It's game time.

The NCAA's 'March Madness' basketball tournament tips-off Thursday, with nearly a thousand unpaid college athletes vying for a championship that will generate a billion dollars in television revenue and many billions more in illegal wagers and lost workplace productivity.

It's also sure to ignite the sport's perennial debate over the amateur status of the young men and women on the hardwood and the merits of withholding cash payments to college athletes in a system that remunerates their coaches with multi-million-dollar annual salaries.

The disparity is, indeed, striking.

Mike Krzyewski earns nearly $9 million a year to guide the Duke University Blue Devils while the players toiling in their elegant blue and white uniforms are forbidden from accepting anything beyond the parameters of their athletic scholarships.

It's even more acute when you consider that the NCAA will net more than $1 billion in revenues again this year, the lion's share coming from March Madness TV rights, as it continues to argue against the need to pay for the labor that generates that hefty sum.

"I haven't heard any universities say that they want to change amateurism to move into a model where student-athletes are paid by universities and universities are negotiating with agents for their relationships with a school," NCAA President Mark Emmert said earlier this week.

That's no surprise, given the cash that's at stake.

Walt Disney Co.'s (DIS) EPSN sports network recently paid $7.3 billion for the rights to broadcast the annual college football playoffs. The NCAA recently extended its March Madness deal with CBS Corp. (CBS) for a further $8.8 billion. In the end, these torrid amounts flow back to the country's biggest sports conferences.

But is there a case to be made in the NCAA's defense? Is the business of college sports able to withstand the kind of radical changes some are demanding? Perhaps more importantly, is there enough cash to make it viable for both the players who create the entertainment and the schools whose brands make it must-watch television?

The answer, I think, is yes, no and maybe not.

The NCAA is a difficult institution to support, but despite its reputation as a substitute teacher in an unruly classroom of muscle-headed jocks, it's maximised tournament revenue through sophisticated (and hugely successful) marketing. Further, it has created a once-a-year athletic phenomenon and uses the bulk of its cash to help develop dozens of sports for nearly half a million college athletes.

The second and third questions are slightly trickier, given the byzantine nature of the profession of amateur sport. And with 179,200 scholarship athletes across 351 schools and 24 sports, we might need to simplify things a bit.

Each of the 65 so-called Power Five Conference schools -- the Big 10, the Pac 12, the Big 12, the SEC and the ACC -- generate around $110 million a year through TV rights, bowl games, NCAA disbursements, student fees and booster donations.

If we applied a revenue sharing principal of 25% compared to that seen across professional sports (where 48% of sales goes to players according to most estimates), we'd have roughly $39.6 million to split among approximately 440 athletes at each school (Power Five schools can offer around 220 scholarships in men's sports, and an equal amount to women).

Given that football and basketball generate the bulk of that revenue, a larger proportion would likely be earmarked for those players. If the entire $38.4 million were shared among the 98 football and basketball scholarship athletes (the maximum amount that can be awarded each year), they'd earn around $400,000 a year.

Title IX legislation, however, would likely demand a 50/50 split between men and women, lest schools risk losing access to broader Federal funds and support, leaving $19.8 million to divvy up between 220 athletes in each gender pool.

Spreading the wealth evenly would provide a salary of around $90,000, which after tax, would around $63,000 for every basketball and lacrosse player and every runner, swimmer and gymnast. That's more than enough to cover the $40,000 a year price tag at most four-year public universities and a decent amount left over to spend over spring break.

But while it's a tremendous salary for a lower-tier runner on the cross-country squad, it falls far short of the fair market value for a star point guard on the basketball team, which the National College Players Association pegs at $1.5 million.

Given the complexity of Title IX, the sheer number of NCAA scholarship athletes and the myriad of ways in which revenues are supported by student fees and booster donations, the only fair way to compensate the very best young, non-professional athletes would be to create independent minor leagues.

But the chances of TV networks bidding billions to watch the Lexington Cats play the Durham Devils are virtually zero. The players would suffer from under-investment in facilities (as any bus-riding minor league baseball player will attest) while the schools would struggle with an inferior product.

Change the names to the Kentucky Wildcats and Duke Blue Devils, however, and you suddenly have a billion-dollar enterprise that captures the imagination and the nation's sporting zeitgeist.

And, in the end, that's the value of the NCAA tournament: the brands. Who but the truly addicted can name three players on any team? We know the schools, the colors and the coaches, and that's what we care about.

There's no question that devotion short-changes some of the athletes competing, and a forward-thinking NCAA should explore more ways to protect those kids with longer-term medical care, investment trusts, freedom of movement and the right to earn money from their likeness and fame.

But a free-market system would instantly destroy the current business model and make everyone poorer, the players in this week's games especially, and that hardly seems fair either.

Heady stuff as we head towards tip-off, which is likely why most of today's coverage will be devoted to Xs and Os rather than dollars and cents.

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