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Don’t Count Out College Basketball Just Yet

The sport has problems but some real tangible strengths, too, that no professional league can match.

Baylor v Gonzaga
 INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - APRIL 05: Adam Flagler #10 of the Baylor Bears celebrates with the trophy after defeating the Gonzaga Bulldogs 86-70 in the National Championship game of the 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium on April 05, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

This piece from the News & Observer says that college basketball’s future is uncertain and points to the rise of the G-League and competitive efforts like the Professional Collegiate League are certainly challenges.

There’s some truth to that of course. Things are changing, and rather quickly, and the NCAA is getting some heavy competition. But there are some other things to look at too.

The NCAA has one thing that no one else can really do: it has a massive, built-in fan base for its schools. And unlike pro teams, Ohio State or Southern Cal can’t just move. That’s a huge asset. No one is going to have a casket with the Delaware Blue Coats on it. Kentucky Wildcats, though? That’s a thing. Raleigh’s Oakwood Cemetery has a Florida Gators tombstone too, not too far from where Jim Valvano rests, in case you’re curious.

Secondly, just to round off the numbers so this is not precise, but within shouting distance: there are around 5,000 D-1 college basketball players. No matter how you slice it, the G-League and any other entities like the Professional Collegiate League are going to be perceived as minor leagues. There is no way they can take that number of people on. Even if they could pay them for a time the fans won’t follow. The front of the jersey matters.

Third, every spring you see NBA players getting wistful about the NCAA Tournament. That’s a huge thing and very, very few of those guys are going to be G-League level. We can’t see the the Professional Collegiate League having any way to compete with that.

Fourth, college sports can and likely will adapt. NIL is an accepted reality; the only thing is figuring out how to arrange it. At whatever point compensation enters into it, that changes things too.

And our guess (and hope) is that Mark Emmert leaves the stage soon. The current NCAA president is not the right leader for the moment. He lacks boldness and does not appear to be a creative thinker.

Put the right person in that job and things change.

This is not a serious suggestion, but imagine Mark Cuban running the NCAA. You’d get some blunt, frank and pretty fearless advice from a guy like that. We don’t know who would the right hire would be, but if the NCAA can nail that, then the entire paradigm shifts.

And we got this far without mentioning a debt-free education. Lots of athletes are trying to get paid to play but lots of others realize they’re not going far and still seek an education. That’s going to be a factor too.