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INDIANAPOLIS – Gonzaga point guard Jalen Suggs’ 40-foot buzzer-beater to top UCLA on Saturday night in the Final Four provided a generational moment for the NCAA tournament. It electrified Twitter, prompted countless TikTok re-enactments and will live forever in highlight reels.
As college athletics and the NCAA tournament sit on the precipice of unprecedented change in the next year, Suggs’ shot raises a new question for the collegiate sporting landscape: How much is a moment like that worth? And how could the next epic buzzer-beater be monetized as NCAA sports are on the cusp of an era of athletes being allowed to profit off their Name, Image and Likeness?
That question will be ushered to the forefront next year as the NCAA, Supreme Court and countless politicians attempt to figure out just how college athletes will be able to take advantage of their NIL. While the details are still unclear, leaders around college athletics expect by next season there will be some sort of way that high-profile athletes like Suggs can capitalize off their signature moments.
So how much is a 40-foot buzzer-beater to clinch a spot in the national title game and keep alive a perfect season worth? And what could the heroes of the 2022 men’s and women’s Final Fours be receiving in compensation?
“It’s not an immediate turn,” said Zach Soskin, the co-founder of Voltage Management, which works with athletes and brand consulting. “But over the course of [Suggs’] life, this is worth millions of dollars.”
Considering the lack of clarity from the NCAA, which has resisted this issue for years instead of enable it, it’s difficult to estimate concisely. But it’s certain that the moment would be lucrative both instantly and later on down the road.
“It’s really impossible to measure the value, but it elevates him for the rest of his life,” Soskin said. “Obviously, Jalen Suggs isn’t Zion [Williamson], but he enters the league as a bigger star than Anthony Edwards [the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NBA draft]. The average American sports fan just didn’t know who [Suggs] was before Saturday night. Now he’s a hero.”
And those instant heroes will soon be entering a fascinating new world that’s shrouded in optimism, uncertainty and some concern for how different things will look.
How athletes could profit off big moments
It’s fitting to view the future of Name, Image and Likeness through two of the biggest stars in this year’s men’s and women’s NCAA tournament. The fact that Jalen Suggs and UConn’s Paige Bueckers are close friends from their native Minnesota just happens to be a coincidence.
There are two ways to view potential sponsorship deals for both, which is instructive as to where college athletics is going. There’s the ability to profit instantly off an iconic moment, and leveraging collegiate success for long-term relationships with brands.
Let’s start with Suggs, who just experienced a rare NCAA moment that combined an impossible buzzer-beater, undefeated season and the elevated stage of the Final Four. How much could he profit off that in the next 48 hours before the title game tips off? Could Bank of America, for example, want to capitalize off of the bank shot?
“I bet a company would pay six figures for him today because he’s so hot,” said Peter Miller, the founder of the Jabez marketing group, who works with pro athletes like Dak Prescott.
But Miller stressed that the long-term view is going to be more important than the short-term view. Suggs has 404,000 Instagram followers as of Sunday night. He has 28,000 followers on Twitter. Neither of those social channels mentioned his moment as of Sunday night, but plenty did that work for him. LeBron James, Kevin Love, Dwyane Wade, Lonzo Ball and nearly every prominent Gonzaga basketball alum tweeted about his shot.
Miller said that if he were negotiating for Suggs, he’d advise him not to do anything imminently. Much of the long-term value for Suggs will be amplified or diminished depending on whether Gonzaga wins or loses on Monday. It’s not like he could film a commercial for Gatorade on Sunday and it would air during the game. “The problem is that his window is so tight,” Miller said. “If they lose against Baylor tomorrow night, it’s all forgotten. If they win, 10 years from now, people will think that shot won the tournament.”
So what’s the value of a Final Four run to a player? In many ways, UConn’s Bueckers may be able to accumulate more sponsors because of her larger following — 790,000 Instagram followers — and the platform afforded by UConn’s juggernaut women’s team.
“I think there’s a decent chance that Paige makes more money than any college athlete next year,” Soskin said. He added that Iowa women’s phenom Caitlin Clark “may not be far behind” and that both of their presence in college basketball next year will elevate the eyeballs on that sport.
“One of the biggest misconceptions early on in the NIL conversation was that it’ll only be a factor for men,” Soskin said. “Two years ago, Sabrina Ionescu would have out-earned all of the men’s players. Next year, Paige probably will.”
So how can these athletes make money?
Blake Lawrence, the CEO and co-founder of Opendorse, rattles off all the ways athletes — both stars and role players — could end up profiting. He says to imagine Capital One — or any official sponsor — paying players for selfies, TikToks and Instagram stories. Could breakout stars do Cameo videos? Could stars do their own news conference on Twitch, with “fans ‘tipping’ them to show support?” (Imagine the volume of “tips” from grateful – and potentially overserved – Zags fans if Suggs went on Twitch after the game late Saturday.)
Then there’s the local restaurants/bar, car dealerships and memorabilia stores in the college towns that could draw big business form a player appearance. Or could a player sign their game-worn shoes from a star performance and sell them?
Lawrence estimates the “ceiling” for a high-end player like Bueckers or Suggs would be about $175,000 for the NCAA tournament. (This estimate came before Suggs’ shot, which would clearly be an amplifier.)
What about everyone else?
“On the low end, $10,000 could be earned by nearly every Final Four player through a combination [of different methods],” Lawrence said. “On the high end, the breakout stars of the tournament could earn more than $100,000.”
How will it work?
Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades has been bubbled with the Bears for nearly a month here in Indianapolis. He admits that one year from now, he has no idea what the NCAA tournament or College Football Playoff will look like from the chair of the athletic director.
Part of the ambiguity comes with the lack of guidance from the NCAA at how such a drastic change will work. An aura of mystery still hangs over the actual execution of how players will handle sponsorships. Will there be, for example, an hour of sponsor time built in after the media availability? Are brands going to have creative teams at the College Football Playoff or Final Four to help the players produce content for advertisements? How will the ability of players to make money intersect with practices, film and team meals?
“I think uncertainty always makes us cautious, probably nervous,” Rhoades said in a phone interview on Sunday. “We all want to control a situation. It’s hard to control something we don’t have a clear pathway for yet. I think we all believe we’ll get to the other end of this, and we’ll hopefully end in a good spot for our institutions and student-athletes. But yeah, it’s a little bit unnerving not knowing which direction we’re headed.”
What’s had administrators further unnerved is the combination of the unknown NIL rules with the expected passage of the one-time transfer rules in the upcoming months. There are already more than 1,000 players in the NCAA transfer portal for basketball because of the expected passage of the rules.
“College athletics is going to change here in the next 12 to 24 months more than it's changed in the last 10 years,” Rhoades said. “Or it sure feels like it.”
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick told Yahoo Sports that the one-time transfer rule will have more of an impact on how teams are built and how the Final Four will look in the future than the NIL legislation. The ability to transfer without losing playing time is going to annually reshape rosters, as we’re seeing. And while specifics of how NIL will be legislated haven’t been determined, there’s a general sense of how it will look.
“We’ve understood for a while that’s what it’s going to be,” Swarbrick said. “You just have to be OK with it.”
For Skyy Clark, a top-10 recruit in the class of 2022 who is committed to Kentucky, the future is filled with both promise and mystery. He’s a potential breakout star in the 2022-23 college basketball season, and that means his family is exploring new avenues as they wait to see what NIL legislation looks like.
Clark has played grassroots ball with Bronny James, which has helped elevate his Instagram following to 252,000. And his family is beginning to consider how they can take advantage of that.
“We're just trying to be as proactive as possible,” Clark’s father, Kenny, said. “I've been talking to various marketing groups and stuff just trying to prepare for it so we can hit the ground running.”
The lesson from Suggs’ shot to future generations may be in the deft way he handled the moment. He celebrated with unrelenting vigor and then described the play with an authenticity and genuineness, reflecting back to being a kid shooting on his mini-hoop in a way that made him likable and relatable.
“He handled the moment so well,” Soskin said. “It gave him a platform to show who he was, for people to say, ‘This kid is great.’ ”
And that platform, in the near future, will bring with it a lot of value.
(Krysten Peek contributed to this story.)
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