America has more than its fair share of world-class academic institutions whose names stand for academic excellence. Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Cornell all have global reputations for the standards of their teaching and the glittering alumni that have graced their campuses.
But another unique US phenomenon is the importance that sports have to play at these, and many other, leading universities.
Not only does this represent many amazing opportunities for students to obtain scholarships to train in a sport in which they excel, but for the fortunate and talented its can also be a step up to the elite level.
One only has to look at the excitement that the draft for the two main college sports, football and basketball, generates each year to see just how significant this is.
It’s all come a very long way from the early days of college football and basketball when they were played very much on an amateur basis. So today there is big money to be spent, and made, in college sports which has served to make them ever more like the professional side of the games involved.
One of the great things about college football, besides the training it provides, is the opportunity it presents for talented young athletes to attend a college often on a heavily subsidised basis. But it isn’t pure philanthropy that lies behind this. College football is big business with broadcast rights to be earned, sponsorship deals, ticket sales for games and many more sources of revenue.
However, college football programs are also very expensive to run so it’s open to debate whether most of them actually turn a profit for the institutions themselves.
Even if they don’t it’s fairly obvious that the effect they have on the profile of the colleges in question is reason enough to justify the investment.
Most of the money is concentrated in the so-called “Big Five” conferences, namely the Southeastern, Big 10, PAC- 12, Big 12 and Atlantic Coast. This is reflected in the overall success of their teams with places like Alabama in the Southeastern Conference leading the way.
Naturally, so much focus on college football also means that there is huge interest in NCAA football odds among fans with increasingly large volumes of wagers being placed throughout the season.
Basketball follows closely on the heels of football in terms of the attention it receives.
Its history as a college sport is even more interesting than football. It’s thought that the game itself was invented at Springfield College in the late 19th century in an attempt to get students to be more active with a sport that wasn’t weather dependent. The story is that the first ever game was played in the college’s gymnasium using a peach basket at each end of the court.
Today, the event that gets much of the nation talking about college basketball is the end of season March Madness in which the leading teams compete for the honor of winning the trophy. With televised games and much betting, this also ensures that it’s a real money-spinner too.
Increased access to games
Of course, generating revenue for college sport is heavily dependent on fans actually being able to see them. So the rise of streaming services and other channels in recent years has also played an important part.
Never before has it been possible to catch so much of the action in so many different ways whereas previously it was predominantly only ticket holders and true fans who have been able to experience college sports.
The rise of sponsorship
Another cash injection has come in the form of sports sponsorship from companies keen to have their names associated with successful college sports teams as well as with individual players.
For example, NIKE support the University of Michigan football team to the tune of around $7.8 million a year, an arrangement that’s set to continue to 2031. With many more deals of this kind sure to be drawn up, even more money is undoubtedly on its way into college sports.
Top coaches, top dollar
One other aspect that is worth noting is the extraordinarily high salaries that a number of the top college sports coaches can command.
Examples include Alabama’s Nick Saban, said to make $9.3 million a year and Louisiana State’s Ed Orgeron whose salary is an even more impressive $14 million a year.
As the money in college sports increases figures like this will become even more stratospheric.
And with increasing amounts of money involved the stakes will inevitably get higher.
So perhaps, one day in the future, it may even start to approach the kind of sums only previously seen in the professional and elite levels. We’ll just have to wait and see.