Despite fears and 'sky is falling' rhetoric, signing day proves NIL didn't ruin college football

About a year and a half ago, the NCAA — per order of the Supreme Court — began allowing players to profit off their so-called name, image and likeness.

The decision inspired a near-endless barrage of “sky is falling” proclamations because a few uber-wealthy schools would now sign all the best recruits and there would be no competitive balance in college football.

Not even the reassurances of actual economists could stop paranoid coaches, short-sighted administrators and fear-mongering media from declaring college football was all but dead.

Well, Wednesday was the first National Signing Day where the entire recruiting cycle played out with legal NIL and the demise of the sport, or the outlandish hoarding of recruits … didn’t materialize.

And it won’t anytime soon, no matter what you keep hearing.

From 2017 to 2021, an average of 45.4 of the top 100 recruits signed with the top five teams in the recruiting rankings. If you add 2022, sort of a hybrid NIL, non-NIL recruiting year, the six-year average rises to 47.0. If you stretch back a decade, it’s 43.7.

Having almost half of the nation’s elite talent sign with such a small number of programs is not ideal. Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, Clemson and LSU were in the top five multiple times, if not every year. Not surprisingly, they are the only programs to win national titles during the playoff era.

For the Class of 2023, with NIL promises supposedly flowing, the top five teams in the recruiting rankings are Alabama, Georgia, Miami, Texas and Ohio State.

They cumulatively signed … 41 of the top 100 players as of Wednesday. One or two more top 100 recruits may still go with those schools. We’ll see.

Whatever the final number is — likely the low 40s — it looks remarkably similar to and statistically in line, if not below, with what recruiting looked like before NIL was supposed to make the rich get richer as they bought every player.

That’s right, the top-rated schools not only didn’t sign more of the top-rated talent, they actually signed fewer.

“Simon Rottenberg’s Invariance Principle remains undefeated,” said Andy Schwarz, a sports economist who predicted all along that almost everyone had this wrong.

Clemson Tigers coach Dabo Swinney (left) and Alabama Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban smile on the field before the 2019 CFP title game. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
Clemson Tigers coach Dabo Swinney (left) and Alabama Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban smile on the field before the 2019 CFP title game. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Rottenberg was an economics professor who, in 1956, came up with the Invariance Principle when studying baseball’s opposition to free agency. In 1960, it was the basis for a Nobel Prize-winning paper by Ronald Coase.

The concept is rooted in advanced economics and its definition is not conducive to a simple sports column. In layman’s terms, however, it shows that regulations designed to create a level playing field by limiting how talent moves actually don’t have much, if any, actual impact.

“The link between wage fixing and competitive balance is not generally supported by the field of economics,” Schwarz and two others wrote in a paper on the concept.

“Rottenberg predicted that regardless of how well you pay athletes, what drives talent to a given team is the total pool of revenue that talent will generate,” Schwarz said. “So it was easy to say that NIL will only shift the money towards labor, but won’t change the overall spread of talent.”

Few in college athletics listened to Schwarz and likely fewer have ever heard of Rottenberg.

Instead, the sport has been consumed by hysteria about players supposedly being offered huge NIL deals, even if the numbers tossed about far outstrip reality. Money can certainly be a factor, but it is rarely the only factor. Coaching, geography, playing time, NFL development, personal relationships, tradition, style of play, academics and so on matters as well.

Besides, top schools already used money to lure top talent by signing the best coaches or building the most opulent facilities.

Still, even allowing that some players might choose a school based solely on a direct NIL promise, the Invariable Principle shows that “the spread of talent across those markets won’t substantially change.”

If anything, Schwarz and other economists note, by eliminating cost controls on talent — i.e. limiting compensation to just scholarships — the opportunity for a slight-to-moderate spreading out of talent exists. For example, a less-wealthy program could overprioritize and overvalue an individual talent and thus choose to spend more than a wealthier school would. It’s a more directly effective means of getting the player than trying to build an even bigger weight room.

“If you undervalue something, it is easy to hoard it because it’s cheaper,” Schwarz said.

And thus, “as predicted, we aren’t seeing the top teams get much less talent, and certainly not seeing them get more,” he continued. “It has been small improvements in competitive balance, not the doomsayers’ predictions of Alabama somehow getting all of the five-stars.”

Which isn’t to say Alabama isn’t getting lots of five-stars. Once again, the Crimson Tide won the recruiting title and landed 14 top-100 recruits. That has been happening since Nick Saban got to Tuscaloosa. He has signed 10 or more top-100 recruits in eight of the past 10 years.

“It was impossible for the competitive balance to get worse,” Schwarz noted. “The amateurism model was in no way inducing competitive balance and it certainly wasn’t encouraging it.”

Essentially, not much changed this year. Some schools rose up as Texas landed six top-100 recruits, but was that because of NIL money or the fact that top-ranked quarterback Arch Manning served as a Pied Piper of sorts?

Others were believed to use NIL in recruiting, but even then, Miami may lose its best recruit to Colorado and new head coach Deion Sanders, and while Oregon picked up some signing day flips, it also lost its top recruit to UCLA.

It’s just one year, but all the wails of concern have proven fruitless or even slightly opposite of what actually played out.

Just as predicted.