Social Media and NCAA Football

Social Media and NCAA Football

At this time each year, college football fans excitedly watch the AT&T Cotton Bowl, the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, the Citi BCS National Championship game, as well as many other corporate sponsored Bowl events.  During games viewers are bombarded with corporate sponsored half times, game breaks, and players of the game.  With all the money being paid by big-name brands during college football games, it’s easy to forget that these players are amateurs.   The NCAA is able to treat these athletes as amateurs while collecting massive profits because of the tight control the organization has over its athletes.

Large organizations are trying to adapt to the disruptive force of social media, and the NCAA is no exception.  During autumn quarter, I took part in an independent study with the MCDM and the University of Washington football team.  The following is a brief summary of my final paper for the class.  The full paper can be viewed here.

The NCAA has enjoyed monopsony power over athletes for decades.  With this power, the NCAA successfully caps salaries for athletes (in this case salaries are called scholarships) and limits what athletes can do with their image (special permission is needed to use the likeness of an athlete’s image).  These rules are in place to protect the “amateurism” of college athletes.

Social Networks like Facebook and Twitter disrupt the NCAA’s model of control over athletes’ images.  Before the advent of social media, college athletes were limited in their ability to promote themselves, since it is against the NCAA rules to hire an agent or have your name or image used commercially.  With Facebook and Twitter, however, athletes are empowered to promote themselves on new channels that are yet to be regulated by the NCAA.

There are many examples of NCAA football teams attempting to regulate their athletes’ use of social networks.  After a couple of incidences of students posting inappropriate pictures on Facebook, Kent State banned the website, citing reasons of safety and protection of the University’s image.  More recently, Texas Tech’s head football coach Mike Leach banned the use of Twitter on Texas Tech team.  Kent State’s Facebook ban was eventually reversed due to public pressure.  However, both of these examples demonstrate the strong reactionist measures universities are taking in response to social media.

Social media also disrupts the business models of traditional media outlets like ESPN and CBS.  In the past, these major networks would sign exclusive contracts with teams, conferences, and the NCAA itself to secure media rights over specific sports and tournaments.  Modern mobile and social technologies make exclusive rights less valuable, however, since each individual watching a game becomes a potential news outlet.  Instead of only being able to experience a football game by watching it live on television, fans can follow Twitter and Facebook feeds online for scores.  Real-time photos from fans are instantly available, as well as video and other commentary.  If an athlete or coach is Tweeting from the bench during a game, fans might turn their attention to their Twitter feed instead of ESPN.  Traditional media outlets see these new forms of communication as a real threat to their business model.

Many big-name coaches such as Pete Carroll have active Twitter accounts and Facebook fan pages, but athletes are generally discouraged from participating on these social media websites.  This athlete-coach divide in acceptability of social media use is similar to the divide in freedom of professionalism.   Athletes’ salaries are capped at a very low wage while coaches see exceedingly high paychecks ( University of Washington Coach Sarkisian will make $1.7 million his first year, which will steadily rise to $2.3 million in 2013.  Athletes, on the other hand, are capped at the cost for their schooling, which ranges from around $30,000-$50,000 a year).

During my time on the University of Washington track team, we were never trained about how to use social media in a way that promotes the University or ourselves.  We were simply told not to use it.  The same appears to hold true for other Universities.  Rather than teach their athletes proper uses of social media, the services are being restricted or banned.  Coaches and the program as a whole, however, are free to use social media to promote the University’s brand as well as the coach’s brand.  Not only does this do a disservice to students by censoring them and not letting them promote themselves, it hurts universities that could benefits from well-trained student-storytellers.  It’s as if Universities have chosen the abstinence approach rather than comprehensive social media education.

The question remaining is whether or not social media will actually break down the walls the NCAA has set up, or if the NCAA will in fact maintain their current moral high ground and be able to control athletes to the same extent they have been able to for decades.  The NCAA is fighting it, but if social media’s disruption in other markets is any indicator, I have a feeling they won’t win.

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