One in 9,223,372,036,854,775,808. That’s over nine quintillion, for those of you who gave up after the fourth comma. Those are the odds of a coin-flipping novice filling out a perfect March Madness bracket, calculated by realizing the two possible outcomes for every game in every round, expressed 2^63. The astronomical odds dwarf the likelihood of death by a vending machine falling on you (roughly 1 in 127 million) or winning Powerball (1 in 292 million). In fact, with the CDC stating the odds of being hit by lightning are 1 in 500,000 in any given year, you’re more likely to be zapped 18 trillion times before predicting the outcome of every match in the famed college basketball tournament, which explains why nobody ever has since the tradition was born back in 1977 within the walls of a Staten Island bar called Jody’s Club Forest. The near impossibility of producing a perfect bracket accurately reflects the volatility of an event known for its wild gameplay and massive upsets, hence its name (which is why the NCAA itself emphasizes that even a college hoops aficionado has only a 1 in 120 billion shot at perfection). But the true “madness” is the fact that in a billion-dollar-plus production, the workers still aren’t paid a cent.
The NCAA generates roughly $870 million every March from television and marketing rights alone, thanks to a gargantuan multi-billion-dollar deal with CBS and Turner that extends until 2032. In 2019, Yahoo ranked that agreement as the third-most lucrative sports deal ever, pulling in ahead of Premier League soccer and Major League Baseball. What’s more, ticket sales net college basketball in the neighborhood of $180 million, bringing earnings up over $1 billion per year. And that’s just the money that the NCAA sees. With thousands flocking every year to take in the madness, the 14 host cities stand to see hundreds of millions in revenue when the tournament rolls around their way. For instance, Minneapolis reported an uptick of $143 million in tourist dollars in 2019 after hosting the Final Four.
Then there’s this little thing called sports betting, which has become infinitely more accessible after the Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, in 2018, allowing states to legalize gambling. The results have been staggering, as dollars come pouring in on a monthly basis at the state level. New York, for example, became the new No. 1 legalized sports betting market in the United States after bringing in $1.6 billion in just four weeks of mobile betting on sports of all kinds this past January.
As expected, legal sports betting has affected how money is spent by bettors. According to Forbes and the American Gaming Association, about 47 million Americans were expected to place bets on March Madness in 2021, accounting for $8.5 billion wagered, regardless of legality. But with bettors planning to bet online rising by 206% in 2021, and those looking to place physical bets going up by 79%, it’s no stretch to suggest that 2022 and beyond will continue to see more of that nearly 10 billion dollars go on the books.
The bottom line is that the 1,020 college hoops players across 68 March Madness teams are the engines that run a multi-faceted product that generates billions of dollars per tournament. This is one of the most momentous events of the annual sports cycle, and the athletes who make that possible should be tangibly compensated. Many argue that the NCAA’s reinvestment of Madness cash into Division I schools for scholarships is enough, when, in reality, it’s the bare minimum. The cost of handing out scholarships can easily be overblown. Sure, top schools like Duke may cost around $60,000 annually, but how much of that is covering the cost of living for the student versus charging for the “prestige” of attending an acclaimed university? SB Nation noted in 2018 that even if the actual cost to schools was generously marked at $50,000 for every scholarship slot in the tournament, the total cost would’ve been just 5% of the NCAA’s profits made from television deals that year.
While scholarships may be a great vehicle for rising stars who just need an audition for NBA scouts, what about the college players who won’t be successful pros? What about the vast majority of athletes, who graduate with something like an accounting degree and move on with their lives? The bottom two-thirds of every roster is just as important as the top third when it comes to running the show. And when you realize that March Madness makes over $200 million more annually than the National Hockey League does in the television department, and that gambling on the tournament nearly doubles the $4.3 billion wagered on the Super Bowl in 2021, it’s hard to argue that these kids — superstars or role players — are not professionals in everything but name. This year specifically, students will be asked to take on another professional responsibility: risking their health to keep the show alive. March Madness will return to its traditional 14-city format this year, after spending 2021 exclusively in Indianapolis. As we went to press, of the 14 cities hosting the indoor showdown, five of them are currently below the United States’ average vaccination rate, while three are above the average for new daily cases.
The pros have a reason for taking the risk: a salary. So why not pay students at least the equivalent of the federal minimum wage for their efforts? The equivalent of a year’s salary at $7.25 an hour would cost the NCAA just over $15 million, or about 1% of the annual March Madness earnings, and every player who participated in the tournament would get a modest $15,080 check for helping their schools — and businesses — generate billions of dollars. Plus, with a flat rate, the argument that richer schools would have a competitive advantage would be moot (though this modest across-the-board salary would probably not trump such incentives as national championship counts and track records of channeling players into the NBA that recruiters would present to high school prospects).
This is just one idea, but the fight for compensating college athletes has been ongoing in America’s highest courts. And 2021 was a big year for the cause — the Supreme Court affirmed a ruling from the lower courts that deemed the NCAA was violating antitrust law by capping the amount of education-related benefits schools could provide their athletes. In the same year, the NCAA ceded its authority on name, image, and likeness (NIL) rules, allowing student athletes to seek out paid endorsement deals. The idea of these players receiving some sort of salary could come to fruition sooner rather than later, too, if Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s opinion on the matter is any indication. “The NCAA is not above the law,” Kavanaugh wrote in a series of scathing remarks. “The NCAA couches its arguments for not paying student athletes in innocuous labels. But the labels cannot disguise the reality: The NCAA’s business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America.”
With the tremendous progress made last year, it seems inevitable that someone will take the justice’s argument and make a legal bid for some sort of pay-for-play scenario for college athletes. But for at least this March, more than 1,000 student hoopsters will continue to churn out billions for colleges, sportsbooks, sports bar owners, and broadcast networks — free of charge.
Vincent Velotta is a New York City-based sports and film writer.