Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Over and Under

Who's worth it and not worth it in big-time sports?

Posted By on Thu, Mar 26, 2009 at 4:00 AM

We interrupt this recession to bring you the NCAA Sweet 16 and party like it's 1999. Welcome back to $6 beers, $200 hotel rooms, no-vacancies, and a 30-minute wait for a table. Thank you Ty Lawson, Blake Griffin, Jonny Flynn, Josh Heytvelt, and especially Roburt Sallie, who singlehandedly kept this tournament from being a bummer.

Since we're revaluing everything from houses to newspapers to 401(k)s these days, let's take a look at who's worth what in big-time college and professional sports. And no wisecracks about them being the same thing.

Last week, The New York Times posted a group of opinion pieces about paying college athletes under the title "March Money Madness," and The Wall Street Journal published a column, "The Real March Madness," about so-called student athletes and their well-paid coaches. Memphis and Knoxville are perfect for this debate. The University of Memphis is a basketball powerhouse with four consecutive Elite Eight appearances. The University of Tennessee is not far behind in basketball and way ahead in football. John Calipari, Pat Summitt, and Bruce Pearl are among the highest paid coaches in the country. U of M football coach Tommy West and UT football coach Lane Kiffin are back in the pack.

So how much are jocks, coaches, and wins worth? It depends.

Underpaid: Well-traveled Roburt Sallie is a one-man economic stimulus package for his team, his coach, his university, and his city but not himself, at least not right away. Sallie's 35 points off the bench last week probably kept Memphis from losing its first-round game in the NCAA Tournament. Instead, Memphis lived to play at least two more nationally televised games. Unlike last year's star, Derrick Rose, he's no one-and-done. He'll need more big games before he's pro material.

Probably Underpaid: John Calipari is a "value-added" coach. After lackluster seasons and attendance under former head coach Tic Price, Memphis is up there with Duke, Kansas, and North Carolina as an elite program. Calipari has been named Coach of the Year and is paid $2.5 million a year plus incentives. He gets extra points for being photogenic and quotable. And imagine FedExForum with two losing and unpopular teams instead of just one, the Grizzlies.

Paid About Right: Pat Summitt and Bruce Pearl are also high value-added coaches. Summitt ($1.125 million) has won more games than any college basketball coach in history. Pearl ($2.3 million) turned a mediocre program into a good one. Both usually fill an arena with 21,000 seats.

Probably Overpaid: Tennessee pays assistant football coach Ed Orgeron, who was fired by Ole Miss, $650,000 a year plus incentives. Rookie head coach Lane Kiffin makes $2 million, which is not unusual in the Southeastern Conference.

Overpaid: U of M football coach Tommy West earns $925,000 plus incentives. His "value-added" factor is mixed. Thanks to the explosion of bowl games, U of M has gone to a third-tier bowl in five of the last six years. Good dog food, maybe, but the dogs don't like it. Actual home game attendance is as low as 7,000.

Way Overpaid: Anyone on the Grizzlies. Tickets to NBA games involving playoff teams were selling on StubHub for 99 cents last week.

Underpriced: A ticket to this weekend's three-game NCAA tournament package at FedExForum costs $166. Other Sweet 16 sites are converted indoor football stadiums; FedExForum is an 18,000-seat basketball arena. If you have the heart of a hedge-fund manager, take North Carolina and Oklahoma. "Those are drive-in schools," says Convention & Visitors Bureau president Kevin Kane. "If they're playing Sunday, that's a tough ticket."

Overpriced: Sweet 16 tickets held by fans of teams that lose. Once a ticket is scanned Friday night there is no reentry to the arena, so don't plan on selling it. You can sell your ticket to Sunday's Elite Eight game. But if Gonzaga sneaks in, don't look for many buyers. "There could be a lot of tickets on the street," Kane says.

Overkill: In the same week it cut 19 editorial employees, The Commercial Appeal sent three sports reporters and a photographer to Kansas City.

Underattended: Memphis high schools, loaded with future college stars, played each other in state finals in Murfreesboro, 250 miles away, in front of a few hundred fans.

Over 150 Percent: Amount by which sales will exceed normal weekend revenues on Beale Street, according to Preston Lamm of River City Management.

Thank you, student athletes.

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