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Around Thanksgiving every year, dozens of college basketball teams cluster in places like the Bahamas and Hawaii for neutral-site tournaments that offer high-level competition and warm weather early in the season.
But Brooks Downing, whose sports marketing company runs several of those events, knows it’s not always an easy sell to get fans of those teams to travel and buy tickets at a busy time of year, particularly when the schools themselves are focused on selling their own season ticket packages.
"There’s a lot of competition, a lot of clutter," Downing said. "We’ve been trying to figure out how to cut through that – and bam, here comes name, image and likeness."
In the three-plus months since college athletes have been allowed to capitalize on their own marketing potential, there has been enough freedom within NCAA guidelines for college athletes to earn money in a lot of creative ways. But Downing has come up with something completely new – and potentially game-changing.
To boost sales for the Roman Main Event – a two-day event in Las Vegas that will feature Arizona, Michigan, UNLV and Wichita State – Downing’s company bdG Sports is paying five players who will be in the tournament to promote it on social media and provide discount codes fans can use to buy tickets.
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To be clear, bdG Sports is not paying an appearance fee, which would be against the temporary NIL rules that the NCAA put in place. But an independent company paying college athletes to market the event they’re playing in is a concept with potentially wide-ranging implications that could theoretically reach to bowl games, the College Football Playoff and other kinds of events invented for the express purpose of funneling money to players.
"I think this is just the beginning," Downing said. "I think there’s going to be a ton more of this coming down the stretch and we’re the tip of the iceberg."
Downing declined to say specifically how much the players were being paid, but he described the deals as in line with the market for social media influencers relative to their reach. The five players – Arizona's Dalen Terry, Wichita State's Dexter Dennis, UNLV's Bryce Hamilton and Michigan's Hunter Dickinson and Adrien Nunez – have a combined 327,000 followers on Instagram and 34,000 on Twitter.
But this relatively simple and under-the-radar deal could potentially be a template for all kinds of new NIL activities that skirt the pay-for-play line that the NCAA is determined not to cross. Though schools themselves would not be allowed to pay players to promote ticket sales – the recruiting implications would be too much for even for the most aggressive proponents of NIL freedom – bdG Sports is a true third party that isn’t significantly constrained by those rules.
And college sports is littered with similar promoters that put on major football and basketball games – including bowls and neutral site college football games that offer millions of dollars for schools to participate.
The competition between those entities to land high-profile teams is often intense. Downing wondered whether the possibility of players landing NIL deals could itself be an inducement to play in particular tournaments.
"That could be the ultimate win for us on the back end is if more teams want to participate because coaches or administrators want to make sure their student-athletes receive additional compensation through the process," said Downing, who was a sports information director at University of Kentucky before getting into sports marketing in the early 2000s. "If they can find non-traditional revenue streams like what this is, I think they’re going to be very supportive of that initiative to help the players."
And from there, the imagination can run wild. You can’t pay a player to play in the game, but could you pay them to show up at a charity benefit dinner attached to the game or to sign autographs? Would such an arrangement tacitly encourage players who might otherwise opt out of bowl games to participate? Could basketball teams schedule a neutral site game, hand off the management to a marketing company and use a third party to distribute guaranteed NIL money to players?
And as college commissioners discuss the expansion of the College Football Playoff, would a marketing arrangement with teams that make the field potentially be an avenue to alleviate concerns about lengthening the season?
It’s still relatively early in the NIL era, but with so few boundaries and specifics about what is and isn’t allowed, Downing’s brainchild opens up all kinds of possibilities in that industry.
"We’re testing limits here and there," said Darren Heitner, a sports and entertainment attorney who is one of the foremost experts on the burgeoning NIL marketplace. "The NCAA provided a very select few bullet points, one of them being compensation for athletic participation or achievement is prohibited. So as long as it’s not contingent (on participation), I think it’s OK."
The rules are so permissive, in fact, that Downing said there was practically no red tape at all in getting the deals cleared with the four schools involved in his tournament.
"They’re hands-off," he said. "It’s almost like, ‘Hey we can’t do this on behalf of our players, but we’ll be glad to share their contact information,’ and that was it. We think we tapped into something that could be very effective, efficient and hopefully produce the results we’re looking for. We think it’s going to work."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How one college basketball tournament is expanding NIL possibilities