Million Dollar Free Throw

(Written on March 5) For those of you that don’t follow college basketball, Butler University in Indianapolis has a good men’s basketball team this year. They are good enough to receive a non-automatic bid into the tournament, even though their conference, the Horizon League, is not very strong. If Butler wins the automatic bid as league champion, no other team from the Horizon will enter the tournament. The Butler players have a big responsibility on their hands: they will play for a million dollars a game.

Don’t believe me? I will quote from the
Official NCAA document on revenue distribution:
The basketball fund provides for money to be distributed to Division I conferences based on their performance in the Division I Men’s Basketball Championship over a six-year rolling period (for the period 2001-2006 for the 2006-07 distribution).  Independent institutions receive a full unit share based on its tournament participation over the same rolling six-year period.  The basketball fund payments are sent to conferences and independent institutions in mid-April each year.
One unit is awarded to each institution participating in each game, except the championship game.  In 2005-06, each basketball unit was approximately $164,000 for a total $122.8 million distribution. In 2006-07, each basketball unit will be approximately $177,000 for a total $132.6 million distribution.

Each tournament game not only pays next year, but for five more years after that. This year’s event pays out in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013. Men’s version only, please; winning in the women’s tourney earns nothing. For every game Butler wins, the conference makes one unit for each of the next six years. At $177,000 this year, times six years, that’s about $1,000,000. If Butler loses in the conference tournament, and gets in as an at-large selection, the conference gets $1,000,000 for the other team and $1,000,000 for Butler. How much of the $1,000,000 do the players get for winning? Nothing. Supposedly, the players are paid through their scholarships. But being away from school for more time means more missed classes, more makeup work, and lower grades. If a degree is the only payment, then the players lose money with each game.

And $1,000,000 a game is small potatoes in college football. Take Boise State football, for instance. It’s a uplifting story. The smaller school team has to win all its games to get to a top game, where they play big school Oklahoma. They surge ahead, fall behind, but score in the final minute on a trick play to head to overtime. In overtime, the opponents score a touchdown and one point conversion easily. The Boise State final down consists of another trick pass to score a touchdown. Doing the right thing and trying to win the game, the 2 point play is a trick run, a Statue of Liberty play, which works. Boise State wins. In the joyous celebration, the winning running back proposes to his girlfriend, the head cheerleader. No, I am not making this up. You can see video clips of the key plays here and then don’t miss the postgame proposal. I’m sure there will be a movie, but the actual stuff is better. I’m sort of sorry I missed it live.

Then comes the interesting part, the piles of money. Being the small school, Boise State receives less money, a little over $3,000,000. Oklahoma’s conference gets around $17,000,000. Things are a little better for the players here. Bowl games are played during winter break, often in nice warm places. Football players get to stay in nice hotels for a few days, since there aren’t course pressure. They can also receive gifts like satellite radios and watches. Still, is that millions of dollars? I would say not.

(March 31) Now the tournament has played all but the final game. It’s been about the best possible scenario for the Horizon League. Butler lost the league title, but got a very good at-large bid. Good enough to get a decent hotel, too. In the tournament, the better teams get the nicer hotels. This article talks about the choices in Spokane, for instance. From that position, Butler won two games and played a very competitive third contest. The Horizon League will earn four units from this tournament.

The idea behind the equalization fund was to eliminate the
million dollar free throw, written by the president of California State University, Fresno. (I know this man. Isn’t that weird? Before he was president at Fresno State, he was president at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. My father was an adjunct professor while he was the boss. I’ve been introduced to Dr. Welty.)
Yes, it’s done that for the institution, but not for the conference. When the committee selected Stanford over Drexel, the Pac-10 conference took a million dollars from the smaller and weaker Colonial. When a guard on Ohio State hit a shot to send the game into overtime, where Ohio State won, the Big 10 conference earned another million dollars.

Why am I writing about this? Two reasons. First, the dollar figures scare me. I teach 18 and 20 and 22 year old boys and girls, a lot like those players. They’re generally not ready to think about that kind of money. I’m barely ready to handle million dollar decisions, and I’m ten years older and more experienced. That’s just too much. There’s too much money. In the past few years, I’ve consciously spent less time with college football and basketball. Sure, they’re great for looking at rating systems, and that’s a lot of statistics fun. Beyond that, though, I have reduced my interest. I don’t do pools with money. I watch way less TV. I shouldn’t support a flawed system.

The second, perhaps more interesting, reason, is the relationship between sports and my current employer, Bellarmine. (See! Lots of things tie into the Bellarmine letters.) Butler is in Indianapolis, about 125 miles up the road. In some ways, it competes with Bellarmine. Students from southern Indiana looking for a small liberal arts school might look at both. Sure, there are other differences – Butler is twice is big, and has pharmacy, not nursing – but a big one is that Butler plays Division I basketball, while Bellarmine plays Division II. Division II schools offer scholarships, a lesser amount that D-I but still a substantial cost. The problem is that instead of 130 Million dollars to distribute, Division II gets about 5. There are no million dollar free throws; there are barely million dollar tournaments. That barely covers expenses.

Should Bellarmine try to move to Division I? Butler is gaining tons of publicity, which means students and dollars. Examine George Mason, an unknown school near where I used to live in northern Virginia. Last year they advanced to the Final Four. Afterwards, the press release notes that freshman applicants increased by 20 percent and donations increased by $3.5 million. Valparaiso in northern Indiana has a profile only slightly better than Bellarmine, but is far better known, because of one good tournament. Three million bucks is enough endowment for two new permanent professors, or several classroom renovations. Plus it would be nice if my parents’ friends or the people in Chicago knew this place.

On the other hand, it’s a big gamble. Moving up costs money, lots of money. There would be more travel, and better facilities, and recruiting changes. Plus, for every Valparaiso or even Texas A&M Corpus Christi, there are plenty of schools like Elon and Montana State that don’t hit the small lottery. It’s likely not a good idea. Tantalizing it is, to head to Spokane or Dallas or Boston, in the silver and red of the Bellarmine Knights, and root for our million dollar free throw. Yet that’s not what academics should be about. Unfortunately, too many people, including I suspect the Butler folks, don’t believe that.

About Adam

My quest is a world where calling someone "virtuous like a fairy tale hero" is routine, not fantastic or ironic. My vocation is the teaching and learning of statistics. My dream is a long happy life with a wonderful wife and kids. Who knows if any will become true? More information is at my homepage on the twelvefruits network:
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2 Responses to Million Dollar Free Throw

  1. Patrick says:

    Good article. I remember this.

  2. Ernie Muppet says:

    Interesting piece. I’m a proud Bellarmine alum who, perhaps with my heart more than my head, would love to see the rest of the Knights’ teams move up to Division I (lacrosse is already there). The way the men’s basketball team is playing anymore, they are a de facto D-I team.

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