How much do college athletes deserve in new world of revenue sharing? Breaking down the numbers in a difficult equation

Ramogi Huma, director of the National College Players Association, has an ideal figure in mind for what college athletes deserve from their schools in any revenue-sharing concept.

“Fifty percent,” he said. “Look at pro models. Players get about 50%. Anything less than what’s fair will continue to be problematic. The numbers matter.”

As college executives continue negotiations to settle the latest antitrust cases and implement a new athlete compensation model, those inside and outside the college sports industry are left with a bevy of unanswered questions, most notably about money. Under the agreement, will universities share enough with their most valuable athletes and will they negotiate directly with them in the future?

A potential cap to the new athlete revenue-sharing concept — $17-22 million annually per school — is a fluid figure for good reason: The deal, ever-evolving, is expected to feature a “look-in provision,” administrators say, that reflects new revenues and paves the way for significant cap increases. The cap is 22% of an average of power conference school revenue streams, mostly television money and ticket sales. Climbing revenues from SEC and Big Ten television contracts could push the cap as high as $25 million over the course of any 10-year settlement agreement, some believe.

The figures ruffle those in the world of athlete advocacy and unionization who believe schools and conferences should be directly bargaining with current players, specifically those in revenue-generating sports of football and men’s basketball.

“These are the types of things you talk about in negotiations with the people you are capping,” said Jim Cavale, the former CEO of NIL marketplace INFLCR who last year founded Athletes.Org (AO), an entity jockeying to represent players in a future collective bargaining model.

The next 12 to 18 months of major college athletics stands to be its most transformative in history — a consequential and long-expected step toward professionalism for the power schools.

The evolving revenue-sharing concept is a central piece in what could be a 10-year settlement agreement of three cases (House/Hubbard/Carter) featuring as much as $2.9 billion in back-paid damages as well as a direct athlete-compensation model that also expands NCAA scholarship limits.

Athletic administrators are grappling with a cost of $25-30 million annually per school as reported in a wide-ranging story last week at Yahoo Sports. While the revenue-sharing concept as well as the expansion of scholarships is permissive — schools are not required to do either — universities limiting their athlete distribution risk falling further behind in a competitive industry where talent acquisition is rooted in recruiting.

Administrators, university boards and presidential councils are mobilizing with plans to reduce expenses; add operating staff to negotiate athlete contracts; bring collective personnel under their umbrella; and even mine untapped revenue streams such as private equity or booster loans.

It’s a mad dash to a finish line: Conference commissioners are working to gain consensus to authorize a settlement agreement from their presidential boards, preferably within the month. The earliest implementation of the new model is believed to be fall of 2025.

But if an agreement is finalized before a model is implemented, what happens?

Cavale refers to this 14- to 16-month stretch as an “interim period” where collective bargaining with current athletes should occur. He uses a sports analogy to describe the situation. Current negotiations represent pregame warmups. A finalized settlement is the kickoff. The interim period is the first quarter, where the groundwork is laid for the rest of the proverbial game.

“The thing we all have to understand is that when this settlement is initiated, it doesn’t mean the next day that everyone is getting paid,” said Cavale, whose organization has more than 1,300 power conference football and basketball players as members. “It’s very important that all of the terms of this settlement are being negotiated between the athletes and their schools and conferences. This settlement is not relevant to the guys now making six to seven figures with a free apartment and a Land Rover. But when it is initiated, it becomes relevant.”

How power conference schools make revenue. (Amy Monks/Yahoo Sports)
How power conference schools make revenue. (Amy Monks/Yahoo Sports)

Jason Stahl, the director of the College Football Players Association, is “wary” of any settlement that provides future legal protections for the NCAA without bargaining with a players association. If college leaders don’t negotiate with athletes directly or gain antitrust legislation from Congress, they cannot achieve such protections.

“Those are the only two ways that injunctive relief could actually be applied in a way that did not deny the rights of athletes in the future to say, ‘No, this was wrongly decided,’” Stahl said.

It’s unclear if college leaders plan to negotiate with athletes. In many ways, they are actively negotiating with plaintiff lawyers who represent more than 10,000 athletes as a certified class. And it’s even more uncertain if the NCAA’s valuable athletes — major football and basketball players — would unite for more cash.

Even Stahl and Cavale acknowledge that major conference athletes — at least financially — are benefitting more than ever in this environment of booster-fueled name, image and likeness (NIL) payments and unrestricted player movement.

“They have not united as a group,” Cavale said. “To unite as a group takes some initiative and action. You need passion and that has to come from a place of pain. College athletes aren’t feeling pain right now. They are free agents every year and can get $600,000 for playing DB by moving from one school to another and get an apartment and a car.”

But what about in this new model?

A revenue-sharing model may come with more structure and regulation: binding player contracts, a limitation of third-party/collective payments and, for some football and basketball players, a reduction in their NIL-related salaries to possibly satisfy Title IX — the federal law requiring universities to provide equal opportunity for women as for men.

Stahl’s organization recently announced its support for a collective bargaining model without employment — something former Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick and others within the industry believe to be a solution. Cavale himself has spoken publicly in the past for a non-employment bargaining model.

However, for such a concept, a congressional carve-out for athletes is necessary — a high hurdle during an election year but potentially something more palatable next Congress.

For now, questions linger. In whatever new model, will universities share enough with football and basketball players? How exactly is the rev-share cap determined? And how much will the cap change?

Yahoo Sports analyzed reported financial figures of the 55 power conference public schools whose data was acquired by both the Knight Commission and Sportico.

How public college schools in power leagues stack up revenue-wise.
How public college schools in power leagues stack up revenue-wise.

Determining what’s fair — and not fair — is a complicated and subjective endeavor. Athletic department finances are complex, and financial information is almost exclusively derived from a school’s own reporting — figures that can be one-sided or even misreported.

As part of the evolving settlement negotiations, the cap is determined as 22% of a formula of power conference school revenue streams that are “commercially generated,” said one stakeholder. The most significant of these streams are (1) television contracts, (2) ticket sales, (3) sponsorship/licensing and (4) gameday sales, as well as other less significant buckets.

Last year, among power conference public athletic departments, those streams generated $4.7 billion in revenue, or $85.2 million per school. Twenty-two percent is $1.03 billion, or $19 million per school presumably earmarked for athlete revenue sharing.

These numbers are unlikely to perfectly match with a new model’s final figures. But the results at least give outsiders an idea of the financials. The figures are sure to change. College football, responsible for a majority of the revenue figures, is in the midst one of its most profitable and popular eras in history, eclipsing in regular viewership most professional sports outside of the NFL.

The aforementioned revenue categories are expected to rise, predominantly from television contracts. By 2026, for instance, projections show SEC and Big Ten schools receiving as much as $25 million in additional revenue each year from both their new television deals as well as an increase in College Football Playoff distribution.

According to those briefed on the revenue-share concept, a look-in provision — potentially triggered every third year — will result in a reevaluation of the cap to reflect these soaring numbers.

But there is more to this story. There are items exempt from the formula, such as donations.

Donor gifts have traditionally generated more revenue than any other stream within a major college athletic department. In an analysis of the public school financial figures, donations account for $2.04 billion, eclipsing revenue streams from television deals ($1.89B), ticket sales ($1.48B), sponsorships and licensing ($833M) and gameday sales ($206M).

The settlement-related revenue-share concept is expected to feature more exemptions as well. Alston-related payments to athletes may count toward a school’s revenue share amount. Schools providing the full Alston payment to each athlete (roughly $6,000) normally spend $1.5-$3 million annually.

In another possible exemption, schools that choose to expand on scholarships can count a portion of the additional scholarship expense toward the revenue-sharing figure as well, though it’s unclear exactly how much.

NCAA president Charlie Baker, Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti, Florida gymnast Trinity Thomas and NCPA executive directory Ramogi Huma chat before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Oct. 17. (Tom Williams/Getty Images)
NCAA president Charlie Baker, Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti, Florida gymnast Trinity Thomas and NCPA executive directory Ramogi Huma chat before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Oct. 17. (Tom Williams/Getty Images)

Scholarship expenses are a heavy load for athletic departments and one that many administrators point to as an expense that gets overlooked. Power conferences spent about $845 million last year on academic financial aid, or about $15.4 million per school.

That does not include an array of other expenditures geared toward athletes, such as dining (average of $5 million annually), equipment ($4 million) and medical expenses ($2 million). That doesn’t include additional staff members hired for athlete-only purposes (academic tutors, mental health specialists, etc.) and the illustrious, newly built facilities often used as recruiting tools.

Several power conference school administrators have said publicly that they spend at least $150,000 annually per athlete. One of those is Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne, who, in previous interviews, puts the figure at $187,000 when factoring academic, athletic and medical resources for an athlete.

So is it all enough?

Combine the average expense on scholarships ($15.4 million) with those athlete-only resources ($10 million) and, finally, a revenue-share figure of $20 million. That’s $45 million worth of athlete benefits — a figure that rivals the 50% mark of a power conference school’s commercially generated revenue.

Will it be enough?

“It’s difficult to look at a settlement as a tool for a complete model,” Huma said. “You look at how something can be settled in this environment — there are a lot of different pieces. I just don’t have faith that the NCAA and schools will come up with a model that is practical. Any model will be nibbling around the edges.”