Show Me The Money In March Madness

Host Rachel Martin talks with NPR's Mike Pesca about the funds that go into the NCAA, which runs March Madness.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And it's time now for sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF THEME MUSIC)

MARTIN: It's a big day in college basketball. Later today, the NCAA will announce the field of 68 teams headed to the big dance. And with March Madness upon us, NPR's Mike Pesca is setting his brackets aside just for a moment to follow the money - the three weeks of postseason play is a huge moneymaker. Hey, Mike.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: I got the brackets tattooed on my upper arm so I can't really set them aside.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: All right. So, the money. How much money are we talking about when it comes to March Madness? I imagine it's a lot.

PESCA: It is in fact quite a bit. It's close to $11 billion over 14 years, so it winds up something like three-quarters of a billion dollars a year to air this tournament, and that is in addition to whatever money teams get during the year for their TV contracts and their ticket sales. And, you know, it's so much money, it's just changing everything in college basketball and everything in college sports but in ways I think maybe that would surprise some people.

MARTIN: OK. So, where's the money going?

PESCA: Yeah. This is the thing. This week, there was the Big East tournaments. In fact, last night it was the last game of the Big East tournament, and the Big East is symbolic of what's happening in college basketball. There's all this realignment and teams are changing their conferences and history's being upended. And everyone's realigning because of football. Football is supposedly the big moneymaker. And it is. You know, football brought in $2.2 billion. But when I tell you, as I just did, that basketball is bringing in three-quarters of a billion, that ain't chump change. The huge difference is that the way basketball, the way the teams receive the money in the basketball tournament; it goes through essentially this middleman, the NCAA itself. The NCAA stages the basketball tournament. And therefore, the NCAA decides what to do with the money. They give most of it to the schools, but there's a lot of administrative costs and they pay their own administrative staff, which is necessary. They pay to put on the tournaments in all the other sports. You know, from lacrosse to fencing and to everything else.

MARTIN: And football doesn't do that?

PESCA: Football - the football money goes right to the schools, right to the conferences and they give it to their schools. Because, you know, when I talk about football, it's not the NCAA championships, it's this thing called the FBS championship. And there is no - in big-time Division 1 football - there really is no playoffs. So, because of the differences - not just the amount - but the differences in funding, this is why basketball has become so much on the backburner when compared to football, and this is why football is kind of ruling every decision that's made in college sports. You know, just dominating the landscape and a lot of basketball people bemoan that fact.

MARTIN: So, who loses through this?

PESCA: Well, I don't know how you avoid the conclusion that the players, the men's basketball players, who are stars in a multimillion-dollar show and get paid nothing, I don't know how you escape the conclusion that that's simply un-American, antithetical to everything about capitalism. Yeah, the argument is...

MARTIN: You want them to get paid.

PESCA: ...you know, they get their education. That's the argument. But no other sort of pay structure that I know of is like, hey, you guys generate millions for us and we'll give you something akin to a scholarship that if you're an in-state student who's pretty destitute, going to a state school might be worth, you know, a few hundred dollars a year, maybe low thousands. So, yeah, there's a, I think, disproportionate amount of people making money and people sort of generating the profits there.

MARTIN: All right. Do you have a curveball?

PESCA: I do. From the team sport of basketball to the team sport of bowling. What you say? The team sport of bowling - and that is my curveball. The PBA, the Pro Bowlers Association, that's founded a league because people like teams and a draft and they had a draft. And the charming thing about this league is they have celebrity owners. So, Chris Paul of the Clippers owns a team called the LAX.

MARTIN: Really?

PESCA: I guess people will get body scanned into the arena. The New York team is called the Kingpins, which ain't that great a name until you realize their owner is Billie Jean King. And my favorite is Jesse Williams of "Grey's Anatomy" owns a team called the Brooklyn STyLES - and styles is spelled S-T-lower case Y-L-E-S. I could not figure out why. I emailed the spokesman for the league. He said, you know, lower case Y just because it's stylish.

MARTIN: It's cool, man.

PESCA: I guess so.

MARTIN: NPR's Mike Pesca. If you want more Mike Pesca in your life, and who doesn't - and he already said he has brackets, NCAA tattooed on his arms; maybe we can get him to post that on Twitter. Mike, where can folks find you online?

PESCA: It's PescaMI. So, @PescaMI.

MARTIN: At Pesca you and I am @RachelNPR. Hey, Mike, thanks so much.

PESCA: You got it. Bye, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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