The Business Behind Iowa Football

Story by Megan Sprengeler

Iowa football alumni claim their experience as student-athletes was invaluable, but still could use improvements when it comes to compensating athletes for the big business behind the football program.

Iowa City, Iowa – Football season is in full swing in the city that bleeds black and gold. Whether the forecast shows 93 degrees and humid, or a bone-chilling 30, fans show up on game day ready to cheer on their beloved Hawkeyes.

As a powerhouse in the Big Ten, historic Kinnick Stadium rakes in 70,000 football fans regularly. With many more watching from the comfort of their home, the sport has proven to be a large source of revenue for the university, the conference, and the NCAA.

Current NCAA regulations are in place that restrict student-athletes from additional compensation outstanding what the university can provide related to education. Dan Matheson, the director of the Sport and Recreation Management program and member on the Presidential Committee on Athletics at the University of Iowa knows the rules all too well.

Before coming to Iowa, Matheson worked for the NCAA as the Associate Director of Enforcement. Matheson also worked as the Director of Operations for the New York Yankees, who yielded four World Series Championships in the six years he was there, not to mention contributions that have appeared in ESPN’s “Outside the Lines,” the New York Times, and SiriusXM’s “College Sports Nation.”

“Student-athletes are able to receive the cost of tuition, room, board, books and recently the cost-of-attendance stipend,” Matheson said. “That accounts for incidental expenses like doing laundry and some entertainment money and some gasoline. That’s the closest thing to a paycheck. All that is compensation related to education.”

Jan 2, 2017; Tampa , FL, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes running back LeShun Daniels Jr. (29) caries the ball as Florida Gators defensive back Marcell Harris (26) defends in the second quarter at Raymond James Stadium. Credit: Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

Iowa football alum, LeShun Daniels Jr., remembers the drill. After playing for the Hawkeyes from 2013-2017 and becoming Iowa’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2011 with an impressive 1,895 yards, Daniels was drafted by the New England Patriots in the National Football League, but later signed with the Los Angeles Chargers on October 3.

“Having the opportunity to be at a Big Ten school and get an education is excellent,” Daniels said. “Not too many get to have that opportunity.”

While Daniels credits Coach Ferentz with doing the utmost to teach the team discipline on top of balancing football, school, and family life, he was quick to point out that there may be underlying flaws within the NCAA system when it comes to student-athlete compensation.

“There have been improvements throughout the past few years,” Daniels said. “Whether it’s been the cost of attendance checks or having more meals. There are 70,000 people that come to Iowa [football] games and that many more watching it on TV. We can’t really cash in our own names. The NCAA, Big Ten Conference, and school can cash in for four years. I think it’s a little unfair.”

While revenue generated among football and men’s basketball is dispersed among the athletics department, expert, Dan Matheson, was quick to point out that revenue generated specifically from football and men’s basketball is in turn reinvested into those respective programs.

“The athletics department already spends a lot on those two sports,” Matheson said. “A lot more amenities are offered to those sports that other teams don’t have.”

Daniels’ isn’t the only Hawkeye Football alumnus to feel this way. Iowa’s 2016 punter, Ron Coluzzi, agrees that the NCAA compensation system may be overlooking some aspects of the college football business.

“You get some clothes from the football program,” Coluzzi said, “But for me, it wasn’t easy when I had to pay for things I needed outside of [football].”

Coluzzi emphasized everything that goes on behind the scenes to make the game day magic possible. Between lifting, team meetings, practice, games, travel, and the occasional visit to the training room for treatment, football players are eye-to-eye with what seems to be a full-time job; not to mention the countless hours of class, projects, studying and taking the time to build a career outside of the athletic world.

Many Iowa fans will recall the 2016 Iowa vs. Michigan football game when freshman, Keith Duncan, kicked the winning field goal, with Coluzzi by his side as the holder, with mere seconds on the clock. What seemed to be the upset of the season, turned out to be a huge money-maker for the Big Ten, who replayed the game on Big Ten Network countless times since.

“Some people would buy jerseys with the name ‘Coluzzi’,” Coluzzi said. “There’s a lot of money that goes into that, and the players don’t see any of it. Even when you’re done playing college football, the university and the NCAA are still reaping the benefits of the players.”

Iowa fans may remember the wide receiver that still holds the title of Iowa’s all-time leader in career receptions with 174 on his college career and 184 return yards, the second best all-time in the Big Ten behind Heisman winner Nile Kinnick, who had 201 yards.

Kevonte Martin-Manley, another Iowa football-alumnus, hailing from Pontiac, Michigan. With countless accolades to his name, fans were stunned with Martin-Manley didn’t end up in the NFL. Instead, Martin-Manley decided to focus his attention on his career as an entrepreneur, something he’s been working at since being a student-athlete at the University of Iowa.

“Working a job is helpful financially,” Martin-Manley said, “but can be a mental and physical challenge due to the time spent already being a student-athlete. There’s a limit of earning potential for student-athletes and that hinders some who don’t come from a place of great financial stability.”

Where some may assume that every student-athlete receives a free education, that couldn’t be farther from the reality of it. Athletic scholarships vary, meaning not everyone on the team is paid the same amount and it could vary for each player year-to-year.

An Ontario, Canada, native, Iowa football-alumnus, Faith Ekakitie, is no stranger to the quest for additional financial aid.

“Tuition was enough to fairly compensate me,” Ekakitie said. “But, I don’t believe that it is enough to fairly compensate the biggest stars of college football. I was never a household name in the college football world.”

For athletes like Ekakitie, college may not have been in the question if it weren’t for athletics. Football presented Ekakitie the chance to earn a degree and come out of school debt-free, which was enough compensation for him at the time.

After landing himself the number one pick in the Canadian Football League, Ekakitie signed with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers on May 7, 2017.

“Even though [college football players] can’t formally be paid for what [we] do,” Ekakitie said, “I do think the NCAA should loosen their reigns on what other people can do for student-athletes.”

With additional compensation, Ekakitie believes he could’ve been a better football player and student all-around, as it would’ve allowed him to focus more on bettering himself on the field and the classroom. Covering miscellaneous expenses outside of academics and athletics add up over time, and with miniscule time to get a job, athletes like Ekakitie find themselves in a predicament at times.

“My last couple of years [at Iowa], went much smoother due in part to the NCAA making rule changes to grant full cost of attendance scholarships,” Ekakitie said. “I think this is certainly a step in the right direction, but I don’t think there will ever be a way to fairly compensate all student-athletes.”

Where many student-athletes may see financial struggle to make ends meet, expert Dan Matheson points out that there are many benefits athletes receive that may be overlooked in the grand scheme of things.

“The travel, the competition schedule, the equipment, high-level training and coaching, medical treatment, access to some of the best orthopedic surgeons in the country when they need that type of treatment,” Matheson said. “It adds up to be a lot more than just scholarship.”

Following suit, former Iowa Hawkeye, Austin Blythe believes that student-athletes in power sports, such as football, would benefit from seeing an increase in the monthly stipend. Currently a center/guard for the Los Angeles Rams, Blythe remembers the college grind like it was yesterday.

“I don’t think NCAA athletes should be compensated in terms of a salary or anything like that,” Blythe said, “But as far as the stipend, and cost of living check goes, I think it definitely needs to be raised.”

Blythe takes pride in the way Kirk Ferentz runs his program, comparing it to that of an NFL team. While an increase in stipend may seem like an ideal way to help compensate student-athletes for their lack of free time outside of school and athletics, conversely Blythe believes it could lead to a slippery slope and a lack in morale.

“[NCAA student-athlete compensation] is a grey area,” Blythe said. “There isn’t a concrete answer at this point.”

Although there is an argument worth making, the group of student-athletes that are deserving of more than what they’re getting is microscopic. In many circumstances, there are athletes who will never see play time in their college career after being out-recruited. These athletes end up receiving more benefits than they’re contributing to the revenue.

“You’re talking about a small handful,” Matheson said. “A star quarterback or a star receiver that fans actually know and connect with and become their own brand name. There’s a very small number of football and men’s basketball student-athletes that can legitimately make the argument of ‘I’m worth more than what I’m receiving.’”

Matheson anticipates more changes to the NCAA rules within the next 5-10 years; however, it would come at a high price for other student-athletes. If said changes were made, Matheson believes there would be potential to cut more teams to allow for additional compensation that might be given out.

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