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March 31, 2004

Schools Prosper With Bargain Talent

FROM THE BOOKSTORES AND THE WAL-MARTS AND THE COLLEGE GOODIES CATALOGS come all manner of fabric, wood, metal, plastic and composite items adorned with the logos and icons of beloved State U. and its--pick one--(a)- ferocious (b)- tradition-bound (c)- cuddly (d)- ridiculous (e) all of the above ... mascot.

College licensed items have become significant revenue generators. The NCAA estimates that the biggest sellers among Division I universities generate about $6 million to $7 million annually. That’s a lot of team apparel, blankets, coffee mugs, pens, clocks, stuffed mascots, trash cans and license plate holders.

As a case in point, when the UConn won the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in 1999, over $1 million of logoed merchandise sold in the 72 hours following the championship game.

But there’s a problem here. The schools take all the revenues, and student-athletes get zilch, nada, nothing. The sacrosanct amateur status must be maintained.

By no means is this is an issue that cuts across all college programs. It is only the perennially elite three or four dozen football and basketball programs that consistently spin off a glut of funds from merchandise sales directly affected by the popularity of student-athletes.

The disparity can get even more exaggerated when a particularly popular marquee student-athlete leads his team—and school—from the middle of the Bell curve into the ranks of the elite.

For example, the magnificently talented and hugely popular Jameer Nelson of St. Joseph’s University has been a large part of the reason that St. Joe’s has done so well over his past four years. Merchandising revenue has increased fivefold, sponsorships are up 369%, cash donations are up 62%. Campus visits by high school students have more than doubled since last year. Basketball revenues increased from $1.2 million in ‘99-‘00 to a projected $2 million-plus this year.

St. Joe’s reaps benefits valued in the millions and Jameer gets a scholarship valued in the tens of thousands. That’s fair?

Professor Robert Brown of Cal State-San Marcos specializes in analyzing the revenue-producing capability of college stars. He estimates Nelson’s value to St. Joe’s could be as much as $2 million.

Meanwhile, replica jerseys have become hot items in recent years. However, NCAA rules bar the commercial use of a student-athlete's name or image. Many schools skirt the issue by simply issuing jerseys with the star athlete’s number prominently highlighted. No name, just number.

For example, if it says UConn on the front and No. 50 on the back, then every basketball fan from Maine to Florida knows that it’s Emeka Okefor.

Ryan Roques, a former UCLA football player, recalled seeing a replica of his jersey for sale at the 1999 Rose Bowl, “I didn't have the money to buy a shirt as a gift for members of my family, and I couldn't get any from the university because of the rules."

NCAA president Myles Brand spoke about his concern about a double standard in the sales of jerseys, "My concerns are over the potential inconsistency between our making requirements on student-athletes about endorsements, namely they cannot take any, and the schools themselves then using what would be endorsement material for revenue."

So, it’s okay for schools to profit from athlete’s popularity, but not the student-athlete himself.

(this 533 word excerpt was drawn from a 1118 word article in the New York Times of 3-31-04 and a 1536 word article in USA TODAY of 3-17-04)