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The Value of Coach Saban

Seven million smackers, they say. Couldn't be worth it, could it? That money for a mere sports coach? Yeah, right.

Kevin C. Cox

Last week’s Set-Your-Hair-On-Fire Media-Driven Kerfluffle-of-theWeek was the absurd notion that the 62-year-old Nick Saban would cast aside seven years of roster-building at to start afresh at Texas in the hope he could do the same thing again by age 69. Doesn’t sound all that smart to me, and we haven’t even mentioned the effect the move would have on Mr. I’m-not-going-to-be-the-Alabama-coach’s reputation – which would basically be shot forever, with no hope of redemption, and to the detriment not only of the coach’s future recruiting efforts but also the hitherto-spotless public image of Miss Terry Saban.

No, you’d have to think that Nick Saban is nothing but a soulless money-grubber to ever believe that. You’d have to believe, among other things, that national championships mean nothing to him. You’d have to believe that the interpersonal connections he’s made with his players, among others, mean nothing to him.

And you’d also have to believe Texas would come up with more money than Alabama would. That’s probably the hardest to believe of all.

I mean sure, pockets at Texas are legendarily deep. Alabama may have plenty of rich boosters that are nowhere near tapped out, but can they go more than $20 million a year? Because Texas probably can.

Maybe they can - probably they can - but they wouldn’t. In reality, the bidding would stop well south of such a sum, because Texas, like Alabama, is a state school and subject to political pressure. Politics would be the real salary cap: in Texas as in Alabama, there’s a hard ceiling on what a coach can be paid, and while the ceiling may be moving up, the politics of a $20 million salary paid by the state to a football coach in charge of amateur athletes is a loser.

But should it be? You’ve heard the arguments: how can you justify paying a sports coach more than a teacher? A doctor? A firefighter? After all, the median salary for a firefighter in Tuscaloosa is around $36,000 a year. If Saban’s new salary is truly in the range of $7-7.5 million, that’s enough to pay the yearly salaries of no less than 200 firefighters, a whole battalion.

But firefighters save lives, y’all! You can’t compare a sports coach to a life-saving hero. That’s like putting a dollar amount on human life. You can’t do that – can you?

Well – really, you can. At least in some ways. For example, if you have a billion dollars you can build a huge state-of-the-art hospital with a continuing endowment and save lots of lives. That’s a straight money-for-life swap, one that happens in the real world. You can also spend money on life-saving research, or you can create scholarships for people to learn life-saving skills. To put it bluntly, you really can buy human life with money.

We aren’t talking about money for a hospital here, of course . . . but can you really say that money spent on entertainment isn’t also well-spent? Microeconomic theory tells us that people spend their money based on rational choices to maximize "utility," which is basically shorthand for more goodness and less badness. While individual folks do their own craziness in their own crazy way, when it comes to group behavior this theory is as proven as any theory of human behavior that exists. If people choose to buy football tickets or Bama-branded goods instead of textbooks, tools or exercise gear, they do so because they have calculated that they get more utility by spending the money that way than by spending the money some other way.

Put another way, they do it because they want to be happy. And aren’t individuals the best judges of what will make them happy? And isn’t happiness, well, kind of the point of life?

Even if you don’t buy happiness as an end in itself, studies have repeatedly shown that happier people are more productive, more creative, and live longer, healthier lives. So isn’t it really possible, maybe even likely, that Tide fans are maximizing their health and productivity by throwing a little of their money and time at the football program that brings the (smart parts of) the state so much pride, so many happy memories?

And if that's true, then isn't it also possible that, by bringing a little bit – or sometimes a lot – of happiness to such very large numbers of people, Nick Saban is doing more for the wellbeing of the state of Alabama than you could buy by shelling out that $7 million on roads or housing or health care? Can you answer no to that question and veto the utility-maximizing choices of all the people who spend all the money?

For spend it they do, and however you parse all that philosophical stuff, Saban is nothing but a money-maker for Alabama, even at $7 million plus. Although the Bama football program spent more money than any other program in the nation last year, it also turned a profit of $47 million. While I didn’t locate any numbers on prior football profits, the University’s Athletic Department profits have increased from $7.1 million the year before Saban arrived to $19.4 million last year. Of course that money only gets to be called "profit" after Saban’s salary is already paid, which means that Alabama football is not only paying for the rest of the Title IX sports but is also contributing a healthy chunk to the University's general fund.

You should also remember that the extra $12 million of profit doesn’t even take into account the tremendous increase in the value of the University of Alabama brand when the football program’s victories fill the sports pages during football season after football season after football season. I think it’s safe to say that the amount of extra free publicity that the Tide’s high-flying football program has generated for the University over the last 7 years would easily run to 9 figures – i.e., over $100,000,000 – if purchased as advertising.

Put it all together, and in the big picture of Alabama athletics, there’s no question: Nick Saban would be a bargain at twice the price.