x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

$36.5m: the price of success in college basketball

Exit the United States and mill around the world a bit, and John Calipari's salary looks gargantuan for coaching a college basketball team till 2019.

Thirty-six-and-one-half million US dollars translates into Dh134,064,500, or into £22,886,412, or into €25,594,274, or into 1,643,970,950 rupees, or into — if you prefer simplicity — a lot.

An American has just received a contract extension until 2019 that brings his pact to that gargantuan amount, and it may not surprise anyone around the planet that he did so for his considerable skills at coaching basketball.

The world not only has seen lavish coaching contracts before; it has condoned, caused and demanded them.

No, what might jolt the uninitiated from Norway to New Zealand to Brazil to Brunei would be where this man, John Calipari, coaches basketball.

He coaches at a university.

News of his contract hardly jolted America. In fact, it burrowed snugly within the other sports news and came off as what it has become: normal.

Calipari might have the highest salary in the popular sport of men's college basketball, but a bushel of other university coaches get two-comma salaries.

Hang around in the United States and amid its predilection for having universities oppose each other in games before large crowds ravenous for victory, and the whole concept of university sports becomes infectious, exhilarating, gripping, and part of the regular calendar.

Exit the United States and mill around the world a bit, then a bit more, and this tradition begins to take its rightful shape among all the cultural behaviours of the seven billion members of humanity: It is highly unusual and deeply eccentric, which can be good or bad or - as in this case - both.

Now, it should say right here that a university handles neither the entire bill for that $36.5 million nor even half of it. Great chunks of compensation come from advertising endorsements and media appearances including, as in Calipari's case, a coach's weekly radio show.

Those shows, in turn, help reveal a wildly free market, even if this wildly free market happens to pile atop an august education system.

People unfamiliar with the idiosyncrasies of America often look bewildered when learning that in places such as Tennessee, Michigan and Ohio, more than 100,000 people turn up to watch uncommonly muscled students oppose other uncommonly muscled students at American football.

The other colossus among university sports, men's basketball, holds every March a tournament so consuming that nobody thinks it odd that the aficionado Barack Obama has made televised predictions.

Basketball provides the vein in which Calipari's employer, the University of Kentucky, excels traditionally, replaces the coach upon rare stretches when it does not (excel) and funnels pride and joy into its fans.

These fans routinely fill a 24,000-seat arena on winter nights, and an old joke goes that once a husband (or wife) explained an empty seat adjacent him (or her) by explaining that his wife (or her husband) had died, but when asked why another family member had not attended, replied that the rest of the family was at the funeral.

Often vehement in search of victory, Kentucky fans often double as patrons of an art, their knowledge of a game's nuances often keen and rarefied.

The contract accorded their coach, Calipari, after two victorious seasons, surely sounds warped in many corners of an overcrowded world, yet also reflects utterly the market in place, the craving for victory, the reliable number of people listening to that coach's radio programme.

Is that good or bad? Yes.

In such a large country geographically, university sports often lend a form of representation to areas without close-up professional teams.

Inarguably these sports unite communities.

On occasions the proceeds raked in from their girth have supplied the thousands of bricks of sparkling new libraries. They help give universities identities for luring students. And routinely they forge arena experiences that raise the always-welcome condition of goose bumps.

On the downside, they have tainted the universities and treated the public to voluminous spectacles of spectacular corruption in the name of victory, and outed the American public as an unabashed rationaliser of spectacular corruption in the name of victory. Speaking of warped, cheating has done just that to many of the sport's records either officially or unofficially.

As television has spent the last half-century making the whole thing mushroom — the whole weird, wacky, wonderful, worrisome thing — the deeply funny practice of giving $36.5m to a university basketball coach has grown commonplace in a way that can make you marvel at how cultures evolve. Within the framework of that culture, Calipari's newly fattened deal makes salient economic sense.

 

cculpepper@thenational.ae