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Volume 21 No. 2


With the academic year closed and universities across the country conducting commencement ceremonies, it is a good time to reflect on the past year and consider the future. We have to conclude that college athletics has had a pretty tough year in many respects. And yet, the future has never been brighter in so many ways.

Big-time athletic programs committed serious rules violations. The University of Southern California, the University of North Carolina and the University of Miami found themselves mired in NCAA investigations and/or sanctions. Sexual abuse scandals rocked Penn State and Syracuse and will continue to do so through the summer.

Student-athlete rights legislation that allowed multiyear scholarships barely passed. The miscellaneous expense legislation that would have allowed student athletes to receive an extra $2,000 is still under review. Transfer rules came under scrutiny, and schools did not distinguish themselves in their application. During this year’s 40th anniversary of Title IX, most schools are still not in compliance with the law.

Conference realignment revealed the unbridled lust for money as college presidents sought greener pastures. Lawsuits flew in every direction, with schools demeaning themselves with mean-spirited, convoluted and illogical complaints against former conferences. Self-serving actions ruled.

Although it appears tantalizingly close, a football playoff still hasn’t happened, with the BCS representing a closed club to many schools and sports fans, not to mention an antitrust violation. Even when a playoff emerges, the revenue distribution methodology will continue the bifurcation between the haves and have-nots.

Yet amid of all of this activity, college sports television rights have gone through the roof. The explosion of media rights has nothing to do with the marketing brilliance of college sports programs or the marketing wizardry of the NCAA. Simply put, an increased number of media outlets and new media platforms for monetizing popular content have served as a College Sports ATM. What college sports leaders resolve to do with this largesse will determine the success and popularity of the game moving forward.

NCAA President Mark Emmert must continue to use the power of his office to push reform.
NCAA President Mark Emmert took office at a momentous time and he has been trying to navigate the organization through a maze of opportunities and challenges. Some of his attempts have been right on the money. At other times, he has sat on the sidelines as conference commissioners, college presidents and athletic directors acted with only their institutions’ vested self-interests in mind.

In trying to forge progress, Emmert faces incredible obstacles — including his relative lack of power. However, he does have the bully pulpit of his presidency available to him and he needs to continue to use it.

In the spirit of contributing to the discussion about how college sports can be conducted legally, equitably, fairly and profitably, here are 10 suggestions for reform. Some of them are already in the pipeline of change; others need to be discussed more thoroughly.

1. In virtually every sport, reduce the number of games that can be played in a season and limit the number that can be played during the school week. Student athletes are simply missing too much class time, which hurts academic progress and graduation rates.

2. Eliminate freshman eligibility for all student athletes who are considered special admits — and define that term as any student athlete who would not have been admitted to the institution but for the fact that they were athletes. If you are not academically prepared, you need a one-year period to acclimate to college life and the academic workload.

3. Connect postseason eligibility and both NCAA and conference revenue distribution with academic/graduation success and rules compliance. Simply put, succeed academically and play within the rules or incur immediate competitive and financial penalties.

4. Allow a full athletic scholarship to cover the full cost of attendance as defined by each school. There is no need to set a national limit since the schools already define what that amount is given their geographical location and academic offerings.

5. Stop the permanent misappropriation of the images and likenesses of student athletes. Simple economic fairness demands that compensation should be paid to student athletes for the commercial use of their images once their college playing careers are over.

6. Provide college athletes with the opportunity to enter into contracts to pursue marketing and endorsement opportunities while in college. Why can students with music scholarships earn money playing professionally for the local symphony but athletes cannot earn money off of their skill or reputation while in college?

7. Provide student athletes with the opportunity to engage agents/attorneys as they assess professional sports opportunities. Lucrative financial opportunities come across seldom in life. Professional advice is critically important to navigate opportunities.

8. Simplify the rule book. Major violations need to be limited to ethical misconduct on topics such as academic integrity, but punishments must be swift and substantive — including financial penalties and postseason ineligibility. The current rule book is indecipherable to just about every athletic administrator and coach.

9. Limit institutional athletic spending to some multiple of the amount the institution academically spends per student. There is no reason that athletic profits shouldn’t be spent on institutional priorities other than athletics. This constraint would be a way to slow the arms race and allow the institution to benefit from the media money being spent in college sports.

10. On the 40th anniversary of Title IX, it is unfathomable that so many institutions are out of compliance with Title IX. Only the combination of a lack of investigative resources on the part of the Office for Civil Rights and the good fortune of not being sued allows most schools to lay false claim to being in compliance with the law. The NCAA must commit to the public review and assessment of every institution’s compliance effort with the law.

Dave O’Brien ( is an associate teaching professor and sport management program director at Drexel University, and is editor of He is a former Division I athletic director at Long Beach State, Temple University and Northeastern University.

As we hit the halfway mark of the year and enter our summer “dark week” — SportsBusiness Journal will not publish the week of July 9 — here’s a look at our five most-read stories in SBJ and SBD through the first six months of 2012. These are not the most important stories of the year, but a look at what people clicked to read on the Web.

Forty Under 40 — March 12: Our annual list of the successful young talent in the business is consistently among the best-read stories of the year, and this year is no different.

The deal involves Oklahoma programming on FS Southwest and FS Oklahoma RSNs.
Sooners Stake Their Claim On Two Fox RSNs — Jan. 2: In our first issue of the year, this story advanced news about how college programs would control their media distribution. This example is through a partnership with Fox, which agreed to carry at least 1,000 hours a year of Oklahoma programming on its FS Southwest and FS Oklahoma RSNs.

Wozniacki Strips Down For Underwear, Bra Line — June 4: This story, which showcased Wozniacki becoming one of the few female athletes to develop an underwear line and do a subsequent ad campaign, caught fire on Twitter, which pushed it into our top five.

Conference Attendance By School — Jan. 2: Proving the constant need for research numbers, this data showed the school-by-school average football attendance over a three-year trend for the top six conferences. Hint: The top school averaged 112,179 fans a game in 2011.

NBC Sports Net Ratings Slow Out Of The Gate — Feb. 20: One of the first extensive examinations of ratings and viewership of NBC Sports Network got a number of people talking — and click-thrus — as it offered an inside glimpse of the strategy to broaden the NBC Sports umbrella under new Chairman Mark Lazarus.

Ohio St. Tops Spring Game Attendance For BCS Schools; Oregon Sets New Pac-12 Record — May 8: Continuing the appetite for college data, this research showcased spring football attendance and showed that Ohio State led all BCS conference schools in spring game attendance this year with 81,112. It marked the first time Urban Meyer appeared on the sideline as Ohio State coach.

Sources: CBS Sports Network, Comcast Shutting Down The Mtn. — April 5: The Mtn., which launched in 2006 and was the first network dedicated to a college conference, would shutter at the end of May.

Yahoo Again Tops Latest ComScore Rankings, While ESPN Falls To Third — Feb. 8: Yahoo Sports again earned the top spot on comScore’s monthly rankings of U.S. online sports destinations, but the bigger story was the fall of to the third slot, behind The shift marked ESPN’s first month outside the top two positions in more than four years.

A Newsweek story in January examined the growth of ESPN into a dynasty.
Photo by: ALLEN KEE / ESPN
Tim Sullivan’s Dismissal From San Diego Union-Tribune Draws Strong Media Response — June 4: The news on longtime San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Tim Sullivan was required reading for sports media insiders. Some sourcing attributed the move to Sullivan’s lack of support for building a new stadium in the city. The theme that the publishers were using the newspaper to push an agenda, was picked up shortly thereafter by David Carr in The New York Times.

Newsweek Questions Whether ESPN Has Become Too Big For Its Own Good — Jan. 18: A look by the venerable newsweekly into the state of ESPN lands in our top five, as Nick Summers concluded that, having played the “underdog for the first half of its corporate lifetime, ESPN has, to many, become the dynasty it feels good to root against.” Proof, perhaps, to this story’s appeal.

Overall, a pretty mild start of the year, with few of the significant stories that filled news cycles last year. That will likely change with the Olympics upon us. So, catch a breath, have a safe and happy July Fourth holiday, and we’ll review this list in six months at year’s end.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at

“Small market” might be a geographic term, but in truth, if you think small, you are small — and if you think big, well …

As an Oklahoma State grad (three times over), I can remember watching the NBA game of the week on Sundays and watching NBA playoff games on tape delay back in the early 1970s. Three weeks ago, I had the opportunity to return to one of my favorite places to see something that 40 years ago I never thought I would see: a professional sports franchise based in Oklahoma hosting an NBA playoff game. What I saw — and, more importantly, what I felt — was anything but small.

The Oklahoma City Thunder’s approach is one that almost all small markets (regardless of the number of teams in that market) seek to integrate throughout everything that they do. Inclusiveness is high: There is something for everyone, at every price point, both inside and outside of the arena. In a state where the dividing line is color — Oklahoma’s crimson and cream versus Oklahoma State’s black and orange — everything here is blue. And when people speak about the team, they use my favorite pronouns: we, us and our. The feeling of ownership and pride in place is rampant and transcends the geographic limits of Oklahoma City because it is Oklahoma’s team and lives in the hearts and minds of all Oklahomans as their team — a pro team that competes with New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

The team conducts a drawing to win or buy tickets in the hours before each home game.
The team’s opening video speaks to inclusiveness and ownership. It shows people from all parts of the state in their Thunder gear and in their hometowns professing their support. But one of the things that makes Oklahoma such a treasure is its people, and one of the things that separates the Thunder from other franchises or other businesses is the respect for those people and operating in a way that speaks not to what they could do, but what they should do.

Case in point: The team holds out 200 tickets every game for people who can’t afford a ticket plan, or who don’t have the time to go to multiple games, or who might have driven to Oklahoma City from McAlester, Tulsa or Pawnee for the chance to go to a game. People come without tickets and sign up on an iPad for the opportunity to win two free tickets or the opportunity to buy two tickets at face value. About an hour before tip, the names of 25 people who have been chosen to receive two free tickets are posted on an electronic board mounted on the outside of Chesapeake Energy Arena. This is followed shortly by selecting 75 names for the opportunity to purchase two tickets each at face value. The impact? People behaving like they won the lottery, and the Thunder collecting more than 15,000 new names for its database.

The premium areas for the Thunder are as nice as any that I have seen — OK, maybe not quite as nice or plush as at MSG or at the newer Amway Center in Orlando — but the attitude isn’t one of premium and luxury. It is “Happy to be there,” “Glad you could come out with me” and, of course, “Let’s go, Thunder.” The customer service is second to none, and the Click program that makes it all go is one of the few vestiges intact from the days of the Seattle SuperSonics. Click (Communicate Courteously, Listen to Learn, Initiate Immediately, Create Connections and Know Your Stuff) means connecting with guests. “Treating guests well is the first step in turning relationships into friendships,” said Pete Winemiller of the Thunder and the originator of the Click concept. That is small-town philosophy and feel but not a small-market idea.

Thunder Alley, the interactive space outside the arena, welcomes folks who have spent a few hours (or plan to after the game) in the city’s downtown Bricktown area. It is a happy diversion for folks waiting for the game or those just wanting to be part of Oklahoma’s only major league franchise. It is reminiscent of a state fair atmosphere and gives Oklahomans (and other guests) a chance to “visit.”

“The Thunder not only unites our community but mirrors the cultural renaissance evident in the energy, confidence and ‘can-do’ spirit of Oklahomans,” said Brian Byrnes, the team’s senior vice president of sales and marketing. “The support of our fans has been unwavering and inspiring. We don’t take this for granted. Our identity is built upon professionalism and attention to detail — whether in creating an engaging game presentation, delivering unparalleled guest service or building programming that unites fans in communities throughout Oklahoma. Every decision is made with long-term sustainability in mind as we continue to build the foundation for our next generation of Thunder fans.”

Nowhere is this long-term sustainability more apparent than ticket prices. Despite the success of the team and the demand for tickets, the Thunder has 3,400 seats priced at $10 and has done so since the team’s launch in 2008. When combined with an additional 2,200 seats at $20, it translates to approximately 5,600 at $20 or less for every game, or about one-third of the seating capacity of the Chesapeake Energy Center.

Small market? Maybe in terms of geography and size, but surely not in thinking and strategy. It appears to me to have all of the makings of a regional juggernaut like the St. Louis Cardinals — as long as access, a solid radio and TV network (that is still emerging and will be enhanced as Oklahoma City will surely receive the maximum number of NBA national games next season), and the attitude and vision of management remains true to Oklahoma’s greatest resource: its people.

Remember, it’s about what they should do and not what they could do. They could have named the team the Oklahoma Thunder, but they didn’t need to. Shucks, everyone knows that is the reality anyhow.

Bill Sutton ( is the founding director of the sport and entertainment business management MBA at the University of South Florida, and principal of Bill Sutton & Associates. Follow him on Twitter @Sutton_Impact.