The NCAA has a heart of gold—or at least tries to buy one with the $16+ billion they receive in television rights contracts for March Madness and the College Football Playoff. But were the (young, disproportionately black) athletes to receive a more equitable share from the (old, disproportionately white) institution, wouldn’t things only get worse? How could dumb jocks who have never worked a real job match the integrity of college athletics’ leaders like Jim Boeheim of Syracuse or the late Joe Paterno of Penn State?

It’s old news that the NCAA is, by definition, a cartel: a group formed to restrict wages by unilaterally dictating scholarship limits, thereby shriveling the economic freedom of their laborers. Athletic scholarships, by definition, pay athletes in-kind services and benefits (athletic training, room, board, education optional) in exchange for playing a varsity sport. Non-athletes don’t get athletic scholarships; it’s that simple. The pay-for-play debate is not whether athletes should be paid—they already are—but whether the NCAA has any legal grounds to arbitrarily cap that pay.

The NCAA’s argument to this point is truly impressive: they get to decide what “payments” are, and they have decided that scholarships are not payments. How convenient! Imagine if anyone could say the same to the IRS: the health care and company car I receive from my employer are not payments, so you don’t get to tax them. The end!

Beyond the “no-it-isn’t!” defense (so sophisticated that Monty Python did a sketch on it 40+ years ago), the NCAA is so refreshing because in addition to bringing plantations back from the 19th century, they are brazenly paternalistic. Paying for a college athlete’s family to attend his/her sporting match was for years a violation of the NCAA’s fabled “amateurism”, an infraction sure to draw a penalty if noticed. Until the NCAA just decided one day that providing for athletes’ families is a noble calling perfectly aligned with “amateurism”, so long as the NCAA does the providing, rather than empowering the athletes to do so.

This is an organization that cannot open its mouth without bragging about the $2.7 billion they give in scholarships, either ignoring or forgetting that without exploiting the athletes in the first place, the NCAA would not have a single cent to give to anyone. NCAA sports take in over $11 billion annually on the backs of college athletes. Then while distributing less than 25% back to those same athletes, they preach the virtues of fair play. Leon Festinger would be proud.

In truly bizarre fashion, this paternalism only extends to the athletes the NCAA claims to educate. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard to pursue non-academic opportunities and no one batted an eye. Natalie Portman starred in movies before attending college and could join the film club, skip class, and earn her worth in a free market. Yet (young, disproportionately black) athletes who may place sports above studying or dare to sell an autograph are naturally put in line by (old, disproportionately white) tyrants who claim to own them, or at least their name, image, and likeness. The heart of the plantation lives on.

The 2014-15 Kentucky Men’s Basketball Team

Kentucky Basketball

The 2015 NCAA Board of Governors

NCAA Board of Governors

In the age of the internet, big screen televisions, and fourth generation smart phones, fan promotions have become more important as franchises strive to drive gate revenues. Pons, Giroux, and Mourali (2014) note that ticket sales still account for 32.6% of total revenues—the largest share of all receipts—despite the ever-increasing, live-access to a game from outside the arena. The Golden State Warriors use of a t-shirt design contest in tandem with their fan appreciation night increased their fans’ identity while segmenting their customer base and spurring future merchandise sales.

An event promotion or giveaway boosts the benefits of a live-event, simply because the physical good cannot be obtained via media coverage. In return, the Warriors likely increase and validate the identity of their fans by providing unique memorabilia, consequently raising their fans’ sensitivity to Warriors news and encouraging these fans to act on behalf of the organization. But the Warriors go further.

Funk and Lock (2014) state that “Sport identity occurs when an individual integrates a sports team into his or her sense of self, resulting in the team becoming an integral part of their self-definition” (p. 45). The Warriors sought out the input of their fans, asking for t-shirt design submissions, and rewarded the winner by sharing their design with thousands of Warriors fans. The event encouraged designers to market the Warriors indirectly, by lobbying their own networks of friends and family to share and vote for their design; of course these benefits came at virtually no cost to the Warriors. They engaged the sport identity of their fans in multiple ways. In the process, notes Sutton (2014), they reached 350-plus fans who cared enough to submit a design, while generating 150,000-plus Facebook impressions, 5,000-plus promotional URL views, and 450-plus mentions on Twitter and Instagram. This data can now be used to more precisely measure future fan involvement, and help the Warriors measure the return on their marketing investment.

Promotions have great power to segment fans. Though there is naturally some crossover, the crowd at Bollywood Night likely differs from St. Patrick’s Day, and Family Night hits a different demographic than Singles Night. The Warriors’ Fan Appreciation Night targeted existing fan-franchise relationships, acknowledging previous fan devotion and loyalty. Better yet, they stratified that group by identifying fans devoted enough to invest time and energy in submitting a design. Both groups—aspiring designers and fans who simply wanted a cool t-shirt—received special recognition from the Warriors.

This promotion also presumably increased consumer demand for Warriors merchandise. Pons, Giroux, and Mourali (2014) remark that “It is critical for sport marketers to understand what kind of fans attend their events and how to segment them, but it is equally important to understand how to market products to these consumers and tap the rationale they follow when deciding to purchase merchandise” (p.30). A fan who receives a limited-edition, official Warriors t-shirt for free is likely to associate positively with the experience, building one’s desire to try other Warriors gear in the future, in addition to returning to the Oracle to catch a game.


Funk, D. C. and Lock, D. (2014). Sport Consumer Attitudes. In M. P. Pritchard and J. L. Stinson (Eds.), Leveraging Brands in Sport Business (pp. 37-50). New York, NY: Routledge.

Pons, F., Giroux, M., & Mourali, M. (2014). Consumer Behavior and Motivation. In M. P. Pritchard and J. L. Stinson (Eds.), Leveraging Brands in Sport Business (pp. 21-36). New York, NY: Routledge.

Sutton, B. (2014, August 4). How teams can satisfy fans’ craving for greater involvement. SportsBusiness Journal, 17(16). Retrieved from

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