Sports Betting & Paying College Athletes, March 2022

Marist Center for Sports Communication/Marist National Poll

Sports Fans Split By Age Over Paying College Athletes

With March Madness about to start, younger adults, including sports fans, are embracing sports betting and compensation for college athletes as Americans’ attitudes around the two issues dramatically shift, according to a recent survey conducted by the Marist Poll in collaboration with the Center for Sports Communication at Marist College.

“As it pertains to paying college athletes, a clear age-divide emerged. While 60% of adults 45 and older believe college athletes should not be paid, 63% of those under 45 believe they should,” says Dr. Zachary Arth, Assistant Professor of Sports Communication at Marist College. “These trends remain for those identifying as sports fans, as well.”

70% of Gen Z and Millennial sports fans say colleges should pay athletes. Younger fans are generally ready to embrace changes in the way college athletes can profit from their athletic participation.

Another key finding is that 68% of sports fans say if colleges compensate athletes, then they should compensate all athletes, while 26% would limit colleges to paying only athletes that bring significant revenue to the college.

“The idea that a school should compensate all athletes, including most women’s and non-revenue generating men’s sports, has always been used as an argument against paying any athletes,” says Center for Sports Communication Director Jane McManus, “so to see public opinion significantly behind paying everyone shows real movement on this issue.”

The revenue coming into college sports has changed dramatically in the last three decades. In 2016, CBS/Turner signed an $8.8 billion broadcast deal with the NCAA to broadcast the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Ratings for the women’s basketball tournament on ESPN have increased significantly, and in mid-February ESPN announced it had sold out advertising spots for this year’s women’s tournament.

This Marist Poll also finds that 75% of sports fans support a college player’s ability to earn money through use of their name, image or likeness (NIL). Fans under 45 (89%) are more likely than those 45 or older (62%) to say players should earn money through NIL.

“Another interesting element here is the differences between White and non-White adults. 69% of both Black and Latino residents feel that college athletes should be paid, while 60% of White respondents feel they should not,” Arth says. “Yet again, this difference remains largely the same even for sports fans.”

Women who are sports fans tend to be more conservative in their approach to both issues. Women (34%) are less likely to have placed a bet than men (61%), and 41% think college athletes should be paid by schools compared to 59% of men who are sports fans.

Since the Supreme Court in 2018 ruled that states could regulate sports betting markets, more than two dozen states have opened some kind of market. Leagues that long sought to prevent legalized gambling have now embraced it, and for the last year sports television coverage has been served alongside a full-court advertisement blitz.

Despite a tradition of March Madness office brackets, about half of sports fans (49%) say they have bet formally or informally, including office brackets or a friendly wager.

45% of adults, including 39% of sports fans, say they think gambling on college sports encourages athletes to cheat. The same question was asked in 1985 in a Media General/Associated Press poll, when 70% of adults said the same.

“Americans haven’t completely warmed to sports betting,” McManus said, “but clearly attitudes are changing. This shows a significant shift in the way sports fans look at risks associated with gambling, with many fans too young to remember the college basketball point shaving scandal in the 1950s and other sports corruption. We are in the middle of a public shift in attitudes about paying college players and sports betting particularly for younger fans, which is consistent with earlier polling on attitudes about women’s sports and adapting to streaming technologies.”