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Saturday Sports: College sports' new era, the biggest auto race returns

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

I look forward all week to being able to say, and now it's time for sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Coming soon, college athletes on college payrolls. Start your engines, the Indy 500. And will the football chain gang be replaced by bots? ESPN's Michele Steele joins us. Michele, thanks for being with us.

MICHELE STEELE: Easy for you to say, Scott. Good morning.

SIMON: I'm afraid it is not. The NCAA announced it approved a nearly $3 billion settlement with the nation's five largest conferences, which is preparing the way for colleges to pay student athletes directly - salary, health care, all that. What are some of the implications?

STEELE: This is a big deal, Scott. You know, colleges spent millions and millions of dollars paying lawyers to fight this outcome, and they finally accepted it, colleges in the power conferences. So we're talking about the Big Ten, the SEC, the ACC, the Pac-12 and the Big 12. They're going to be paying their players starting in 2025. So the model of amateurism is gone. It's dead. It's done. Big business has come to college sports, and it's reaching the athletes. There's going to be an initial salary cap of around 22% of certain kinds of revenues, but the devil's in the details, Scott. It's a big day either way for college sports.

SIMON: You reported this week for ESPN on how private equity firms are looking into the possibilities of investing in college sports. Is this cheery news?

STEELE: Well, private equity has entered all sorts of underleveraged industries in the last few years - nursing homes, the media, Red Lobster. People are wary, I think, justifiably so...

SIMON: Yeah.

STEELE: ...About the words...

SIMON: I'm trying to think how all of that's turned out. But go ahead, yeah.

STEELE: You know, and here - now we hear about private equity and the team that fans love most in the world, whether it's the Georgia Bulldogs or the Ohio State Buckeyes or the [inaudible], what have you. You know, it is coming. Private equity is coming to college sports. As commercial as college athletics is, these firms think there are ways to grow the pie. Think, you know, increasing ticket sales. And these athletic departments are looking to grow revenues because they're going to have to be paying players. So, you know, these companies aren't going to own a piece of Ohio State, for instance, but they'll charge a royalty for a certain amount of time for the revenue they create.

SIMON: All right. Indy - (vocalizing) Indy 500 this weekend. All eyes on Kyle Larson as he attempts to achieve a double running all laps of both the Indy 500 and the NASCAR Coca-Cola 600 on the same day. What are you looking for?

STEELE: I'm looking at that, you know?

SIMON: Yeah.

STEELE: Kyle Larson is an Indy 500 rookie. He's going to attempt an 1,100-mile double in one day. So the way it works is that he races in the Indy on Sunday in the No. 17 car for Arrow McLaren. And then he's going to fly to Charlotte for NASCAR's longest race in his No. 5 Chevrolet for the Coca-Cola 600. That's a lot of driving, Scott. Almost...

SIMON: Yeah.

STEELE: ...Nobody's done it. Only Tony Stewart has finished both on the same day 'cause you're so dependent on the weather and a lot of other issues. There's a high chance of rain in Indy on Sunday. Also watching 49-year-old Helio Castroneves, who's gunning for a record fifth straight victory. He'd become the oldest winner if he emerges triumphant. I think it's always fun to root for greatness and great old guys.

SIMON: Yeah. Finally, NFL. Are robots going to replace the chain gang to measure...

STEELE: Oh.

SIMON: ...First downs?

STEELE: You know, can I just get on a soapbox about this?

SIMON: Yeah.

STEELE: I kind of hope not. You know, for anyone...

SIMON: Yeah.

STEELE: ...Who's a football fan, you see those guys on the chain - with the chains on the sideline, and they help figure out, you know, first downs and line of scrimmage.

SIMON: Yeah.

STEELE: And they think they can be more - or the league thinks that they can be more accurate - right? - with an optical tracking system that they're going to be testing in the preseason this year. And they want to take out human error. Well, I think the human element is what makes games so enjoyable. But, you know, one person's error is another person's gain, and they want to make it more accurate. So we'll see.

SIMON: Michele Steele, thanks so much.

STEELE: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.