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The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tennessee)

 

 

LEXINGTON, Ky. - In a city where investment bankers and coal magnates pay $10,000 or more for University of Kentucky men's basketball season tickets, head coach of the Wildcats has long been a high-pressure job with rich financial rewards.

In 2006, former Kentucky coach Tubby Smith, now at the University of Memphis, made $2.6 million. In the decade that followed, as Kentucky athletics earnings climbed from $68 million to $132 million, pay for the leader of its flagship team skyrocketed. In 2016, John Calipari made $8.6 million, an amount Kentucky officials justify as fair market value for a coach whose team will generate tens of millions of dollars.

But as more money has surged into Kentucky athletics, records show, Calipari isn't the only coach cashing in, as the athletes remain amateurs. From 2006 to 2016, pay for Kentucky's track and field coach climbed from $108,000 to $429,000; men's tennis coach pay jumped from $122,000 to $230,000; and gymnastics coach pay rose from $112,000 to $252,000.

Every coach made more than the school's average full-professor's salary. In a phenomenon playing out across the country, salaries are soaring for coaches of lower-profile college sports largely subsidized by lucrative football and men's basketball, whose annual national tournament opened Tuesday.

At the University of Kansas, men's golf coach pay jumped from $84,000 to $201,000 over the past decade. At the University of Virginia, pay for the women's volleyball coach rose from $94,000 to $221,000. And at West Virginia University, men's soccer coach pay jumped from $66,000 to $188,000. (All 2006 figures in this story have been adjusted for inflation.)

Pay for these coaches still seems paltry when compared with the massive sums going to men's basketball and football coaches. In 2016, Calipari made more in three weeks than Wildcats track and field Coach Edrick Floreal made all year.

But a 298 percent pay increase for the same job - Kentucky track and field coach - is startling when compared with what happened in the rest of the economy between 2006 and 2016, a time span that includes a deep recession. Median pay for the average American worker increased 0.7 percent, and even the highest-paid workers - those making more than 95 percent of the rest of America - saw pay rise only 13 percent, according to Elise Gould, senior economist with the Economic Policy Institute.

"You have to recognize that everything crashed in 2008," said Gould, referring to the financial crisis that year.

In athletic departments at Kentucky and other schools - particularly in the five wealthiest collegiate conferences - it's almost as if the recession didn't happen.

To officials in these sports - known in college athletics circles as "nonrevenue" or "Olympic" sports - the recent salary surge is finally creating decent pay for important jobs.

"I certainly don't think anyone's overpaid; I think the salary has risen for that position," said Sam Seemes, chief executive of the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association. "If these schools weren't bringing in the revenue that they are, the coaches wouldn't be making as much money. ... In the United States, the companies that do the best pay more. It's just fundamental."

These "companies," however, are nonprofit athletic departments largely funded by two teams: men's basketball and football. Because of the way television and media rights contracts are negotiated and paid, it's difficult to determine precisely how much Kentucky athletics revenue in 2016 was attributable to basketball and football. A look at ticket sales, though, offers a glimpse Kentucky officials acknowledge is indicative of the entire department's bottom line.

In 2016, Kentucky's men's basketball generated $19.5 million in ticket sales, and football generated $16.4 million. The other 20 varsity sports - combined - grossed about $1.3 million.

"It's a system that takes money that should be rightfully going to athletes, many of whom are minorities from underprivileged backgrounds, and reallocates it to coaches and athletic directors, many of whom are middle-aged white men. ... How can you call that just?" said Andy Schwarz, an economist who has consulted for several lawsuits against the NCAA and college conferences.

Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart, whose salary rose from $480,000 to $695,000 in a decade, said the raises he has paid out reflect the market for good coaches in each of those sports.

"I get a bit disheartened when I find people who keep trying to find the bad in what we do," said Barnhart. "I'm not a lawyer, I'm not an economist, I don't know all of those pieces, but I know that what we do is good."

"If these schools weren't bringing in the revenue that they are, the coaches wouldn't be making as much money."

Sam Seemes

chief executive of the U.S. Track and Field

and Cross Country Coaches Association

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March 18, 2017
 
 
 

 

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