Keith Sherony on sporting passions

Posted on May 1, 2016 :: Face Time
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

St. Norbert College economics professor Keith Sherony will serve as the director of SNC’s Sport and Society Conference taking place May 24-25 on the college campus and at Lambeau Field. The conference attracts sports academics and sports industry leaders from around the country. Sherony sat down with Insight Associate Editor Sean P. Johnson to talk about the passion for sports and the economics that drive it. 

The Sport and Society Conference is an opportunity for sports academics and professionals who work in sports-related businesses to come together, network and exchange ideas. It’s sponsored by the college and the Green Bay Packers. The theme this year is “The business of college sports.”

I’ve been involved with the conference since 2010 when I served as a session chair. I’ve been an economist and academic for 35 years, and I teach courses on the economics of sports.

While it’s largely an academic event, we have been trying to open it up a bit and this year we will have three presentations open to the public, including the opening keynote by University of Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez, a panel that will include professional athletes and commentators, and a presentation by sports labor attorney Jeffrey Kessler. (A complete schedule can be found at snc.edu/sportandsociety)

It helps to have a historic professional franchise around the corner and the college has a great relationship with the Packers. We really appreciate the contributions they make. 

The keynotes and panel will highlight many of the different aspects of college sports. The panel will highlight the student athlete and discuss issues such as compensation, as will Kessler. Kessler has a pretty high profile from his work with the players’ associations for all four major sports leagues in the United States. He most recently filed a lawsuit on behalf of the five women soccer players who are claiming pay discrimination by U.S. Soccer. He has also filed several lawsuits against the NCAA with regard to college players’ compensation.

Sports is a big business. College Sports is a big business. That’s a $10 billion enterprise when you look at Division I football and basketball. That’s where some of the tension arises. The athletes, viewed as student-athletes by the NCAA, do receive compensation that helps them complete their college education if they so choose. But, they are the ones generating the value because they are the ones that people are paying to see.

In professional sports, the athletes are paid according to the value they create. That’s not the case in college sports, where it’s the coaches and the programs collecting the money. From an economics perspective, economists are always leery of a situation where people are not compensated according to the value they create. There seems to be a bit of a gap in college sports between the value created — we are talking about D-I football and basketball — and the compensation received by the players who are creating that value. Certainly, Barry Alvarez is going to have a different perspective on that. And there are arguments to be made on the other side. An education is an important thing to have, but we are talking billions of dollars here.

Professional sports are a bit different, and Green Bay is a sort of unique example because, for what other reason would 50,000 people come to Green Bay for the weekend other than to see the Packers? In a larger metropolitan area, Chicago for example, there are not 50,000 people coming into the city to see the Bears. Most of them are probably already living in Chicago.

But there are other issues. The folks in Wisconsin aren’t going bowling when they see the Packers, so someone else’s business is suffering. That’s why economists are suspicious of the reported economic impact with having a professional sports franchise in a city. That’s not to say we shouldn’t have them. But I think the actual economic impact is overstated by a lot.