The NCAA’s image has taken more of a beating recently than a piñata at a Cinco de Mayo party.
In the last year, the association governing a large swath of college athletics in the United States has been called hypocritical, authoritarian and flat-out deceptive. Accusations of cronyism and favoritism have come from all corners.
While the harshest criticism has come from the media, the NCAA’s own members have fired some of the arrows.
Sports marketers said the criticism is so cutting that it’s threatening the association’s ability to carry out its mission and could sully the image of its sponsors and member schools.
“Currently, the NCAA has a terrible brand,” said Steve Herz, president of IF Management, a New York-based talent agency and sports and entertainment marketing consultancy. “There’s this idea that they treat student-athletes as chattel.
“You can’t continue to take hits like the NCAA without some impact,” he said. “It’s like a massive ripple effect. It might take some time, but eventually a lot of boats will get rocked.”
The NCAA is trying to head off such a scenario.
Since Mark Emmert became the NCAA’s president in October 2010, replacing the late Myles Brand, he has sought to overhaul the association’s governance, condense its rule book, and give more support—financial and otherwise—to college athletes.
But his efforts have done little to divert a tsunami of bile hurled at the NCAA.
“The NCAA’s image right now is unequivocally at an all-time low,” said Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan. “It makes it so hard for someone like myself to endorse college sports. I still do it, but I do it while holding my nose. It’s just so hard to justify.”
The NCAA can’t even make an internal move without getting skewered. Last month, when the association replaced Greg Shaheen with Mark Lewis as the head of its championship events, including March Madness, it got a three-day public flogging.
Broadcasters Billy Packer and Dick Vitale called the NCAA’s decision “sad” and a “bad move” in Twitter messages. Duke University Coach Mike Krzyzewski told CBSSports.com that Shaheen’s removal is a “huge loss for our game.” And reporters for CBS and ESPN—the two main broadcasters of NCAA championship events—tweeted that the decision was “puzzling,” idiotic” and a “damn shame.”
“The NCAA is under more scrutiny than some of the biggest Fortune 500 companies,” said Jim Walton, CEO of locally based consulting firm Brand Acceleration Inc. “It can’t take a single step without getting lampooned.”
The NCAA, headquartered in Indianapolis, was viewed as one of the most pristine sports brands in the country from the 1970s through much of the 1990s.
In recent years, its ad campaign drives home the point that the overwhelming majority of its student-athletes “go pro in something other than sports.” The message is that the association is about more than athletics. It’s about student-athletes and education.
The problem is, few believe it.
“One of the biggest issues for the NCAA is that it stands for many things, and some of those things are in conflict,” said Ken Ungar, president of US Sports Advisors, an Indianapolis sports branding consultancy whose clients include the Los Angeles Dodgers and National Basketball Players Association.
For starters, its size and stature don’t match its tax status.
While the NCAA professes to be a not-for-profit, it acts very much like a for-profit institution, with $750 million in annual revenue and a president that makes about $2 million a year.
“There’s a reason Mark Emmert is making well over $1 million a year,” said David Ridpath, a professor of sports administration at Ohio University and a watchdog for academic integrity in big-time college sports. “It’s because this is big business, and these sports are bringing in big money.”
The NCAA counters by pointing out that 95 percent of that money is funneled back to its member schools.
But what member schools do with the money only makes the perception worse.
College football and men’s basketball coaches routinely rake in six- and seven-figure salaries. Players, meanwhile, are without a stipend, even though it’s their athletic prowess that allows the NCAA and its members to sign media and sponsorship deals, including a $10.8 billion, 14-year deal with CBS and Turner Broadcasting to televise the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
Bob Williams, the NCAA’s vice president of communications, counters that player stipends have recently been considered. And he points out that the organization spends $60 million a year to support student-athletes in need.
“We’re there to support the hardship students,” Williams said. “We help them with things like computers and other items they need for their education.”
But the education message has its skeptics. If the association is there to support student-athletes, critics said, it shouldn’t let networks like CBS and ESPN dictate schedules that require extensive travel and late-night games that cut into classroom and study time.
Similar examples of hypocrisy are at the root of the NCAA’s brand troubles, Ungar said.
• An NCAA ruling in 2010 allowed several high-profile Ohio State University football players to play in a highly publicized bowl game even though they had broken NCAA rules by accepting free tattoos and other gifts. Those players, including quarterback Terrell Pryor, were later suspended for the 2011 season. Critics said the association was ignoring its own rule book to protect revenue.
• The NCAA allows its member schools to offer one-year, renewable scholarships that can be yanked after any year, and often are, if an athlete underperforms or there is a coaching change.
The bar is set much higher if the athlete wants to end the relationship. Transfers can be denied, those who successfully transfer typically must wait a year before competing again, and NCAA rules allow schools to restrict where former athletes can go. The University of Wisconsin invoked the rule last month to prevent a freshman from transferring to rival schools.
• While student transfers are frowned upon, coaches can break contracts and sign more lucrative deals with other schools without retribution, leaving in the lurch the athletes they recruited.
Taking the rap
The schools involved in such scenarios largely avoid taking major hits while the media and others lob bombs at the NCAA.
The association—and its thick rule book—isn’t without its defenders.
Dan Dakich, a former Indiana University basketball player and coach who now hosts a local sports talk radio show and works as a basketball analyst for ESPN, said there’s good reason for the NCAA’s thick rule book.
“The rule book is so thick because coaches cheat,” Dakich said. “It’s as simple as that. You always have people trying to get around the rules. It’s the individuals who can’t trust one another.”
“I’m not sure the NCAA’s image is entirely its fault,” Dakich added. “People forget it’s just an organization made up of its members.”
The NCAA has also taken grief, some say unfairly, for the so-called one-and-done scenario, where a freshman men’s basketball player plays one year and bolts for the NBA.
The situation allows college players to pass a minimum number of classes during the first semester of their freshman year to remain eligible. In the second semester, a player could flunk every class and remain eligible for the rest of the basketball season.
An NBA rule that prohibits players from going directly to the NBA from high school is the culprit. NCAA supporters question how critics can complain about the association restricting movement of players between colleges and then criticize players exercising their rights to go pro.
Opinions vary on how damage to the NCAA’s brand will affect its sponsors and, more important, member schools. So far, the NCAA still has a loyal cadre of corporate partners, including Coca-Cola, Capital One, General Motors Corp. and Enterprise Rent-A-Car.
Purdue University Athletic Director Morgan Burke doesn’t think issues with the NCAA have had any impact on fundraising, alumni relations or student recruitment.
But marketers think the NCAA could be on dangerous ground.
The Sports Property Index, published annually by Dallas-based The Marketing Arm, showed that the public is highly aware of the NCAA, meaning its brand is widely recognized.
The firm, which counts NCAA sponsors as its clients, says that’s where the good news ends. The report noted that the association got one of its worst scores in the “trust” category.•