NCAA Basketball, Nylon Calculus

Nylon Calculus: Using VORP to pay college basketball players

After Zion Williamson’s injury sidelined him for a couple of games, the world rightfully panicked and worried about the compensation of one of the college basketball’s biggest stars. How could the current social media-driven society handle the fall of potentially one of the greatest basketball prospects to ever grace college courts?

It would be bonkers.

Some states have already been considering paying college athletes in response. Consider Washington State’s HB1084 currently in committee. It’s a bill without an itemized plan of salary distribution which presents problems if it were to miraculously pass. Who or what takes responsibility to distribute money to basketball players?

Here, I think VORP should be the backbone to structuring a payment system for college basketball players.

The problem?

The biggest point of contention would be on the division of the massive revenue that basketball and March Madness brings into the NCAA. In my opinion, this would probably have players unionize and collectively bargain with their NCAA administrative counterparts.

It’s logical to argue that in this situation, negotiations would resemble that of the 49-51 percent split between players in the NBA against owners, probably also coinciding with the TV deals the NCAA is allowed to make. The current deals roll to 2032 and are worth north of $8 billion.

I tried to look for any other per-player estimates existed on the internet, and couldn’t quite find any quite as in-depth as the major findings from this study. It estimates a value of about $289,031 for a “big-time” college basketball player (a number from 2012 that equals about $318,214.33 in 2019 money). This article from Forbes estimates that a pool of about $400 – $500 million would be left for players, but doesn’t necessarily give me a template specific player distributions or scale.

Using this site and the above numbers as a rough guide, I subjectively concluded that there should be about $778,700,000 at the table for NCAA administrators and players to negotiate over. This number leaves off Division II or III allocations and keeps certain logistical or operating expenses off of the table. It seems like a waste of time to negotiate about travel right?

At this point, it’s important to remember that this number is effectively taking money that is currently allocated elsewhere and putting it back on the table before redistribution.

For this exercise, I’ll go with a 49 percent cut for the players, leaving just about $381,563,000 to redistribute for every player.  This gets me to a number that is a little less than what the Forbes article gave me, but nonetheless, I appear to be on the right track.

On to VORP!

Let’s refer to Daniel Myers’ article on In it, he states that VORP,

…is that like WAR in baseball, it should track linearly with salary. A player with a VORP of 4.0 is worth, on the market, about twice what a player of VORP 2.0 is worth. Sometimes good players play few minutes for reasons outside their control, and would be worth more because they should be getting more minutes. Still, for a crude estimate, VORP is valuable. It does measure fairly accurately what a player did produce in terms of value for a given team.

Good enough for me!

VORP, on the other hand, does not make sense for college basketball. VORP is derived based on salaries, and in a consistent market, and is primarily useful in relation to evaluating salaries. In college, on the other hand, every school and conference has widely disparate situations, and since there are no salaries, there is neither a rational method nor strong need for deriving or using VORP.

So much for that, then, right? However, we can use the $381,563,000 figure to snap said “market” into existence. I used the VORP calculation on the same page and calculated it for each men’s college basketball player thus far this season. For ease of use, I rescaled the VORP calculation to translate into non-negative values.

Here’s a look at the top 20 paid players, with an interactive table here:

A few other things: There would need to be a redistributive effort on the player side that guarantees low VORP getters or low-to-zero minutes players reasonable salaries. That being said, it’s clear that there is a ton of money available. One could already start to mitigate this problem if a $250,000 per year cap was instituted. For example, instead of Zion Williamson taking $296,916.94 home, he could take $250,000 home and have that extra $46,916.94 redistributed.

The NCAA Basketball sport will benefit greatly from a standpoint of preserving its league. Financial security greatly benefits players staying, and will persuade players not able to get into the draft to come back to the NCAA instead of overseas or the G-League.

This should also reduce criminal incentives. Players won’t be getting paid under the table and coaches won’t take unethical risks. Coaches can focus on recruiting and let payments be handled by collective bargaining. Boom, problem solved!

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