A Year Into NIL Era, We Still Can’t Reliably Track Financial Data

·6 min read

When it comes to sports business data, college athletics typically generates a bevy of standardized, public information. Due to open records laws, state universities are required to disclose their finances, allowing Sportico to compare public schools’ men’s basketball ticketing revenues or spending on meals for women’s golfers.

And yet, one year into college athletes being allowed to profit off of their name, image and likeness (NIL), public NIL data remains limited, fragmented and vaguely defined.

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Digital NIL marketplaces, which connect athletes with brands and enable them to track their transactions for compliance purposes, are primary sources with large sample sizes. Opendorse regularly updates a page on its website with data insights, and INFLCR provided statistics to Sportico upon request. Nearly 100,000 deals between athletes and brands have been processed on Opendorse, while INFLCR reports more than 70,000 active athletes on the platform.

“[That data] is tremendously useful for anyone on the outside who wants to take a look at how these NIL deals are operating, where the money is going, where the deals are going,” said Sam C. Ehrlich, a Boise State University assistant professor who has cited Opendorse’s data in his research and classes.

Lots of NIL deals, however, slip through the cracks.

“I believe that, even in markets where the school has emphasized disclosures … still 80% of all NIL activities go undisclosed,” Opendorse co-founder and CEO Blake Lawrence said. “That’s something that I wish were not true, but it’s part of the challenge that this market has—ensuring that there is proper disclosure—one, to be compliant with state laws or school policies, but two, to make sure these student athletes are getting help managing an entirely new landscape all on their own.”

Any deals completed through the apps themselves are included in their datasets, but even at schools that use Opendorse or INFLCR, athletes make plenty of other transactions that take the form of some DMs followed by a Venmo payment. For example, Ehrlich has asked athletes via Twitter to come speak to his classes for compensation. It’s on the athletes to disclose those types of deals, and many do not. “There’s no malicious intent to hide transactions,” Lawrence said. “There’s just a lack of enforcement and encouragement in certain markets to disclose at a high rate.”

INFLCR founder and CEO Jim Cavale was more optimistic about disclosure at the 40 schools with an INFLCR “local exchange,” a customized NIL portal through which all payments are processed. “That provides a whole extra layer of data for compliance to see everything that’s happening… for coaches to see everything that’s happening so they can talk about it more wisely in recruiting, and for student athletes to have everything they’ve done in one 1099 [tax document],” Cavale said.

Even if every deal from every athlete was disclosed on an app like Opendorse (which is not the case), that sample of athletes wouldn’t necessarily be representative. “The data that we’re getting is coming from Opendorse’s clients, not from all schools entirely, so comparing data from Opendorse and trying to extrapolate what’s happening on the national scene becomes very difficult. Comparing across to INFLCR and other platforms is similarly problematic because you’re talking about different samples,” assistant professor at Arkansas State Neal Ternes said. “It’s not a complete picture. It’s very much a fragmentation.”

Lawrence and Cavale both believe that while many deals are not being disclosed, most, if not all, of the top-tier athletes signing the largest contracts are represented to some degree in their databases. Bill Carter, an NIL consultant and founder of Student Athlete Insights, agrees, but thinks that offline, non-brand deals at non-Power Five schools may be overlooked.

Before the NIL era began, Carter began recruiting athletes through social media to participate in a periodic survey for compensation. He hopes this methodology will yield more thorough reporting across a broader sample of athletes across all sports, genders and divisions. Over the past year, he’s collected data from roughly 5,000 athletes.

“A lot of these deals don’t involve brands: camps, clinics, private instruction, anything direct to consumer, selling their own merchandise, doing stuff on Cameo,” Carter said. “My guess is that my data has bigger numbers associated with all of those things than an Opendorse does… but my sense is that it is still being underreported [even in my data].”

For instance, athletes like Duquesne University women’s lacrosse players Emily O’Donnell and Emelie Curtis aren’t necessarily using online marketplaces to get their paid gigs at coaching clinics. “They’re taking this other approach to NIL, and I think this is the part that is not discussed enough, which is that there are a lot of athletes out there who look at this as a purely entrepreneurial venture,” Carter said. “If anything, [Opendorse and INFLCR] over-index on the Bryce Youngs of the world.”

Then there is the emerging influence of NIL collectives, which are groups of wealthy fans and alumni who pool money, operating independently of the schools, to create NIL opportunities for athletes. Since athletes are prohibited from direct pay-for-play, members of the collective must get something in return, such as autographs or an event appearance. The most ambitious collectives are raising upwards of $20 million and dishing out seven figures to individual athletes. “It’s not entirely clear how many of these collectives are working with [digital marketplaces] or if they’re just operating on their own,” Ternes said. “These collectives are in some ways incentivized not to [work with digital marketplaces] because it gives them more autonomy.”

More data could eventually become public record if Title IX compliance comes into play, in order to ensure that women athletes are receiving equitable treatment to men. Collectives, though, may not be legally required to respond to state open-records laws, because they are technically not affiliated with the universities.

The road towards a more complete data-driven picture of the NIL landscape remains hazy. “It’s clear the NCAA is really scared to get involved in this … other than policing the most egregious violations, given what’s happened [since Alston],” Ehrlich said. “The deals are being made between athletes and private companies, outside of the athletic departments … because it’s a lot more spread out and private, it’s going to be really difficult to centralize that data to any significant degree.”

In the meantime, platforms like Opendorse and INFLCR will continue to publish their numbers. “Even if it is a subset of the market and the activities, it’s the clearest picture, the most organized data,” Lawrence said. “If the market wants more data, or more information extracted from the data, there has to be an emphasis on more disclosure.”

College athletes, however, live busy lives between their academic and athletic responsibilities, so athletic departments and NIL marketplaces must work to make the process easier for them. “There’s a lot of platform fatigue right now,” Cavale said. “Making things simpler, consolidating them into one platform, and having the staff to support it can combat some of these issues. … Just like a team doctor is there when a student athlete has an injury to help [them] through that injury … a student athlete needs help with NIL.”

“Our priority first and foremost is to the athlete,” Lawrence said. “I think more NIL activities would occur if the market knew more about the types of transactions that are occurring. A big step forward for this industry is removing information asymmetry, creating more transparency.”

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