At Moe’s Sport Shops in Ann Arbor, Mich., three different number jerseys are being sold with the Sugar Bowl logo on it: 1, 28 and 16.
The number one is traditionally sold by many schools. In Michigan’s case, it’s a number that has meaning because it was the number worn by Michigan greats like Anthony Carter, Derrick Alexander and Braylon Edwards.
The number 28 is being sold because it is the number of Fitzgerald Toussaint, Michigan’s starting running back. And 16 is the number of Michigan’s starting quarterback, Denard Robinson.
“Some people like to buy the ‘1’ because of the tradition, but about 80 percent of people so far have come in and bought ’16,’” said Dustin DeSnyder, the manager at Moe’s.
Although Robinson’s name is not on the back of the jersey, it’s clear fans are buying it because he’s the most marketable player on the team. Yet Robinson sees no money from those sales, as NCAA president Mark Emmert says it should be.
“They didn’t come to college because there was financial gain involved,” Emmert told CNBC. “They came because they wanted to come to school and to participate in sports. If they choose to become pros after that, that’s all well and good, but this is not about creating new opportunities for them to monetize their position.”
While Emmert is clear on his position, his predecessor, the late Myles Brand, was not. Back in the summer of 2007, Brand told me he thought it was worth looking into whether players should get financially rewarded for schools and apparel companies selling specific numbers related to star players on the team. Nothing formal was ever supported.
Critics say that it’s not the players who have monetized the sale of jerseys themselves, it’s the schools and apparel companies like Nike, adidas and Under Armour . To maximize revenues, schools sell numbers at the bookstore that correspond to the best players on the team. The apparel companies work with the athletic departments to make sure they make the right numbers. There’s more pressure now than ever before because the apparel companies are paying big bucks to the school.
Adidas’ contract with Michigan is the largest in the country, an eight-year, $66.5 million deal signed in 2007. After they won the BCS Championship, Alabama signed an eight-year extension with Nike worth almost $30 million.
Beating LSU and winning the title again this year will give the school a $100,000 bonus. Thirty five percent of Urban Meyer’s new contract with Ohio State next year will be paid by Nike ($1.4 million).
The support for players getting a piece of the pie seems to be growing. In a twitter poll, in which 353 of my followers responded, 82.7 percent said that players should get a cut of their jersey sales. That’s up significantly from a poll taken on CNBC.com in January 2008 in which 63 percent said they should get paid.
Eight months later, another CNBC.com poll said 65 percent should get paid.
Those who think athletes don’t get paid reference the fact that it’s impossible to correlate star athletes with the numbers being sold. How do you know if someone was motivated to buy a specific number because of the current player or a player they once loved who wore the same number?
In some cases, it gets complicated.
CNBC has obtained the list of the top selling NCAA football jerseys this year and all the numbers correspond to the best players in the country at this time on the biggest programs.
LSU’s No. 7 jersey was the top selling NCAA jersey this football season, according to Brian Swallow of Fanatics, which runs many of the college online stores and is responsible for selling the largest amount of collegiate apparel online in the world.
Number 7, not surprisingly, corresponds to Tyrann Mathieu, otherwise known as “The Honey Badger,” the team’s cornerback and kick returner, who was a Heisman finalist and won the Chuck Bednarik Award given to the nation’s best defensive player.
But are all those No. 7 sales due to the Mathieu? Maybe or maybe not. The year before, LSU’s best player was Patrick Peterson, who also won the nation’s top defensive player and was drafted fifth overall by the Arizona Cardinals. That being said, Swallow said the LSU No. 7 jersey shot up to the top spot in the last 45 days.
The rest of the top five best-selling jerseys creates a more clear cut picture. Coming in at No. 2 was the guy who wears Alabama’s No. 3, Trent Richardson, also a Heisman Trophy finalist. Behind Richardson was Florida No. 15, which is clearly Tim Tebow. The current No. 15 for Florida, Loucheiz Purifoy, did play in 12 games, but didn’t do anything special to warrant Gator fans purchasing a jersey because of him.
For a long time, University of Florida just made the numbers 1 and 96, for the year they won the National Championship. But Tebow’s No. 15 is believed to be the best selling collegiate jersey of all time. Two years after he left Florida, fans are still buying his jersey in droves.
Rounding out the top five best-selling collegiate jerseys is Michigan No. 16, which is clearly bought because of Denard Robinson and Oregon’s No. 21, the number of the school’s flashy running back LaMichael James.
Schools generally make approximately 10 percent in royalties for sales of their jerseys. If a jersey is selling at retail for $60, the royalty comes off the gross cost, which is $30. That means schools make about $3 per jersey.
Although the player’s name is not on the back, many stores, including some spotted in Iowa and in Oregon this year have included a list by the jerseys alerting fans of what number corresponds to what current player.
Not only do high profile players not make a dime off their jersey sales, they also can’t sell the jerseys that they wear. Five Ohio State players got suspended for five games this year for selling their memorabilia.
Yet the school can sell their gear and make the money off it. Auburn sold the pants worn by Cam Newton in the title game for $1,500, while Michigan sold the pants worn by Denard Robinson in this year’s night game against Notre Dame for $1,300.
Emmert says schools can do that because of where the money is going.
“If a school is selling jerseys or memorabilia, then we need to know, are they taking those resources and putting them back into support for student-athletes and athletic programs?” Emmert said. “In every case that I know, those revenues go to support the student-athlete.”
Emmert admits that part of the reason why he believes athletes will never get paid for their jersey sales or memorabilia while they are eligible is that it’s way too complex.
“We have a similar situation where schools compete for each other around athletes,” Emmert said. “We have agents competing over who’s going to get a student-athlete. You immediately open the door for all those forces coming in and structuring a force model to try and curry favor with the student-athlete. If on the other hand, an institution generates a stream of revenue that allows it to continue running an athletic program, you’ve got a completely different model where revenues are going and what they’re being used for."
Emmert’s interview can be seen on “CNBC SportsBiz” with Darren Rovell this Friday at 7pm ET on Versus.
Questions? Comments? SportsBiz@cnbc.com