Moneymakers: A look into the business side of Division I college athletics

Last year, there was more than a $1,500,000 pay gap between men's and women's basketball coaches in Power Five conferences

For the last two decades, ASU women’s basketball head coach Charli Turner Thorne has been the epitome of success and consistency within ASU athletics.

Turner Thorne has reached the NCAA tournament for 18 of the team’s last 19 seasons, she has reached the Sweet 16 four times and she is second in the Pac-12 in career wins, which has helped to establish a winning tradition in what is debatably the toughest women’s basketball conference in the country.

Compare that to the likes of ASU men’s basketball coach Bobby Hurley. After two rocky seasons trying to reconstruct a program, Hurley hit a breakthrough this past season, going 20-12 and leading ASU to their highest national ranking in program history at one point in the early part of the season. 

Both the successful basketball seasons landed Turner Thorne and Hurley new contracts in February, with Hurley accumulating $2.1 million with performance-based incentives as he enters his fourth season in Tempe. 

Turner Thorne received a $20,000 salary raise that lands her total salary at $444,200, which will be active at the end of this week on July 1. 

Together, both coaches created a lot of buzz around their respective programs.


“Very frankly, we did Bobby and Charli pretty much simultaneously because they were both having magnificent seasons and very clearly advancing our programs,” ASU Vice President for University Athletics Ray Anderson said of the coaches. “Fairness dictated that they both got an opportunity to get an extension simultaneously during the season.”

However, with the salary discrepancy in Turner Thorne’s contract compared to Hurley’s, it may beg the question: How does a relatively young head coach who garnered one successful season earn more than a coach who has endured roughly two decades of success and postseason achievements?

Now if anyone is appalled by this question, there is one thing to set straight: Both Turner Thorne and Hurley have expressed the utmost respect for one another, and this is not a warrant of criticism to the ASU athletic department or to any of the work that they have garnered with their coaches. 

Rather, this is a look into the money that goes into the business of Division I college athletics, and it's a look at the sizable gender pay gap that occurs at athletic institutions throughout the country. 

Of the 25 highest paid NCAA coaches, all 25 reside in either football or men’s college basketball, with Alabama football head coach Nick Saban topping the list by gathering $11,132,000 last season, and his total contract could possibly run all the way up to $65 million through 2024.

As for the women’s side, UCONN head coach Geno Auriemma cemented his contract in 2016, which made him the highest paid coach in the history of women’s athletics when he signed an extension for a new $13 million contract that runs through 2021.

But Auriemma is the outlier in the discussion, and there is a large disparity between men’s and women’s basketball in the Pac-12.

The Pac-12 had nearly a $1.7 million disparity between the average salaries of men’s and women’s coaches, with the average salary of a men’s coach riding high at $2,095,688, while women’s coaches in the conference of champions were left at $427,651, according to a “By the Numbers” report of men’s and women’s basketball in 2016-17.

And that is only in the Pac-12.

Within each of the Power Five conferences, the pay gap in 2016-17 between men’s and women’s coaches in college basketball was more than $1.5 million.

As for why this is the case, the answer is revenue generated from each respective sport.

“The reality is that most of the athletic departments in the country, the great majority in terms of the revenue and in terms of how you financially support them, are run through the success of football and basketball," Anderson said. "You really have to be real and be focused that in football and basketball, you are winning and advancing your revenue opportunities, but at the same time, keeping the other sports cognizant of the fact that they too have responsibilities.”

In 2017, the ASU athletic department was on the verge of touching $100 million in revenue for the fiscal year, according to the Arizona Republic.

With record-breaking sellout crowds in men’s basketball and a new head coach in football that has ASU fans filled with anticipation for next season, the revenue and money generated from the university is likely going to continue to rise. 

Nonetheless, with the help of administrators alike and a demand for athletic excellence in all sports, Anderson has created an enticing era in ASU athletics for its coaches.

“When you have somebody from an administration standpoint ... we all believe in the same philosophies that we have to take care of the kids, and we have to take care of the players, and everything else will fall into place,” ASU softball head coach Trisha Ford said of Anderson earlier this year. “The reason why I am here today is because of Ray Anderson ... somebody like Ray is special and he is an outside of the box thinker.”

With Ford being named a Pac-12 Coach of the Year, and her team making it to Oklahoma City earlier this month, softball has been one of many sports aside from football and basketball that has flourished at ASU. 

This year alone, ASU amassed success and national rankings in sports such as gymnastics, wrestling, water polo and golf, just to name a few. 

“I think we have a culture of wanting to collaborate and to all pull in the same direction,” Anderson said. “I think we have a culture of ‘all sports matter,’ in that they are all critically important to the goals and aspirations for us to build leaders coming out of Sun Devil Athletics. It’s a culture that recognizes the Olympic sports and the women sports that are important as anything we do here.”

That priority of “all sports matter,” has been particularly evident within the development of new sports on campus, including women’s lacrosse, men's tennis and men’s ice hockey in recent years.

However, with an NCAA model that stems from the backing of ad-driven and marketed sports such as football and basketball, the landscape of coaches’ contracts has possibly created barriers and gaps within respective sports, despite how much success women’s coaches may obtain.

And for many college sports fans, the argument is simple: "Money talks." Basketball and football bring in a lot of money.

Paola Boivin, who was named to the College Football Playoff selection committee earlier this year and who was a former sports columnist with the Arizona Republic, had her own thoughts on the system that is taking place in Division I college athletics. 

"Whenever I have researched the data of different universities, many of them are solely funded by football," Boivin said. "Some (programs) like the U of A's of the world and the Duke's get a lot of revenue from basketball and I know to a certain extent, ASU does, but across the country with a lot of athletic departments, football is funding every other sport."

While the salary disparity is still evident today, Boivin said the gap is beginning to close. 

"I think for many years, women were making much less than the men. It was almost criminal how much of a discrepancy it was," Boivin said. "I think now, the gap is closing a bit, but until women's basketball sort of reaches the status of men's in the general public's eye, there will probably always be that discrepancy. It's really hard, especially in basketball. People are caught up in comparing the two sports as equals, when the reality is that women are built and designed differently than men, and it's not so much an over the rim game. But it doesn't mean you can't appreciate it for what it is."

Anderson said that when looking at contracts, keeping the market in mind is something that he keeps on his radar, and he feels that his coaches are paid adequately within their given arenas.

“Every contract that is done is driven by the market and driven by what the competitors are essentially compensating,” Anderson said. “We pay very strongly within the market for each of our head coaches, and so there is a difference between men’s basketball and women’s basketball. There is a difference between baseball and softball. That’s driven by the market, but within the market in which we operate, we think we pay fairly and we pay aggressively." 

ASU might be ahead of the curve in their given markets, but will the pay gap ever close around the country? For the sake of an equal work place where tremendous male and female athletes excel, the hope is that one day it will.

However, so long as the economic model stays the same, it appears as if there will always be somewhat of an uphill battle for coaches in other sports, but that is not to say that things can't change with the likes of intelligent and well-rounded advocates who can strive to change the norm. 


Reach the reporter at atbell1@asu.edu or follow @AndrewBell7 on Twitter.

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