NCAA March (Licensing) Madness

When you sit down to watch the Final Four basketball tournament this year, take your eyes off the action for a moment.

Notice the blue Dasani water cups that everybody is drinking from on the sidelines? Or the Adidas sneakers and jerseys worn by some players?

What about that Pontiac parked outside the arena? Did you know the carmaker is responsible for the "official performance machines of the NCAA?"

Forget about the brackets. The men's college basketball tournament is no longer just about free throws, picks and rebounds.

It's a big business that is getting bigger every year.

Television rights account for the largest chunk of change. CBS Sports has a $6 billion contract to broadcast the games on TV, radio and the Internet. The 11-year contract is worth about $550 million a year.

The cash from the monthlong basketball tournament represents about 90 percent of the National Collegiate Athletic Association's budget for this year.

Then there are corporate sponsorships, not just of the tournament but of the individual schools.

While players don't earn a dime because of NCAA regulations, their coaches rake in millions.

Nearly two dozen college coaches earn $1 million a year or more.

The only coach in this year's Final Four not to break that threshold is Georgetown's John Thompson III, who earns $456,000 a year.

And as the tournament reaches its conclusion, there is rampant speculation that University of Florida coach Billy Donovan will switch to the University of Kentucky.

Donovan already makes well more than $1 million a year, but rumors posted on a Kentucky fan Web site say that Donovan has agreed to a seven-year contract that would pay him $3.5 million a year.

During a news conference Thursday, NCAA president Myles Brand expressed concern about salaries, but said it was up to the schools to police themselves when it came to new hires.

"Is this the appropriate thing to do within the context of college sports?" he asked.

This is not the first time he has warned about the influx of money.

In a speech three years ago, Brand warned that a shift toward a professional model could lead to "an erosion of the bond between athletics and academics."

He said that colleges could not "sacrifice education and the welfare of the student-athletes to competitive success and financial return."

However, Roger Noll, an economics professor emeritus at Stanford University and a former college basketball player, said that the NCAA had set up the tournament as an efficient moneymaking enterprise.

"The right way to think about the NCAA is that it is a cartel of coaches and athletic directors maximizing their incomes," Noll said.

Teams earn $90,000 for each round of the tournament they reach, but the money doesn't go directly to the teams. Instead it goes to their athletic conference, which splits it among members.

Noll noted that the Pac-10 conference had six teams in the tournament this year. Individual teams in that conference will get more money than other conferences stand to earn.

"It's a big money-generating machine for the elite programs," Noll said. "It's divided up in such a way that it strengthens and maintains those conferences."

Those teams that win year after year then become household names and can capitalize on that.

Florida Gators fans, for instance, can buy logo mugs, blankets, sweat shirts, clocks and flags -- even T-shirts for their dogs.

The marketing of colleges has become such a big business that many schools hire professionals to handle it.

Take UCLA, which hires ISP Sports Inc. of Winston-Salem, N.C., to sell its licensing rights in exchange for a cut of the contracts.

Tom Davis, who is the general manager of UCLA's account for ISP, said marketing college sports was different than professional teams "where you are using the individual players as the attraction."

"For us," he said, "it's more the atmosphere, it's more the team."

ISP has been in business since 1992 and now does deals for nearly 40 colleges and universities across the country including Boston College, Georgia Tech, Tulane, Syracuse, Villanova and Wake Forest.

UCLA also has marketing contracts with Lexus and State Farm Insurance and several other companies. ISP gets a cut of those deals, which bring millions of dollars a year into the athletic program.

"This is a big business and getting bigger all the time," Davis said.

The school also has a $2.5 million-a-year contract with Adidas, the only deal not handled by ISP.

In exchange for that money, the school since 1998 has used the company's shoes, jerseys, shorts and other apparel for all practices and games.

"Warm-up jackets, hats, everything," said UCLA senior associate athletic director Glenn L. Toth.

Fans watching games at home can clearly see the Adidas logo on their television sets.

One of the school's longest-running deals -- more than 2 decades old -- is with Gatorade.

On the sidelines of most UCLA games, the team will be seen with Gatorade coolers, cups and towels.

But don't expect the orange coolers to be with the team at the Final Four. That's because the NCAA has its own licensing agreement for the tournament with Dasani.

Some of the licensing agreements go far beyond the teams themselves.

Emily Badger, a sports reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, recently posted a blog item about her experience of NCAA officials confiscating her coffee because it wasn't in a cup approved for courtside use.

Badger wrote that she purchased coffee in the arena's food court but when she arrived in the press section everybody "was sipping from an identical, official blue Dasani/NCAA paper cup. Without exception. It was eerie."

Seeing a reporter nearby with an unauthorized strawberry smoothie, she took a chance and kept the beverage.

"Then, late in the first half," she wrote, "a humorless man in a dark suit appeared behind us. He was wearing a tiny earpiece."