NIL Money Disrupts Everything We Thought We Knew About College Sports

·5 min read

Today’s guest columnist is Rick Burton of Syracuse University.

As the NCAA spring sports calendar enters the last month of championships (lacrosse, track and field, softball, baseball, golf, others), I found myself wondering if the Earth would soon spin off its axis.

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After all, the NCAA’s decision not to fight state laws involving name, image, and likeness (NIL) left some pundits worrying NIL would change North American lives forever (notwithstanding the association’s decision this week to revisit its stance on the issue).

Against all odds, though, the first full calendar year of NIL privileges have brought us a handful of spasmodic reports suggesting some collegiate athletes are doing extremely well, but most (generally speaking, players at smaller schools, bench players and those from non-revenue generating sports) are riding the traditional trajectory of competing, attending classes and working on graduating.

Interestingly, the professor in the office next to mine, Dave Meluni, teaches an NIL class at Syracuse, and recently attended the Bowl Season annual meetings in Orlando, participating in one of the NIL panels. Upon his return, he provided this NIL State of the Nation overview:

His key takeaways …

  1. Student athlete education: At first, many schools were hesitant to assist athletes, because they were unsure how it would be interpreted by the NCAA. However, general education about NIL and university facilitation of NIL deals are completely different. The former is good and needed. The latter is against NCAA rules but tough to enforce. Very quickly, we saw this topic warranted comprehensive discussions on campuses to help protect their students in the market. Not surprisingly, some schools did better than others in informing athletes about NIL options.

  2. Camps: When NIL started last July, many athletes were already on campus taking classes or training for fall seasons. Those at home were working or doing other things. In short, they didn’t have time to leverage this newfound privilege. The summer of 2022 will be huge when it comes to camps, because youth sports (already a $25 billion industry) will give parents more options to work with college athletes instead of traditional camp coaches, who usually charge more.

  3. Female athletes are crushing it: They are often heavily engaged on Instagram, showcasing their friends, hobbies, teammates and families. Much more than male athletes. Also, they engage with their fans more and allow for comments/likes. Strangely, we’ve seen some male athletes turn off the commenting feature out of concern they’ll see negative feedback on their game performances.

The above sounds positive, with many collectives or firms like INFLCR and Opendorse working overtime to monetize Year II. Almost certainly, the learning curves are flattening, and NIL sophistication is improving.

Jim Cavale, founder and CEO of INFLCR, noted: “While the average size of the athlete transaction has continued to grow (and resources making it easier for athletes to transact with their NIL is growing as well), there’s also a reality that only about 15% of the average student-athlete body at a school is taking advantage of NIL. That’s because NIL, like everything else, is hard.”

These demands can also lead to the dark side of the NIL weather forecast, where storm clouds might include:

  • NCAA athletes refusing to suit up (call them “sickouts”) unless better NIL deals materialize. The plot of the little-seen feature film National Champions, where the star QB ignites a players’ strike, seems less far-fetched than even six months ago when the movie came out.

  • Sophomores, juniors or seniors mirroring Miami hoopster Isaiah Wong, staging preseason “holdouts” based on NIL payments. This isn’t “pay to play,” but “pay to stay.”

  • Five-star recruits waiting to join their first offseason workouts until NIL incentives promised during recruiting are paid upfront.

  • Investments by collectives (on behalf of specific players) start diminishing donations to athletic departments. It raises some questions. Could money that once went toward building on-campus facilities migrate over to NIL-savvy athletes? Does $3 million and a house for a wide receiver take a naming gift off the table?

  • The provision of school licensed trademarks to athletes reducing athletic department (or Learfield-type multimedia rightsholder) asset values because sophisticated sponsors leverage cheaper equivalencies working with logoed NIL players.

  • NCAA athletes sign lucrative NIL deals, don’t play much, enter the transfer portal, and leave for other schools without fulfilling NIL obligations. This makes everyone, including local sponsors, mad at the NCAA and school.

Each of the above is currently possible. What’s not fully understood is whether the creation of short-term NIL entrepreneurs may disproportionately hurt progress toward everyone’s supposed objective: diplomas and degrees.

No less an authority than Alabama football coach Nick Saban has said NIL needs some form of regulation. “I don’t think what we’re doing right now is a sustainable model,” he said. “The concept of name, image and likeness was for players to use their NIL to create opportunities for themselves. That’s what it was. But that creates a situation where you can basically buy players.”

Which, as anyone who follows college sports knows, will lead to tampering and athletes possibly getting shortchanged in academics. That’s what NCAA schools have long promised. Some variation of, Come play for our school … and in the process, earn a college degree that sets you up for life.

Historically, that hasn’t always happened because of the influence held by coaches and administrators. As power shifts to the athletes (primarily on football fields and basketball courts) the worries of the past may suddenly re-emerge.

It’s where I start humming Glen Frey’s 1984 hit Smuggler’s Blues: “It’s the lure of easy money. It’s got a very strong appeal.” That’s because for some college athletes, NIL money today means more than a degree tomorrow.

Burton is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management and SU’s Faculty Athletics Representative (FAR) to the ACC and NCAA. He is a co-author of the book 20 Secrets to Success for NCAA Student-Athletes (Ohio University Press).

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