coach Cal.

The Hog Wild band was on the floor performing, former Razorback players like Joe Kleine, Ron Brewer and Joe Johnson were in attendance. University of Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek opened the night by thanking his staff, the university board of trustees, and Chancellor Charles Robinson. But the one who got the loudest response from the crowd wasn’t a staff member, a former Razorback player, or even an Arkansas graduate.

“I am deeply appreciative to Mr. John Tyson for serving as a conduit…” Yurachek said, before being drowned out by fans cheering loudly for Tyson, who eventually rose from his seat to greet the fans.

Zach Arns is the program director and afternoon host for ESPN Arkansas, he said Tyson has always been on the periphery of the Arkansas sports program.

“I know he’s born and raised in Springdale,” Arns said, “he’s in the class of 1967 in Springdale High School. He’s always been around the program, but now he’s taken center stage with the John Calipari hiring.”

During the event on April 10th, Chuck Barrett, the voice of the Razorbacks sat with Coach Calipari on a stage for an introductory Q&A.

“How does this happen?” Barrett asked.

Calipari looked around at the chairs on the arena floor, trying to spot the man responsible. “Where’s my guy, John Tyson? He’s done this twice now.” He played out the dialogue between Tyson and himself:

“I need you to talk to my athletic director,” Tyson said, according to Calipari.

“Well, I’m in Phoenix.”

“He’s in Phoenix.”

“What? Well, tell him to call me, I’ll meet him tomorrow.”

“We only met for about an hour and a half,” Calipari continued, “maybe less than that. Part of it was talking about other people and he said, ‘Now that you know [about this opening] and you know this program, why not you?’”

The influence of wealthy fans and boosters is nothing new to college sports. Just look at the names on the sports complexes in Fayetteville alone. Arns said all of the money for these buildings — including the money sent on naming rights — was donated.

“They’re not there by chance,” Arns said. “They didn’t do it because they’re a nice guy. No, they gave money to the university. They keep going back to the same people and they’re trying to drum up new revenue streams, new boosters, and wealthy boosters — obviously they have the Stephens [family] down in Little Rock. One of the interesting things about these boosters is they all have egos. You’re not donating $8 - $12 million to the university and not having a say in how things run. There’s no return on your investment, so you’re basically donating the money and you want a say in what’s happening. I have a friend that talks about boosters, and all they want is access. They want to be able to say they have access, they want to rub elbows with important people. In a lot of ways, it goes back to ego and saying, ‘Hey, I’m gonna give you this money, but this is what I want in return.’”

The introduction of Name, Image and Likeness in college sports moved the influence of money from an open secret to something that is cheered and celebrated in basketball arenas. Arns said the genesis of NIL comes from a supreme court case and a video game.

“It was EA Sports’ college basketball game,” Arns said. “He played for UCLA, and he didn’t like that his image was used in the video game. He wanted a piece of the revenue — the game generated millions of dollars. That court case was a landmark case, and it sort of spurned this name, image, and likeness talk which came out about four years ago this July.”

The original idea of NIL was essentially that: if a video game creator was going to use your name, image, and likeness, they needed to compensate you for it. If a local car dealer wanted to have an offensive lineman for the Razorbacks in their commercials, they could, and they had to pay him for it.

“What it has become is every college program that wants to be competitive now has a payroll to meet,” Arns said. “That has become sort of the crux of what is now college athletics. Let’s use the Southeastern Conference as an example. They go and sign a $3 billion deal with ESPN over the next 10 to 12 years to broadcast all of their sports. Well, that’s where money is coming from, except the problem is the schools can’t give that money to the athletes. It has to go through a third party or a collective. So, this has become a very nebulous idea. It’s gotten, I feel, far away from what it was intended to be.”

The institutional donations are just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to the influence of money in college sports. In the late 60s for example, it was not out in the open. Arns said he remembers hearing stories about his uncle’s college roommate, the Notre Dame star football player Alan Page.

“Alan used to go and meet a Notre Dame booster once a week,” Arns said, “and he would give him $100 for food, clothes, whatever he needed. That was how it was done back in the day. Now, it’s probably a Venmo transfer.”

John Calipari has a hall of fame legacy as a college basketball coach, literally. The man has won the NCAA championship once, been to the Final Four 6 times, and was inducted into the basketball hall of fame in 2015. Calipari left the University of Kentucky after 15 years and signed a contract for five years and $38 and a half million. It’s reported he will also have access to at least $5-7 million in NIL funding as well. Whether that comes from average fans giving to Arkansas Edge, or the heir of the founder of a Fortune 100 company whose current net worth is nearly $3 billion, we may never know for certain.

“You don’t know where the money’s coming from,” Arns said. “There’s no limit to how much you can spend — or not spend.”

One concern with the proliferation of NIL is the idea that there are greener pastures out there at another school if you are not getting as much money or recognition as you’d like at the school you’re currently attending. One way to remedy that is the transfer portal. Zach Arns said it’s basically like shopping online.

“There’s a profile, you click on it,” Arns said, “It shows their vitals and how to contact them. You can put in a request, and some players will jump into the portal with a “no contact.” That means they know where they’re going, they’ve already been talked to. But you can do it by height, weight, whatever you want to do.”

Data from the NCAA shows that in 2023, nearly 1,800 football student athletes entered the transfer portal, almost all of them with scholarships at their currently. Nearly 1,100 of those students did not end up transferring to a new school. So what happens to the vast majority of those students?

“They’re out of luck, to be honest,” Arns said. “I checked it [before the interview], and 2,000 basketball players were in the portal. There aren’t that many scholarships available with incoming high school freshmen. You’re really rolling the dice. If you’re going to jump into the portal and you don’t know where you’re going or you don’t have a really good idea where you’re headed, I think it’s a pretty dangerous game. It’s a game of musical chairs. There’s only a certain number of scholarships available across all sports, and if you’re willing to jump in without knowing where you’re gonna go, I think you’re going to have some trouble.”

When asked what guardrails he would put in place if he were commissioned to be the Czar of NIL for the NCAA, Arns said they might be headed in the right direction sooner than later.

“The Group of Five conferences are thinking about forming their own thing and going off and having their own championships,” he said. “You’re going to have to make the athletes employees at some point if you want to put guardrails on. You’re going to have to allow them to unionize, and then you’re going to have to collectively bargain with the union. I think the pro sports model is the way to go: salary caps, penalties for doing things outside those rules, and so on. I don’t think we have a choice.

“I think the big schools will probably go off and do their own thing at some point if the Group of Five does,” Arns continued, “but nobody wants to be first. So, it’s going to have to take a groupthink to figure this out. Once we get to that, we’re basically dealing with semi-pro sports. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, I’m not smart enough to know. I personally like the idea of college athletes being college kids and not professional athletes, but that’s just me yelling at clouds. I understand times change and things change. We’re talking billions of dollars with the NCAA basketball tournaments, the College Football playoff.”

In 2021, several owners of European soccer clubs attempted to create the European Soccer League that would include 20 teams across the continent. It was meant with harsh backlash, and the idea was eventually dropped. When asked if he was worried that could happen in this scenario, Arns sighed and said probably so.

“There’s an opportunity for failure n any new business venture,” Arns said. “At some point, the money is going to run out. I don’t know whether it’s 10 years from now or 20 years from now when ESPN stops handing over billions for college athletics, but it’s not an endless supply. I think somebody needs to be proactive and say, ‘Look, we need to make this a business. What is our business model?’ because right now, it’s just whoever can spend the most is going to win the most.”

Unfortunately, Zach Arns will not be hired as the NIL czar anytime soon by the NCAA. So, for now, you expect more billionaires to be influencing college sports in an unregulated fashion until somebody very important is left without a seat in a trepidatious game of musical chairs.

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Matthew Moore is senior producer for Ozarks at Large.
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