Michael Cunningham: My solution for Nick Saban’s concern that NIL creates ‘imbalance’
ATLANTA — Nick Saban is quite a selfless guy. He’s the undisputed coaching king of college football over the past 15 years. Saban’s Alabama program is a powerhouse that plays maybe four games per season that it could possibly lose. And yet Saban still worries about whether the little guys can compete.
That’s what Saban told reporters who caught up to him at a golf event in Birmingham on Wednesday. He said he’s all for athletes earning money from their name, image and likeness. Saban’s objection is that players having (almost) the same NIL rights as he does will lead to a lack of parity in college football.
“If we don’t create that balance, I think it’s going to affect the competitive standard of the game in the future and probably even affect other sports,” Saban said. “But so hopefully somebody will be able to figure that out.”
Well, Saban is in luck because I’m that somebody. Saban will be pleased to learn there’s a simple way to get the competitive “balance” he said should be a goal for college football. This should be exciting news for Saban and his colleagues who are complaining about the unregulated NIL market. That’s not to be confused with the unregulated market for coaches, which is a completely different thing because it’s coaches who are getting paid.
Saban doesn’t have to wait for the NCAA to do something. That organization is fumbling around trying to figure out a way to regulate NIL without ending up back in a courtroom. That’s to be avoided when even right-wing judges on the U.S. Supreme Court are expressing skepticism about the “amateur” model that’s propping up the NCAA system.
Saban doesn’t need Congress to act on competitive balance in college football. That’s what some administrators are hoping will happen. But politicians aren’t going to touch the issue. Well, at least they won’t do it if there’s no way for reactionaries to turn the issue into a culture war. Opposition to NIL just isn’t polling as well with their base as using government power to punish marginalized people.
Saban doesn’t need the NCAA or the government to create competitive balance in college football. Saban can do it himself by advocating for the richest programs to stop spending so much money on college football. End the facilities race. Cap coaching salaries and eschew paying an army of staffers. If that happens with the top programs, then those with fewer resources can compete.
See? Problem solved!
Saban can take the lead on this. No college football program spends more money than Alabama. The figure was $59.5 million for football operating expenses in 2020-21, according to Sportico’s database of college sports finances. That’s more than twice as much as at least 33 programs in the Power 5 conferences spent on football during that time.
Those schools theoretically compete on the same level as Alabama. But how can they do it when Bama is spending so much more money? There’s a Wild West of unregulated markets for facilities, recruiting and salaries for coaches and administrators. Alabama’s spending in only those categories in 2021-22 was more than the total football expenses for at least 32 Power 5 programs.
Saban can do his part to reduce this inequity by reducing the salaries for his coaching staff. He can convince other coaches at big-time programs to do the same. That way programs with less money will have a fairer shot at attracting coaching talent. Saban can tell his bosses to cut his budget. Then those programs with less money can compete on a more even playing field with the likes of Bama.
Now, you may be thinking that comparing Alabama with all Power 5 programs is apples-to-oranges because only 14 programs play in the SEC. Around here, programs spend more because it just means more. Well, Alabama’s football expenses in 2020-21 were more than twice as much as Kentucky, Missouri and Mississippi State. The Crimson Tide spent nearly $30 million more than LSU and $20 million more than Ole Miss.
It’s weird that Saban isn’t focusing on those obvious areas of inequality. It seems to me that money spent on programs has a much larger impact on competitive balance than players earning NIL money. The inability to spend obscene amounts of money (on everything except salaries for players) is a bigger obstacle for the little guys than a few players choosing a different school so they can earn more NIL money.
Saban said he’s troubled by the recruiting aspect of NIL.
“I think we probably need some kind of national legislation to sort of control that to some degree because I think there will be an imbalance relative to who can dominate college football if that’s not regulated in some form or fashion,” Saban said before Alabama played Georgia in the national championship game.
Saban makes a great point. There have been 32 berths in the College Football Playoff over eight years. Alabama made it seven times and Clemson six. Last season, Cincinnati became the first Group of 5 team to make the CFP. A Big 12 team has played in the CFP only twice. A team from the Pac 12 hasn’t made it since Washington in 2017.
Now, imagine how much worse that imbalance would be if this NIL thing gets out of hand. I don’t think NIL has anything to do with that, but what if I’m wrong? It might lead to one team dominating instead of the same four or five. Can’t blame Saban if he doesn’t want to risk sacrificing that robust competitive balance just so his players can have a few more rights.
The CFP field won’t be expanded anytime before the 2026 season. Saban is right that regulation is needed to ensure competitive balance. But he’s shooting at NIL when the bigger target is the imbalance in spending among programs. Again, it’s a big mystery why Saban doesn’t see it.
In the meantime, Saban said he plans to adapt to college football’s NIL era. I’m sure that’s not easy for him and his coaching peers. They must deal with NIL and the transfer portal. This trend of coaches losing a little bit of control over the unpaid players who’ve made them rich must be very stressful for those coaches.
For those football coaches looking for ways to cope, Notre Dame basketball coach Mike Brey offers some advice. A day before Saban bemoaned NIL’s effects on competitive balance, Brey gave reporters his thoughts on the subject.
“We’ve got to stop complaining,” Brey said of coaches. “This is the world we’re in and, last time I checked, we make pretty good money. So everybody should shut up and adjust.”
That’s easy for Brey to say. He doesn’t have to worry about competitive balance in college football. Kudos to Saban for bringing attention to this important issue. Now he should take the lead and demand that Alabama and the other top football programs stop spending as much to protect the “competitive standard of the game in the future.”