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Do We Know the Market Value of NCAA Gymnasts?

Do We Know the Market Value of NCAA Gymnasts?

by Brina April 12, 2020



Last week, Gymcastic aired a very interesting interview with Dr. David Berri, discussing a range of issues relating to college gymnastics. While I highly recommend listening to the interview in full, one number in particular stood out to me: $14,000.

That’s the dollar value that Dr. Berri assigns to each female NCAA gymnast. He uses a very straightforward back-of-the-envelope calculation to arrive at this number. Gymnastics teams took in $48 million dollars in revenue. In most professional sports, half of revenues go to players (and their agents). There were 1,745 gymnasts, so if you take half of that $48 million and divide it up equally among all the gymnasts, you get about $14,000 each.

I have enormous respect for athletes who manage to balance school with sport, and I don’t believe that a lower salary indicates less valuable work. With that said, I believe most NCAA gymnasts would be paid far less than $14,000 if there were anything resembling a true market for their labor.

First, we shouldn’t assume that half of revenues could go directly to gymnasts. In the NBA, 50% of revenues must go to athletes, and the NFL, it’s 47.5%. I can imagine how these sorts of profit-sharing agreements are negotiated in sports that are swimming with cash. But gymnastics is not such a sport — and there’s data to prove it.

I pulled the same 2018 Department of Eduction data on college sports that Dr. Berri used, and it turns out there’s information on costs as well as revenues. While the NCAA as a whole may be enormously profitable, many gymnastics teams are heavily subsidized. Across all gymnastics programs, costs exceed revenues by a whopping $38.8 million dollars. That means that current revenues only cover about 58% of the cost of having all these athletes compete at a high level, week in and week out. There is not currently extra money floating around in gymnastics programs that’s lining the pockets of NCAA bigwigs instead of hardworking athletes. Revenues are not profits.

It’s worth briefly reiterating the caveats about the quality of this data: all the numbers are self-reported, and they don’t align well with our expectations about which teams are big and successful. The data also appears to include acro and tumbling programs in addition to artistic gymnastics. Even so, the numbers reveal some interesting patterns. Most teams — 56% of them — just break even. And the big losses across the sport are driven by some of the most successful D-I programs: in order, the most heavily subsidized programs are LSU, Oklahoma, Auburn, Florida, UCLA, Michigan, and Utah. I put the relevant numbers in the table below.

Institution NameGymnastsRevenues Expenses Profits
Louisiana State University15$609,398$3,308,030-$2,698,632
University of Oklahoma-Norman Campus18$343,671$2,971,978-$2,628,307
Auburn University21$296,117$2,449,418-$2,153,301
University of Florida16$466,351$2,509,306-$2,042,955
University of California-Los Angeles22$1,305,225$3,347,748-$2,042,523
University of Michigan-Ann Arbor18$273,267$2,151,356-$1,878,089
University of Utah15$893,606$2,726,607-$1,833,001
Stanford University18$162,029$1,840,848-$1,678,819
University of Arkansas15$370,671$2,047,163-$1,676,492
University of Kentucky19$297,482$1,971,606-$1,674,124
University of Iowa20$174,224$1,760,781-$1,586,557
The University of Alabama17$1,120,208$2,688,481-$1,568,273
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign19$172,185$1,659,754-$1,487,569
University of Nebraska-Lincoln18$191,172$1,652,432-$1,461,260
University of Minnesota-Twin Cities20$56,321$1,408,205-$1,351,884
University of Washington-Seattle Campus14$598,030$1,916,618-$1,318,588
Ohio State University-Main Campus18$156,798$1,443,724-$1,286,926
Iowa State University21$227,898$1,443,090-$1,215,192
Arizona State University-Tempe18$198,742$1,380,804-$1,182,062
Michigan State University18$79,609$1,159,112-$1,079,503
University of California-Berkeley18$285,270$1,364,019-$1,078,749
University of Oregon34$137,275$1,197,226-$1,059,951
University of Maryland-College Park14$297,006$1,337,786-$1,040,780
University of Georgia18$1,507,302$2,494,910-$987,608
University of Arizona17$601,748$1,529,805-$928,057
Pennsylvania State University-Main Campus17$1,038,156$1,595,718-$557,562
North Carolina State University at Raleigh20$678,263$1,210,304-$532,041
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill23$850,469$1,232,910-$382,441
Boise State University16$662,825$1,038,963-$376,138
University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire23$73,755$76,916-$3,161
Adrian College21$74,200$74,200$0
Ball State University19$742,152$742,152$0
Baylor University44$2,119,383$2,119,383$0
Belmont Abbey College9$70,852$70,852$0
Bowling Green State University-Main Campus19$551,291$551,291$0
Brigham Young University-Provo25$1,230,242$1,230,242$0
Brown University14$246,885$246,885$0
California State University-Sacramento19$668,076$668,076$0
Centenary College of Louisiana16$119,325$119,325$0
Central Michigan University16$916,445$916,445$0
College of William and Mary18$587,800$587,800$0
Cornell University24$325,646$325,646$0
East Texas Baptist University17$170,924$170,924$0
Eastern Michigan University17$651,066$651,066$0
Fairmont State University30$144,317$144,317$0
George Washington University18$1,257,487$1,257,487$0
Georgetown College26$197,368$197,368$0
Gustavus Adolphus College18$94,658$94,658$0
Hamline University15$82,920$82,920$0
Hawaii Pacific University27$439,849$439,849$0
Illinois State University18$514,361$514,361$0
Ithaca College24$194,788$194,788$0
Kent State University at Kent21$609,225$609,225$0
King University23$190,891$190,891$0
Lindenwood University20$405,519$405,519$0
Northern Illinois University18$552,355$552,355$0
Oregon State University22$2,161,524$2,161,524$0
Rhode Island College14$83,584$83,584$0
Rutgers University-New Brunswick20$1,517,262$1,517,262$0
San Jose State University18$864,753$864,753$0
Southeast Missouri State University14$456,628$456,628$0
Southern Connecticut State University22$253,378$253,378$0
Springfield College22$163,474$163,474$0
SUNY Cortland15$154,763$154,763$0
Temple University19$1,060,947$1,060,947$0
Towson University15$660,391$660,391$0
University of Alaska Anchorage17$814,548$814,548$0
University of Bridgeport23$474,957$474,957$0
University of California-Davis18$739,251$739,251$0
University of Denver13$1,720,232$1,720,232$0
University of Illinois at Chicago16$573,229$573,229$0
University of Missouri-Columbia17$1,561,948$1,561,948$0
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus19$1,255,206$1,255,206$0
University of Pennsylvania21$292,793$292,793$0
University of Pittsburgh-Pittsburgh Campus19$1,490,033$1,490,033$0
University of Wisconsin-La Crosse20$280,911$280,911$0
University of Wisconsin-Stout19$160,674$160,674$0
Urbana University9$45,939$45,939$0
Ursinus College17$142,297$142,297$0
Utah State University22$907,949$907,949$0
Western Michigan University17$673,886$673,886$0
Winona State University25$152,998$152,998$0
Yale University20$440,082$440,082$0
SUNY College at Brockport17$144,534$144,349$185
Southern Utah University21$686,055$685,677$378
University of Wisconsin-Whitewater16$128,780$119,281$9,499
Azusa Pacific University29$434,734$420,959$13,775
Texas Woman's University20$622,273$602,028$20,245
Gannon University34$350,283$323,252$27,031
University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh19$200,911$155,038$45,873
Seattle Pacific University20$640,227$590,274$49,953
West Chester University of Pennsylvania21$427,882$341,225$86,657
West Virginia University16$2,833,793$1,170,471$1,663,322
TOTAL1802$52,856,207$91,729,834-$38,873,627

But there’s another big reason to think that all the NCAA athletes aren’t really worth $14,000 each: competitive gymnasts outside the NCAA have a hard time making money today. The very best gymnasts in the world today struggle to capitalize on their success, with maybe two or three female US gymnasts able to earn a living through sponsorships each quad. Instead, most gymnasts competing outside of the NCAA system pay through the nose for coaching, equipment, travel, medical care, and more; stories abound of parents who mortgaged their house to help their daughter pursue her Olympic dreams. While more gymnasts would undoubtedly pursue sponsorship opportunities if it didn’t mean giving up a college scholarship, it’s far from obvious that there’s a big enough market to support all the current NCAA gymnasts.

The unfortunate truth is that, in all likelihood, far fewer gymnasts would be competing without the NCAA distorting (enlarging) the market. It’s possible that there would be a professional league: after all, college gymnastics teams do bring in revenue and, in theory, someone could capitalize on that opportunity were the NCAA not already doing so. But it seems more likely that gymnastics would end for most top-level athletes at the age of 18 instead of 22.

Figure skating provides a useful point of comparison: it is an Olympic sport dominated by younger athletes, but there is no NCAA program. As far as I’m aware, there are no professional competitive leagues that provide an alternative to pursing a limited number of slots in international competition through the route organized by US Figure Skating. There are other moneymaking opportunities that arise from performances adjacent to the sport, but these aren’t employing thousands of skaters. For example, just 81 athletes have toured with Stars on Ice in the show’s 34-year history. None of this suggests that it would be easy for many gymnasts to keep competing without the NCAA.

I strongly agree with Dr. Berri’s ultimate conclusion: it’s absurd to administer competitive athletics through the structure of the higher education system. But I’m not convinced that spotty NCAA data gives us any real insight into the market value of a female collegiate gymnast.

Note: The version of the DoE data that I pulled suggests that total gymnastics revenues are $52 million, not $48 million. I can’t explain this discrepancy between my numbers and Dr. Berri’s but I don’t think it materially effects either of our analyses.


Tags: NCAA Gymnastics