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'No one's getting hurt:' Boosters, businesses getting bigger and bolder in deals with college athletes

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It pays to be a Michigan State football or men's basketball player these days.

Specifically, it pays about $6,000 per year – thanks to a Michigan-based mortgage company.

In a sprawling name, image and likeness deal announced last month, United Wholesale Mortgage (UWM) said it is paying all of the 133 football and men's basketball athletes at Michigan State to assist in its marketing efforts this season.

The athletes are expected to post on social media about the company about 1 to 3 times per month, according to company president and CEO Mat Ishbia. In exchange, they will receive a stipend of $500 per month, 12 months a year, as long as they remain on the team – or, as Ishbia put it, part of "the Spartan family."

"I could pay the star players much, much more, obviously, and probably get the same bang for the buck," said Ishbia, a former walk-on basketball player and Spartans booster. "That’s not what I’m interested in. That’s not taking care of the family."

The deal – which will cost UWM nearly $800,000 this year alone – is one of the largest and broadest of the NIL era to date. And it could be a sign of what's to come.

Three months after state laws first allowed college athletes to monetize their name, image and likeness, the deals being offered to them are getting increasingly large in scale and creative in nature – testing boundaries in a space with few regulatory guardrails and no clear enforcement mechanism.

Companies such as UWM – and boosters like Ishbia – are now foregoing deals with a few star players in favor of large-scale agreements with entire position groups, teams or cross-sections of the college athlete community.

In other instances, brands are trying to reap the benefits of a splashy announcement, offering deals to a massive number of athletes even though many of them will not actually participate.

"I have no reason to believe, no evidence, that any of these are anything but legitimate NIL deals," said Gabe Feldman, the director of the Tulane Sports Law Program. "But I also think that some uniform set of rules needs to be applied before this gets out of hand."

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Among the most creative group deals that have emerged in recent weeks:

► At BYU, a protein bar company struck a deal that will cover the cost of attendance for every walk-on football player, effectively ensuring that nobody on the team will have to pay out-of-pocket for tuition costs.

► At Arkansas, Wisconsin and a handful of other schools, the entire offensive line has received an NIL deal with a local barbecue company or restaurant, offering free food, gift cards or merchandise in exchange for promotion.

► As part of its "Arby's for RBs" campaign, the fast food chain has offered to pay up to 200 Division I running backs a one-time $500 stipend in exchange for a tweet. (An Arby's spokesperson said more than 70 running backs had signed up for the deal as of last week.)

► At several schools, including Florida Atlantic and BYU, companies have offered NIL deals – featuring either merchandise or cash payments – to every female athlete.

► In Colorado, a sports betting company invited every female college athlete in the state – Division I, II or III – to sign a deal that could pay her $500.

These large-group deals go far beyond the stereotypical idea of NIL – an athlete selling autographs or hawking merchandise – and are illustrative of how the marketplace is already beginning to evolve.

'WILD, WILD WEST': As college athletes cash in, who is overseeing these deals?

Baylor president Linda Livingstone said they also raise important questions about where and whether entities like Congress should draw a line in the sand.

"We're seeing situations where every member of a sports team is getting paid X dollars just for being on that sports team," Livingstone said during a House subcommittee hearing last week. "Well that looks very much like an inducement to actually play sports at that institution, because if they leave that institution, that name, image and likeness payment will not follow them."

The NCAA's current guidelines on NIL are sparse, but cite two key restrictions: That NIL deals may not be used as substitutes for pay-for-play, and that they cannot be recruiting inducements.

When asked last week if team-wide deals might run afoul of the organization's rules, NCAA president Mark Emmert demurred.

"We're looking at them and trying to get information on them, so we really understand them," he told USA TODAY Sports. "One of the problems is ... we don't have a system where we can actually see what those transactions are and what they really look like."

During the House subcommittee hearing, Emmert expressed particular concern about deals that are brokered, at least in part, by schools.

At one point, he was asked specifically about the team-wide NIL deal at BYU.

In that deal, which BYU announced in a news release, Built Brands offered a sum equivalent to the cost of attendance to every walk-on football player – effectively allowing 123 athletes to receive free tuition instead of the NCAA limit of 85.

BYU athletics director Tom Holmoe told The Associated Press that the company is paying players for their endorsement, not directly funding scholarships. And he said BYU did not negotiate the deal with Built Brands co-founder Nick Greer, though it was vetted by the school's general counsel and president.

Holmoe also didn't shy away from the idea that it gives BYU a competitive advantage. (Utah does not have an NIL law on the books.)

"That’s like the essence of athletics is competitive advantage," Holmoe told the AP. "Competitive advantage exists in life. It’s called creativity. You come up with good ideas that give you a competitive advantage."

BYU did not make Holmoe available for an interview with USA TODAY Sports.

At Michigan State, meanwhile, Ishbia said he expects the UWM deal for football and men's basketball players to roll over from year to year, which means incoming recruits would ostensibly have a $6,000 deal waiting for them when they arrive on campus.

Spartans football and men's basketball players will each receive $6,000 annually from United Wholesale Mortgage in a deal brokered around name, image and likeness rules.
Spartans football and men's basketball players will each receive $6,000 annually from United Wholesale Mortgage in a deal brokered around name, image and likeness rules.

Ishbia, who made a personal donation of $32 million to MSU athletics in February, strongly rejects the idea that his company's NIL deal could flirt with pay-for-play, describing it as "a business decision."

"It’s not an inducement to play," he said. "No one’s coming to Michigan State for $500 a month. That’s not what this is about. We’re a family. We’re a team. We’re going to help advertise this company, but at the same time, we all take care of each other in the Spartan family. And that’s why we didn’t go to other universities."

Ishbia said Michigan State athletics department officials were not involved in the deal, and he has not spoken with them about it. Michigan State athletics director Alan Haller declined to speak with USA TODAY Sports through a spokesperson.

While large-scale deals reignite "pay-for-play" fears in some corners of the college athletics world, many administrators view it as a natural evolution.

University of Arizona president Robert Robbins said there is a distinction between team-wide NIL deals and those with athletic incentives – like a bonus for touchdowns scored or 3-pointers made. While the latter deals wade into "some very dicey territory" for universities, he said, he's all for team-wide NIL arrangements.

"I would love every one of our teams at the U of A to be sponsored," Robbins said. "That'd be fantastic."

Many companies feel the same way. Large-scale deals, particularly involving members of an entire team, are becoming increasingly popular among brands, according to Corey Staniscia, the director of external affairs of Dreamfield, an online marketplace that helps broker NIL deals for athletes.

Staniscia said team-wide deals give companies a chance to reach a wider audience than those with one or two star athletes, often at a comparable or cheaper rate. They also avoid the pitfalls of a deal with a star athlete who has a poor season, or gets into trouble off the field.

"Even just the initial announcement gets national news," Staniscia added.

"I think everyone’s trying to do this one-up game – who can do the biggest and best and baddest deal."

Ishbia expects and hopes the trend will continue, as the NIL landscape evolves.

While United Wholesale Mortgage does not have any deals in the works to sponsor additional teams at MSU, Ishbia said "we’re looking at other things" in the NIL space. And he believes his team-wide deals at Michigan State – and similar deals like at the University of Miami, where a South Florida businessman offered every football player $500-per-month deals – could serve as a template for other companies to follow.

"Who's getting hurt? No one's getting hurt," Ishbia said. "I think people are going to see this. You’ll see it being very prevalent next year, and then through the end of next year. This will be common. Nobody will be talking about a story like this because it’ll just be par for the course."

Contributing: Steve Berkowitz and Brent Schrotenboer

Contact Tom Schad at tschad@usatoday.com or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Boosters, businesses spending big bucks in deals with college athletes