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Most College Sports Fans Won't Stop Watching If Athletes Are Paid, Poll Finds

The effect of compensation on fan interest has been a subject of contention in antitrust lawsuits against the NCAA.

Americans have mixed feelings about paying college athletes more than the value of a full scholarship, but they likely wouldn’t stop watching big-time college sports if the players do earn modest compensation, according to a new poll released Wednesday.

The poll, conducted by YouGov on behalf of The Huffington Post, found that only 24 percent of those asked said that "student athletes should be paid for the time they devote to the team," while 56 percent believed a full scholarship was sufficient. They were more divided, however, on whether athletes should receive up to $5,000 per year for the use of their names, images and likenesses, with 35 percent strongly or somewhat supportive and an equal number opposed.

If athletes were compensated, the majority of fans wouldn't have a change of heart about college sports, the poll found. Of the respondents who at least watch college sports occasionally, 66 percent said a $5,000 annual payment would not affect their level of interest, compared to 16 percent who said they would be less interested.

Of those who said they would be less interested, 41 percent said they’d stop watching altogether -- though that amounts to about 7 percent of the respondents who said they watched collegiate sports at least on occasion. 

Whether compensation for athletes would turn fans away from college sports has been a subject of contention, albeit not the only one, in the antitrust lawsuit former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon brought against the NCAA in 2009. In 2014, a federal district court judge ruled that the NCAA had violated antitrust laws by denying players a share of revenues generated from the use of athletes’ names, images and likenesses. Judge Claudia Wilken ordered schools to put up to $5,000 annually into a trust for each player.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, struck down that part of Wilken's decision in September. Though the appellate panel found that the NCAA could not rely solely on “amateurism” to justify its rules against compensation, the court decided againts the $5,000 payments in part because “offering them cash sums untethered to educational expenses is a ... quantum leap" that "would transform NCAA sports into 'minor league status,'" Judge Jay S. Bybee wrote in the opinion.

This, the judges determined, could dampen consumer demand for college sports, giving the NCAA the sort of "pro-competitive benefit" it needed to justify restricting compensation in this instance.

That echoed studies NCAA attorneys cited to argue that compensating players would reduce the appeal of college sports to fans. During the case, the NCAA argued that television ratings would drop 15 to 20 percent if athletes were paid and touted a poll that showed that 37 percent of respondents would quit watching if athletes received $20,000 per year.

O’Bannon’s attorneys, meanwhile, countered that fans hadn’t stopped watching the Olympics after it began allowing athletes to receive compensation, or Major League Baseball despite distaste with rapidly rising salaries. That's an argument economists have made in the past, but the attorneys did not produce a study to rebut the NCAA’s claims, a mistake that "likely cost them the case," Marc Edelman, a law professor at City University of New York’s Baruch College, wrote after the decision.

The issue could return during potential appeals of the decision or in future cases. The NCAA is facing another major antitrust lawsuit from former players represented by labor attorney Jeffrey Kessler. That case seeks an injunction that could create a free market for athletes' services.

Consistent with other surveys, the YouGov poll also found that support for paying college athletes is split along racial lines. Nearly half of black respondents said they either strongly or somewhat supported compensation, compared to just 14 percent who are opposed. White respondents, however, were more likely to oppose the payments than support them. A majority of players on Division I football and men's basketball teams are black.

The HuffPost/YouGov poll consisted of 1,000 completed interviews conducted Oct. 13-15 among U.S. adults, using a sample selected from YouGov's opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population.

The Huffington Post has teamed up with YouGov to conduct daily opinion polls. You can learn more about this project and take part in YouGov's nationally representative opinion polling. Data from all HuffPost/YouGov polls can be found here. More details on the polls' methodology are available here.

Most surveys report a margin of error that represents some, but not all, potential survey errors. YouGov's reports include a model-based margin of error, which rests on a specific set of statistical assumptions about the selected sample, rather than the standard methodology for random probability sampling. If these assumptions are wrong, the model-based margin of error may also be inaccurate. Click here for a more detailed explanation of the model-based margin of error.

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