Sport Business: A winning price tag?

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Mike Krzyzewski stood on the court in Indianapolis after winning the NCAA Championship last month, a smile on his face. He had just won his fifth title in nine attempts, firmly solidifying his status as one of the greatest coaches of all time. He had taken a team with four inexperienced—albeit highly recruited—freshmen to the pinnacle of college basketball. There were plenty of reasons to smile.

But what if Duke hadn’t won? What if Wisconsin hadn’t blown a nine-point lead and Bo Ryan’s Badgers had come out on top? Where would Coach K be then?

He would still have led the Blue Devils on an impressive run. Sure, he would have lost some of those top ranked freshmen to the NBA Draft, but with the number one recruiting class for 2015 it wouldn’t have hurt too much. Then there’s the $9,682,032 total salary he gets regardless of whether or not his group of 18-year-olds makes it to the championship or crashes out in the first round (as they did last year against 14th-seeded Mercer). So while the ring is nice, it sounds like there still would’ve been plenty of reasons to smile.

That’s the case for most top college basketball and football coaches. The most high profile programs (think Alabama, Notre Dame, Texas) pay absurd amounts of money to these men (And yes, it’s only men. Even the top paid women’s basketball coach, Geno Auriemma, is a man). While there are contract incentives for winning, many of these coaches ink deals with millions of dollars guaranteed regardless of on-field results.

Where else can you get a multi-million dollar salary without having to be a top performer? Sounds like a pretty good deal if you can get it.

In fact, college coaches are the highest paid public officials in 40 of 50 states. Those 40 are made up of 27 football coaches and 13 basketball coaches.

Sounds like a lot, but even that number may be too low, as state salary databases can be misleading. States often only list the coach’s base salary and don’t include the additional compensation coaches receive from appearance fees, apparel contracts and more. The university’s coaches are not public employees, so they wouldn’t show up on databases that make salary information publicly available.

Top coaches face long, unconventional hours, intense media scrutiny and minimal job security. Big schools bring in millions and choose to invest it in coaches within their highest revenue-generating programs.

The question remains: Do coaches deserve that money?

One may argue that coaches can be measured using quantifiable statistics such as the team’s record and should be paid accordingly. However, the true measure of any major school’s athletic programs is the revenue they bring in, and it’s nearly impossible to say that any one person—even a football or basketball coach at a Division I powerhouse—is directly responsible for the money the school brings in.

Take Michigan, for example. Last season, then head coach Brady Hoke led the team to an embarrassing 5-7 record and the Wolverines missed out on a bowl game for only the third time since 1975. Despite these historically poor results, the football program still generated $91 million in revenue. Hoke was fired after the season but not before pocketing $4.3 million.

While you may not agree with it, it’s unlikely to change any time soon. So regardless of how next season goes, Coach K and his colleagues can keep on smiling.

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