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Notre Dame’s Jack Swarbrick: Pay Players for Using Their Name, Image or Likeness

Athletics director talks about player compensation, the Michigan football series and more during a panel at MIT.

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NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Southern California Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Jack Swarbrick continued his public advocacy for student-athletes to be paid for their name, image or likeness during a Friday panel at MIT.

Notre Dame’s athletics director said he’s long focused on equity among student-athletes and their non-athletic peers, so he’s often questioned why a music student has no limitations from profiting off their name, but a football player does.

“I am not troubled at all by the notion of trying to find the right way to allow students who are athletes to capture value for their name, image and likeness,” said Swarbrick during a “Business of College Sports” discussion. “You’ve got to have a group licensing approach like the professional sports unions do. I think there are ways to get there and we’re going to have to explore them in the future.”

Swarbrick said a separate issue — the cost of attendance — exemplified the challenge of treating student-athletes as fairly as their counterparts. The stipend, which was approved by the NCAA in 2015, covers “real costs” not previously included in a full scholarship, such as travel expenses. Students on merit scholarships already had this benefit.

“People worried about competitive equity focused on that differential” - between $1,500 and more than $6,000, he said - “rather than saying, ‘Hey, at our institution, students get this.’”

Swarbrick noted that the $76,000 that each full scholarship student-athlete does not have to pay to Notre Dame is “a much better deal” than anything offered in minor league baseball, the NBA Development League or minor league hockey. He did not make any comparisons to the NFL, which currently does not accept students who have just graduated high school, nor was he asked.

The athletics director said he recognized that people were “offended” by the idea of not compensating players in revenue generating sports, such as football and basketball.

“The business nature of the medical school or the business school is very different than the theology department. And that’s central to the whole concept of university,” he said. “In athletics, we have the exact same model where there are some areas that produce a lot of revenue and support, in our case, the other 24 sports.”

Swarbrick has previously echoed Fr. John Jenkins, Notre Dame president, in saying the university would “head in a different direction” if student-athletes were classified as employees. During this panel, he noted only that students were not considered employees when discussing equality.

The athletics director also broached a few other topics unrelated to athlete compensation, including:

  • Acknowledging it was not good economics to drop Michigan from the football schedule, but that Notre Dame never considered dropping Navy instead or playing Michigan more than it plays Purdue or Michigan State.
  • Admitting the hardest part of his job is not being able to defend Notre Dame’s students when they are subjected to “absolutely false and slanderous” reporting.
  • Commissioning an analytical study of fourth down decisions in football, which he considered “very extensive and helpful.” The Irish converted 65 percent of their fourth-down attempts, compared to 62.50 percent, 50 percent and 38.5 percent in the prior three years.
  • Wishing he could better understand the unique fanbases for hockey, men’s basketball, women’s basketball and volleyball, although he doesn’t think the investment is worth the knowledge.

The full transcript of Swarbrick’s comments are below the video.

In addition to the Irish’s athletic director, the panel included Val Ackerman, commissioner of the Big East conference; Dan Gavitt, senior vice president for basketball for the NCAA; and Marc Jenkins, chief operating officer of Learfield Sports. Eric Chemi, senior editor at large for CNBC, moderated the discussion.

(42 Analytics is offering a 14-day free trial on YouTube to view all of the 2017 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference panels. I’ve found all the ones I’ve watched to be insightful.)

CHEMI: I’m just going to start off because everyone I asked about this topic, this panel, a lot of people who are panelists in other things today — “Give me some ideas for The Business of College Sports.” And it riles people up. It gets them emotional. In a way, it offends some people just that there’s all this money and maybe it’s not going into the right places and so. What are your thoughts on that? This is for all of you guys. What do you go to bed worried about? What bothers you and what do you think could be better in the industry and in the business?

SWARBRICK: What I go to bed worried about is the integration of the athletic function into the university. Right? For me, it’s less about revenue or the amount of money. University endowments have grown enormously. Research dollars have grown enormously. But I think the danger to the enterprise is if it loses its integration into the university.

We talk a lot about amateurism. I don’t think it’s about amateurism. I think it’s about education. And to the extent we draw distinctions between the student who is an athlete and the student who is not, we better have very good reasons for doing it.

CHEMI: And then I’m thinking about, let’s say your role at Notre Dame. You’re dealing with a lot of sports. ... It’s not just basketball. It’s not just football. It’s a lot of sports that don’t make any money. It’s a lot of sports that don’t make it on television. So where are you spending a lot of your time, effort and energy. Is it equally split around these things or is it like, “Look, let’s face it. These two sports are where it’s at and everything else I’ll just kind of delegate or deal with later.”

SWARBRICK: Well, if you’re talking about the time I spend on correspondence, it’s one sport. From the student perspective, I have 750 students in 26 sports. I don’t want there to be any difference. We spend a lot of time trying to make sure that their experience — whether it’s the gear they use or the nature of their facility or how they travel or eat — is the same.

From the larger business perspective, you’re focused on, in our case, football primarily. And trying to make sure, as a business, it’s sufficiently successful to support the other 25 sports. I recognize that the people you referred to earlier are often passionate about — in a negative way - our model or a little offended by that. But that’s the university model, right? The business nature of the medical school or the business school is very different than the theology department. And that’s central to the whole concept of university.

In athletics, we have the exact same model where there are some areas that produce a lot of revenue and support, in our case, the other 24 sports. We think that’s consistent with the overall policy of the university.

SWARBRICK: Can I just say: Val has done an unbelievably good job of creating an identity for her conference. As it evolved in the past decade, geography became less of a defining feature for conferences. And even sort of the nature of the school became less of a defining feature. In an industry that has a lot of conferences, there’s a critical need for conferences to articulate who they are and what they stand for and how they approach their business. And I think Val’s done a good job as anybody in the industry.

SWARBRICK: There’s appropriately a lot of attention paid to emerging technologies and changes to the distribution model, but not enough attention being paid to the rights implications of that. I think as you get, sort of, no restrictions to distribution, in a sense, technologically, you’re going to get into some really interesting rights issues. We’ll look back at The Players Tribune as sort of the first step in that model. But you know if I can use my cellphone and provide my postgame commentary effectively, maybe I don’t participate in the normal way of distributing the postgame press conference. We’re going to have to work through those issues in the years ahead. And it’s going to be interesting.

CHEMI: So who’s the competition then? If you’re running a college sports business, are you competing against other television? Are you competing against other sports, professional sports? What are you worried about as maybe hurting what you’re offering going forward? Or is it just cable subscribers?

SWARBRICK: I think the enterprise is so unique, I don’t think of it in those terms. The affinity runs to the school. Right? There’s a lot of focus on who plays. In the sport of basketball, I think we’d be better if we had players who were with us longer — the best players. But the truth of the matter is: The Duke basketball fans are going to be passionate about seeing Duke play if the four of us were in uniforms. They want to watch Duke basketball.

CHEMI: Is it almost like the religion of college sports rather than the business of college sports? Because there is this devotion — because your school is almost like your church and you’re going to be rooting for Notre Dame or Villanova or Michigan or Providence or whatever it is regardless — like you said — of who is wearing that jersey.

SWARBRICK: The core is absolutely that. And it is a much different relationship than a typical sport relationship because it’s not that I’m a New England Patriot fan. I’m a fan of the school. So I’m a fan of that football team, that basketball team —

CHEMI: — and 20 sports that come from that school

SWARBRICK: I care a lot about other university matters. So it is a fundamentally different fan relationship.

SWARBRICK: For us, the focus is on maintaining the relationship. And I think —

CHEMI: — between who?

SWARBRICK: The student and the university. Right? I think it’s less about providing additional benefits as it is maintaining that relationship. So I, for example, am not troubled at all by the notion of trying to find the right way to allow students who are athletes to capture value for their name, image and likeness, because the music student can.

CHEMI: Or a really great computer programmer can.

SWARBRICK: A great computer programmer can. Right? So if our goal is to maintain that relationship and keep them as much like other students as possible, let’s find ways to do that. Our other students aren’t employees. And so I think we’ve got to be open to trying to normalize the relationship with the university as much as possible, but be open to all of these things.

Dan mentioned the cost of attendance. That issue is so emblematic of the challenge. So if you’re focus is: We want this experience to be the same for students who are athletes and those who aren’t, you never would have adopted a limitation on cost of attendance because the merit scholar gets cost of attendance.

But if your principal focus is competitive equity, and you’re trying to control costs and figure out how to make it fair for everybody —

CHEMI: Right, and you competing against that athlete at other schools or other students within the same school —

SWARBRICK: — then you worry about giving cost of attendance because, as Dave alluded to, it ranges from in excess of about $6,000 to about $1,500, depending upon the institution. So the people worried about competitive equity focused on that differential, rather than saying, “Hey, at our institution, students get this.”

CHEMI: And then I know Mark and I mentioned this last night really briefly that — do you even want students out there getting distracted with trying to go get some extra income for their likeness or other projects that are distracting from their sport and their studies and what the actual purpose of being in college is about?

SWARBRICK: Well, I think you’ve got to have a group licensing approach like the professional sport unions do. I think there are ways to get there and we’re going to have to explore them in the future.

CHEMI: Totally different question for you: Some friends of mine here from Ann Arbor very upset still that you guys didn’t do the Michigan-Notre Dame series for several years. And again, like the passionate fans that they are, just trying to figure out how much of this is about money versus quality of being a student and, as a Michigan alum, I want to see that Notre Dame game because I want that rivalry to continue. How do you deal with that? Because the fact that they are still talking about it now — and it’s been years — and they can’t get over it.

SWARBRICK: Yeah, I can’t visit Ann Arbor. They’ve got my picture posted there.

That one was easy. I mean, we made a decision relative to aligning our Olympic sports with the ACC and, as part of that deal, committed five games there. So we had to change our schedule. And every Big Ten team got the exact same communication from us. We had to have it with Purdue. We had to have it with Michigan State. We had to have it with Michigan, where we said we cannot do this on annual basis anymore. So we will do it occasionally. We’ll be playing Michigan in two consecutive years here coming up and we’ll do it again in the future, as much as we will with other schools.

But, you know, listen. I embrace that passion. I want that. That’s what drives our industry and gives our students a good experience. But we’re not making those decisions based on anything other than: How do we have to operate this so it works? It’s not economic. If it were an economic decision, we would have kept the Michigan game.

CHEMI: Well, that’s what his point was. His point was: I think they’re leaving money on the table not doing the Michigan game —

SWARBRICK: We never considered the economics of it.

CHEMI: — and they felt offended. “Why would they play Michigan State? We’re a much better game.” And so it was an interesting point that it’s not always about money, but there’s other things you have to do sometimes.

SWARBRICK: In our case, it was treating those three Big Ten institutions equitably. We’ll play a similar number of games against all three institutions over the next 20 years. Our Navy relationship is so important to us, for historical reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with football. And, as a university, we weren’t going to not have that game. It doesn’t make economic sense to play Navy instead of Michigan, but it made sense for the university.

SWARBRICK: For our full scholarship student-athletes, we pay about $76,000 a year in cash for cost of attendance, tuition, room and board — not anything related to operating the team. Just money spent on the behalf of that individual —

CHEMI: — that’s basically the full cost of going to the school.

SWARBRICK: Exactly. It’s about going to the school. Nothing else. I’m not putting any of the athletic elements in there. For someone coming out of high school, that compared to going into minor league baseball or the NBADL or minor league hockey, it’s not close. So, from a market perspective, it’s a much better deal.

You asked about the sort of communications challenges of this: The hardest thing for me in this job that I’ve had to learn through some tough lessons is you can’t engage in the defense of your students. And it drives me crazy. Right? Because things are written and said about them that are so wrong.

There’s two reasons you can’t engage. You extend the story. But secondly, if you defend anyone, you’ve got to defend every single incident or it becomes an admission. So I’ve had to learn to step back in that defense and it’s really hard to do because the stuff that’s written about these 18 to 22-year-olds is absolutely false and slanderous. It’s hard to reconcile, hard to deal with.

One element of that -- which is unique to our industry — that I think people may not sort of focus on is: By rule, we can’t talk about prospective student athletes. So we’ve created a whole industry that talks about these kids, follows these kids, produces videos about them —

CHEMI: Every recruiting website, five star this and —

SWARBRICK: Exactly, and three years before they ever get on campus.

CHEMI: And now we’re talking about 14 year olds that had a good game in middle school.

SWARBRICK: It’s crazy.

SWARBRICK: Our operating model kind of complicates it. I divide sports analytics into three categories. One is sort of what I’ll call core sports science. And that’s the easiest to invest in because I can likely apply it over 26 sports. So when I get better data about the impact of sleep or recovery periods or any of that, it’s great. Right? There’s an efficiency to it. Strategy related analytics — competitive analytics — much harder for me because they don’t apply over multiple sports, by and large.

CHEMI: Three point shooting doesn’t help in swimming.

SWARBRICK: Exactly. The analytics we engaged in relative to fourth down decisions was both very extensive and helpful. It’s got no application to anything else we do. So that becomes harder.

And then, in some ways, the business analytics — which we benefit from enormously — is the most difficult to do. So on a given weekend during the winter in South Bend, we’re likely to have a hockey game, a men’s basketball game, a women’s basketball game and maybe a volleyball game if that season’s not over. We have almost no overlap between those four fanbases. Their socioeconomic profile is different. What drives them is different. And I’d love to invest to understand all four fanbases but there’s an inefficiency in that that’s hard for me to overcome.

CHEMI: People are asking about that in-stadium fan engagement and the analytics trying to drive that. Like you said, if all these audiences are different.

But it makes me wonder because there’s so many students at this conference and at all these panels looking for jobs and you wonder. Why aren’t they just starting student analytics groups for their colleges? Maybe instead of trying to prove to an NBA guy or an NFL person “hey look what I did in my research paper” it could be “I helped Notre Dame win an extra game because I actually worked as their analytics person.” You’d think that there might be — if there were that many people interested in this business, start it as a club. Maybe you can go pro in analytics.

SWARBRICK: Thank God for our student analytics club. It is extremely helpful to us. It’s exactly that. It’s a large club with a lot of passionate, interested students and they help us with exactly these sorts of issues.

CHEMI: Have you found it to be useful?

SWARBRICK: Absolutely. Yup.

CHEMI: Any secrets, any competitive advantages —

SWARBRICK: Well, if they were secrets and I told them, they wouldn’t be secrets anymore.

CHEMI: One of the questions that’s on here is: Who is a better fan? Is it the fan in the stadium or is it the fan on TV? Obviously, in all of these schools — in all of these sports — you make money on both. But which one is more valuable?

SWARBRICK: There’s a passion created by presence, by being there. So you need both —

CHEMI: — you need enough people to show up so that on TV, it looks like people showed up.

SWARBRICK: Well, that’s true. But if I were going to answer your question of who is the most valuable, I’d probably say: The one who buys merchandise. Right? Because they’re fully invested, whether they’re doing that as a television viewer or because they’re coming to the arenas.

But our students want people in the stands. And so, from my perspective of serving the interests of our students, there’s a special value to people who come and attend our events.

CHEMI: Would there be more capital investment when new buildings come online to actually go smaller? Instead of 100,000 for football, maybe you do 35. Instead of 20,000 for basketball, maybe you do 5 to 10. Would that serve both audiences and the possible donors in the future?

SWARBRICK: We just reduced the size of our stadium, not for that reason, but we were very comfortable with that. It had to do with other issues related to the renovation of our facility. But we were very comfortable with the notion that would happen. In some way, I think our most impactful venue is our 5,000 seat hockey arena. It creates a great atmosphere.

SWARBRICK: There’s a real important dynamic to always remember when comparing professional and college sports and that is professional sports are in the markets they’re in because they’re in big markets that can sustain professional sports. We’re where we are is because 200 years ago someone made a decision to start a school there.

CHEMI: There’s not going to be a pro team in South Bend.

SWARBRICK: Yeah, exactly. And throughout, whether it’s K-State or whoever. You’re in markets that are built for the purpose of sustaining sports.

CHEMI: It’s almost like inverted. In a lot of way the colleges are off away from the cities on purpose.

SWARBRICK: They tend to be. And so our strategies have to be different. The way we communicate and what the fan experience looks like is very different. And so, for us — a small school with a small student body base like a lot of Val’s schools — in a small market creates a whole unique set of challenges.