College Sports: So Much Disruption, So Few Answers

The NCAA’s historic new deal allows schools to directly pay student-athletes. But what comes next in recruiting, funding, and other key areas is yet to be determined.


How will a school decide what to pay its quarterback and star gymnast? Will male and female athletes receive equal pay? How will the recruiting of future stars change?

In a ruling last week that sent shock waves through college sports, the NCAA settled three antitrust lawsuits by agreeing to allocate $22 million in a revenue-sharing deal with athletes. The ruling, which still needs court approval, will allow schools to directly pay student-athletes for the first time ever. “College sports as we’ve known them will be different from now on,” says Jenna McLaughlin, head of the Collegiate Athletics practice at Korn Ferry and a former chief of staff for North Carolina State University’s athletics program. The ruling calls for collegiate athletes to receive $2.7 billion in back pay going back to 2016, and for schools in Power Five conferences to share up to $22 million in revenue with athletes starting in 2025. Students will also be able to monetize their name, image, and likeness.

The historic ruling is the latest in an avalanche of changes aimed at professionalizing college sports. To be sure, perhaps no other industry is going through as much disruption as college athletics. The large sums of money coming in are already transforming recruiting and talent development and raising questions about how schools will allocate scholarships, fund specific sports, and decide which athletes get paid. Here, McLaughlin shares her thoughts on how schools and athletic directors can adapt to the changes. 

How does this ruling change the traditional model for college sports and athletes?

Historically, college sports were played at an amateur level, which means student athletes have not been paid to participate. The value was in the opportunity these programs provided for many young athletes to receive access to education through scholarships, particularly those athletes who may not have had the opportunity to go to college otherwise. Now that schools are sharing revenue with athletes, access to education (by curbing scholarships) may change for some student-athletes who play sports that do not generate revenue for their schools.

How will colleges decide who gets paid and how much? 

The revenue-sharing doesn’t go into effect until 2025, so that remains to be seen. The ruling takes into account Title IX (the law requiring women to have the same access to sports as men), but the NCAA, conferences, and individual schools will have to consider pay-equity issues. How student athletes are compensated and what metrics are used are among the issues that will need to be sorted out.

Will this change how schools recruit? With players now getting paid, will schools need to hire professional recruiters to attract and retain the best talent? 

Up until now, athletic directors and head coaches worked for non-profit organizations. Now there is a for-profit component, so the demands and skill set needed will be different. While the mission will be to continue to support and develop student athletes, it will prove much harder to maintain fiscal sustainability with the new mode. I believe universities will need to consider hiring people with non-traditional backgrounds for certain administrative and other roles.

As far as student athletes are concerned, technology and human experts have always assisted coaches and staff with recruiting. Schools pay thousands of dollars for recruiting services and have multiple dedicated staff to recruit on and off campus, for instance. I anticipate that arrangement continuing to evolve and becoming more sophisticated. 

Now that the stakes are higher, can you foresee a day when more formal assessments are done on high-school athletes—looking beyond their skills to consider other personality traits? 

Sports require such a unique combination of skills and traits that it’s hard to say, particularly at the level we are talking about. Right now, I don’t foresee coaches going all-in on formal personality assessments for young athletes. But as the stakes continue to rise, they will be looking for every advantage they can get.

How will revenue-sharing for athletes impact universities outside of the Power Five conferences?

That’s what they are all trying to figure out now. I suspect university presidents of Division I schools outside the Power Five and at Division II and III schools are already analyzing how the trickle-down effects of this settlement will impact their sports programs.

While the mission will continue to be to support and develop student athletes, and to compete at the highest level, it will prove much harder to maintain fiscal sustainability with the new model with the framework as it is.


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