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Though unpaid, top players worth millions to University

By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published December 7, 2013

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Devin Gardner crumpled to the ground after Michigan’s failed two-point conversion attempt against Ohio State.

In football terms, it was a devastating loss. Financially, Gardner represented eight figures in economic benefit for Michigan, lying in the Michigan Stadium turf.

Analysis by The Michigan Daily shows that in direct revenues, a player like Gardner can add $5.5 million to the University per year. In free advertising alone, Gardner generating more than $8 million through media exposure over one month.

The current NCAA system, which prohibits monetary compensation to student athletes, makes it impossible to precisely evaluate a player’s market value. But as the debate over player compensation continues, the question is as important as ever.

Less than a month ago, the high-profile case, Ed O’Bannon V. NCAA, granted class certification to current and future players who are seeking a cut of television revenue and ticket sales for college revenue sports. In 2009, The Atlantic published a 15,000-word article titled, “The Shame of College Sports.” Earlier this year, Business Insider estimated that the average Michigan football player was worth $470,000.

But for higher-profile players, the revenue potential can soar. The analysis shows that over three years as a starter at wide receiver and quarterback, Gardner can be expected to add upwards of $16.5 million to Michigan in direct revenues, with many more millions in advertising and exposure for the university.

Gardner, like the rest of the NCAA’s 450,000 athletes, will receive no direct monetary compensation, though he does receive a scholarship.


In 2011, Robert Brown, a professor of economics at California State University, San Marcos, published a paper in the peer-reviewed Journal of Sports Economics. In it, he estimated the marginal revenue of a NFL-caliber college football player using financial data from 2004-05. Since then, Michigan’s football revenues have ballooned from $46.4 million in 2004-05 to $85.2 million in 2011-12 under Athletic Directors Bill Martin and Dave Brandon, the current head of the Athletic Department.

The idea, Brown said, is to control for other factors, and then find “what an additional NFL-quality college player produces for his football team revenues.”

In 2011-12 figures, Brown’s model estimates an average NFL-caliber player adds roughly $5.5 million in direct revenues each year.

For a star player like former Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel or, to a lesser degree, Gardner, that figure can climb much higher.

“At that extreme level, you can’t even say how much,” said Lawrence Kahn, a professor of economics at Cornell Univeristy, referring to players like Robinson or Manziel. “All you can say is he’s, I’m sure, way more valuable that the average NFL draftable player.”

That is likely true of most quarterbacks who play at Michigan, a school that typically creates NFL-caliber players at the position that often become the face of the program.

“You take Gardner, and you put him at Utah State, he’s not going to generate the revenues obviously that he will at Michigan,” Brown said.

For Gardner, the current quarterback, the conservative $5.5-million estimate puts his value to the program at $16.5 million over a three-year career as a starter.

The players do receive compensation, including scholarships, apparel, travel, training and meals. According to the Knight Commission, Michigan spent $273,863 on each scholarship football player in 2011, ninth most in the nation.