I tend bar in an Irish pub in Ybor City. For those of you unfamiliar with the area, Ybor is a relatively urban part of Tampa, deeply entrenched in rich Italian, Cuban and Spanish cultural heritage. Brick streets, century old cigar factories and watering holes as far as the eye can see.
At night, Ybor City transforms into a night owl’s party district where visitors and locals alike can stumble from pub to pub. For years, one could park their car streetside, in two-hour parking zones, the tradeoff for free parking only the slight fear of getting ticketed if you went over your allotted time. In other words, there were plenty of places for the nighttime clientele to leave their vehicle free of charge.
In the last few months, the city of Tampa got wise. They started numbering these parking spaces to collect money from those frequenting the area. The going rate for a drunkard leaving his car overnight is still cheaper than the alternative, but parking is no longer free as it once was only months ago.
Party people must now put up or shut up. It’s the price to pay for a changing time.
The same is happening in the world of college football. What you witnessed in the past, the glare of the uniforms, the roar of the crowd, the elation of a buzzer-beater or a game-winning field goal might only have cost you the price of admission and a few pops, but now, the institutions have upped the ante.
Any of those who have seen films like Blue Chips or He Got Game have this immutable image of the millionaire booster, whose financial fortune is a driving force, whether over the table or under it, in coercing kids to come to their school. The late, great JT Walsh played this character to a tee in Blue Chips, a composite of the necessary evil we all knew existed. If there are not a million boosters exactly like this throughout America, I’d be shocked.
Well, guess what, kids. You’re about to become that booster for the times, they are a-changin’.
What your alma mater is likely doing, and if they’re not, expect this in the mail soon, is ask you for money, all but creating an army of mini boosters to compete against the big boys. Your generous contribution of x dollars and y cents will guarantee your team victory about as much as you in your lucky jersey giving it the old college try on Saturday afternoons. While still sitting amongst 90,000 of your closest friends, you’ll now be in the mix, entrusting those in charge of recruiting with the responsibility of selling your university better than anyone else is selling theirs. You are essentially a stockholder in the program, just without the lien.
Do you trust them without any foreseeable checks and balances? If you thought there was corruption prior to the letters N, I, and L entering our vernacular, rest assured it will blossom in an altogether different form. This isn’t you sending Sally Struthers a check for $20 with the hopes that 100% of it goes to some homeless, starving Ethiopian child. This is you sending $20 to exactly where you think it’s going, an endless barrage of hosts trying to get a high school kid laid. Before you know it, you have become Rick Pitino.
I’m already starting to hear rumblings that the system is unfair, a desperate cry to return to the way things used to be. Bad news, folks. I’m here to tell you this is only the beginning.
I’m not yet eager to throw my hands up in the air in disgust. In fact, I’m curious as to how this will all play out. In a capitalist economy, supply and demand dictate the price for goods and college athletes are just that. Their demand is high; their supply is limited. The athletes, in any high-profile sport, hold all the cards for their desired skill set determines their worth. The top high school quarterback in the nation now not only has his pick of where to attend class, and I use that term loosely, he’ll now legally pull up to campus in a brand, new Bentley.
You’ll still be getting knocks on your door but this time, they won’t be selling magazine subscriptions. They’ll be asking you to cough up whatever’s possible for the next offensive lineman. They’ll use terms like “collective” and even promise you the opportunity to meet the kids whose futures you’ve “invested” in. They’ll be selling you the possibility of wins just like a coach walking into a kid’s living room. And if they’re good, they’ll make you feel like you were an integral part of that process which, essentially, you were. You might even get a t-shirt at the meet and greet.
I’m not offended by any of this. It was college athletics’ logical and unavoidable end game, the shape of things to come. If you didn’t see this coming, you weren’t paying close enough attention.
Fret not for these institutions. They’ve been playing this game a long time. They will adapt and they are still getting more than their fair share of the pie.
Most recently I wrote that the Orlando Magic once felt $17 million dollars was too much to pay for Shaquille O’Neal. It won’t be long before we hear that number thrown around for a high school kid who hasn’t yet thrown a pass. Invest wisely, ye institutions and ye boosters. Oh, and don’t forget to coach ‘em up.
The days of free parking are over. You now must pay to play. I used to receive free self-addressed stickers from my alma mater with the school’s logo. They were nice enough to ask for a school donation with their gift. These days, you’re still being sold a bill of goods. It all just depends on how much you’re willing to pay.