NCAA president Mark Emmert’s $3.5 billion mistake will define his failed tenure

·5 min read

When choosing from the Cheesecake Factory menu of NCAA president Mark Emmert’s biggest failures over his decade-long tenure, there appears to be a clear low point.

Emmert has bungled many things, ranging from allowing politicians and judges to control the issue of athletes profiting off their likeness to the impotence of the enforcement department. There are plenty of other lowlights, including the equity issues that arose with the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.

All those are going to pale in comparison to what promises to be Emmert’s defining legacy of incompetence at the NCAA, a mistake that’s going to likely cost the association more than $3.5 billion in upcoming years. In 2016, the NCAA had eight years left on its NCAA tournament television contract with CBS and Turner and decided not to take it to market.

Instead, the NCAA extended the deal until 2032 at a modest increase of less than 3% annually. At the time, Emmert took a victory lap in the media, saying that uncertainties in the “evolving media landscape” led to the extension.

Well, the landscape has evolved. And those who trade in the television business have declared it a failure of vision, destined to go down as one of the worst sports television deals in modern athletic history. History will remember CBS and Turner executives wearing a ski mask in those negotiations, as the deal is already considered a bargain with more than a decade remaining. By the time it expires in 2032, Emmert will be remembered as having left billions on the table.

“I think this is one of the biggest mistakes in sports media in recent history,” said a veteran of the TV rights space. “You can’t get free agent money without being an actual free agent. Why would the third or fourth most popular postseason sporting event need long-term security? It was a total mistake.”

So how much will the NCAA’s lack of leadership end up costing itself? Yahoo Sports spoke to multiple veterans of the television space who said it was reasonable to predict a 100% increase from the prior deal, which averaged $770 million per year.

FILE - In this Feb. 11, 2020, file photo, NCAA President Mark Emmert testifies during a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing on intercollegiate athlete compensation on Capitol Hill in Washington. The Power Five conferences spent $350,000 on lobbying in the first three months of 2020, more than they had previously spent in any full year, as part of a coordinated effort to influence Congress on legislation affecting the ability of college athletes to earn endorsement money. At the hearing in February, NCAA President Mark Emmert said Congress needs to put “guardrails” on athletes' ability to earn money, in part to protect against potential recruiting abuses and endorsement money being used as a pay-for-play scheme. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Mark Emmert negotiated the latest NCAA tournament deal with CBS and Turner without taking it to market. (AP)

Those are conservative estimates based on recent deals. The NFL recently got a nearly 100 percent increase. The NHL has already doubled its income with selling only a portion of its rights to ESPN.

These aren’t apples-to-apples comparisons, as the tournament is 67 games over three weeks compared to full league schedules. But by waiting, the NCAA would have been entering market in the next 18 or so months amid one of the most dynamic media spaces in history. One expert predicted it could have gotten $1.5 billion from 2025-29, done a short deal and shot for $2.25 billion annually in 2030. (The current extension averages $1.1 billion.)

“If you look at the recent deals in the NFL and NHL, the so-called ‘haves’ are getting significant increases,” said a second veteran of the television rights space. “Even in this brave new world, it’s hard to imagine that the crown jewel of March Madness wouldn’t be in the ‘have’ column.”

Why did the NCAA go long with CBS and Turner? Well, risk management is a large reason. At the time, a gentleman named Mark Lewis ran championships for the NCAA and spearheaded the deal. (Lewis is now working in the liquor business in Bozeman, Montana.)

The NCAA men’s tournament generates more than 90% of the association’s income, and the revenue streams from the tournament are distributed to become the budgetary lifeblood of smaller league offices and athletic departments around the country. By taking the long money, it made the safe play. And the wrong one.

Emmert avoided the risk, and headlines with “billions” played well for a news cycle in the spring of 2016.

“The NCAA is not in the risk business, they are in the de-risking business, but it’s fair to question the wisdom of a deal that had seven or eight years to run that got extended out at 2 percent increases,” said the second media rights expert. “I’m not sure in hindsight you’d do that all over again.”

While experts are starting to view this deal as one-sided for CBS and Turner in real-time, that’s only going to become incrementally more glaring as the years go on. (ACC commissioner John Swofford’s final ACC contract, which runs through 2036, is already being viewed as a similar financial tourniquet that will feel worse with each passing year.)

CBS’ 15-year football deal with the SEC, which was signed in 2008, is currently viewed as the worst deal in television sports. CBS pays about $55 million annually for essentially the league’s best game each week in an era when the SEC title game alone is worth tens of millions by itself.

How bad could this current NCAA tournament deal end up looking? “As bad as the current SEC football deal with CBS, where it’s laughed at and mocked,” said one rights expert.

Emmert’s role as NCAA president has evolved from a leader to a bullet-taker for the college presidents who employ him. The NCAA goes through great pains to remind you it’s a membership-driven organization, one in which the schools determine the rules. The presidents are atop the NCAA’s food chain, and they are the ones who control Emmert’s fate.

It’s likely not a coincidence that after the NCAA tournament television deal was announced, Emmert received a 60% pay bump – from $2.4 million to $3.9 million – in the fiscal year from 2017 to 2018. It’s easy to justify a raise to your bosses when you can show them billions on the way.

But the decision by the NCAA to extend the television deal and pass on taking it to market will make Emmert’s reputation as being overpaid and unproductive only more pronounced as the years pass. For all his failures in NIL, enforcement and equity, getting hoodwinked by CBS and Turner into giving up billions will linger long after his general incompetence is forgotten.

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