You’ll never believe how much money college football players make for their schools

College football is big business. Division I games and rivalries routinely garner huge television ratings, tens of thousands of roaring fans, and hundreds of millions of dollars. The top division I NCAA football teams generate well over $100 million in revenue per season. 

Surprisingly, though, the athletes that make college sports possible aren’t paid a dime. Sure, players are often given full scholarships, but as society continues to change and evolve in the 21st century the debate surrounding payment for college athletes has slowly become a bigger topic.

Now, a first of its kind new study from Ohio State University has estimated just how much money individual college football players can generate for their school’s football program. They’ve concluded that a single, five-star ranked elite player makes an average of $650,000 per year for his school!

For this study, a hypothetical player’s potential earnings were calculated based on ratings provided by Rivals, a popular recruiting and ranking news service for college sports. So, while the best of the best can make around $650,000 for their college, a four-star player usually generates $350,000 annually. Meanwhile, a three-star player can jumpstart a school’s revenue by $150,000.

Conversely, the research also showed that a subpar player can start to cost his school money pretty quickly. Most two-star recruits actually end up costing their college about $13,000 per year.

All in all, the study’s authors say they aren’t trying to pass judgment on the current system one way or the other. They performed this research to provide some concrete data for the ever-growing debate surrounding college players and payment.

“There have been a lot of numbers put out there about how much college athletes should get under various compensation proposals,” says study co-author Trevor Logan, professor of economics at Ohio State, in a university release. “But it’s hard to do that when you don’t know how players affect the bottom line. That’s what we’re trying to do here.”

Researchers collected a specialized dataset from the federal Office of Postsecondary Education. That information encompassed yearly revenue and expenses between 2002 and 2012 for all colleges participating in the highest levels of collegiate football. 

Then, high school rankings from Rivals were used to investigate the quality of players on those teams during that period. Rivals was an ideal choice for this research, according to the study’s authors, for several reasons. One of the biggest, however, was the fact that Rivals ranks both offensive and defensive players equally. Without those custom rankings, Professor Logan believes it would have been nearly impossible to calculate the worth of a defensive player in comparison to an offensive player.

Next, the effect of players’ skills and rankings on a team’s subsequent wins and college bowl appearances was estimated. Finally, the importance of a team’s success to its overall revenue was calculated.

Among the top football schools in the nation, adding just one elite, five-star recruit increased that team’s chances of appearing in a Bowl Championship Series game by over 4%.

“The best recruits had a significant impact on team performance and their ability to appear in the most lucrative postseason bowls,” Professor Logan explains.

In summation, the $650,000 figure was agreed upon by researchers after they accounted for all the wins and various bowl appearances this caliber of player usually brings to their team.

When it comes to college football, not all schools are exactly on equal footing. Powerhouses like Alabama, or even Ohio State itself, are considered juggernauts of the sport, and as such usually enjoy the most interest from elite high school athletes. But, even after researchers accounted for that, elite players were still estimated to bring around $200,000 to those schools.

Some may be appalled to learn college football players aren’t paid at all, but Logan and his team say that the debate surrounding payments in college sports is more complex than many realize. For example, the revenue generated by college football is, in many cases, used to support other college athletic programs that aren’t nearly as profitable.

So, if college football players start being paid big salaries, that could mean the end of college volleyball or rugby programs as we know it.

“If you pay players, especially based on how much they generate, you will also have to reduce the number of other sports available,” Professor Logan concludes. “What our study can do is bring some hard data to the discussions about compensation.”

According to a 2014 study conducted by the National Labor Relations Board, college players for the top football programs in the country spend upwards of 40-50 hours per week practicing and training during the season. That certainly sounds like a full-time job. 

They say you can’t put a price on the value of an education, but this study opens the door for a more nuanced discussion on the merits of offering college football players some type of seasonal salary or stipend. 

The full study can be found here. It has also been accepted for publication in the Journal of Sports Economics.