Last June, when the NCAA’s board of directors suspended the organization’s rules prohibiting athletes from selling the rights to their names, images and likenesses, a new era arrived in college sports: College athletes could start making money from endorsements and Olympic athletes could profit from their success and still compete in college.
“This is an important day for college athletes,” said Mark Emmert, the president of the NCAA.
July 1 marks the one-year anniversary of the NIL era in college sports. Since then, there have been NIL deals for things as varied as candles, dog food and local supermarkets. There also have been NFTs and car deals. Athletes, some of whom were already social media influencers, now became able to capitalize on their large followings. UConn Huskies basketball star Paige Bueckers, the first to sign with Gatorade, and Stanford Cardinal golfer Rose Zhang, who landed Adidas’ first NIL agreement, signed landmark deals with international brands. Alabama’s Nick Saban feuded with Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher and collectives became the go-to NIL business organization model.
Beyond the headlines, the arrival of NIL touched individuals in every sport and at every level of college athletics. Athletes, coaches and administrators share how their lives and sports careers have changed since NIL took effect.
Reporting from Myron Medcalf, Alyssa Roenigk and Tom VanHaaren.
How some athletes handle NIL deals
In recent months, nearly 2,000 Division I men’s college basketball players entered the transfer portal. The introduction of NIL has played the a significant role in shaping decisions that have changed some of America’s top programs overnight.
But the details around name, image and likeness are still confusing for some of the athletes who’ve been asked to navigate the new landscape.
“Anybody that shows interest, I just talk about it and see what they want to do and also make decisions for myself because if I want to attach my name to a certain company or a certain business,” basketball player Osun Osunniyi, who transferred from St. Bonaventure to Iowa State in the offseason, told ESPN.
“I’m not really reaching out. It’s more so, if someone comes to me, I just decide if it’s best to attach my name to that. … I think it’s a good thing to be able to build our brands early.”
For others, situations change quickly and new deals arise.
Nijel Pack, a former Kansas State hoops star, secured All-Big 12 first-team honors last season after averaging 17.4 PPG and connecting on 44% of his 3-point attempts. He entered the transfer portal after KSU coach Bruce Weber resigned following 10 seasons at the school.
ESPN reported that Pack received an NIL package that includes $800,000 over two years and a car, via billionaire John Ruiz, following his transfer to Miami.
“I had a couple of NIL deals at Kansas State,” Pack told ESPN. “They were very small things. Didn’t require too much effort and work. It was obviously the first year of NIL, so everybody didn’t know what to do, how to do it.”
Pack is also dealing with a component of NIL that is usually a concern only for professional athletes: the public disclosure of their earnings.
“Some [deals], like mine, have been released to the public,” Pack said. “Obviously, it’s shocking how much student-athletes can benefit off this. I think [NIL is] something that should have been out there for a while. College basketball is basically a job. … And if we’re going to play and be able to do these things, I think we should be able to benefit off of it.”
But Pack also said the idea that every player with an NIL deal is going to run to the nearest car dealership is misguided. He said he plans to make wise choices with his money.
“It’s a blessing for sure,” he said. “I have parents that are really smart and invest their money. … I’m not going to be the flashiest person just because I have the money. I want to be able to use the money to make more money in the future. … I just feel like I’m only going to grow and use it to be more successful down the line. Save it, invest instead of going to spend and spend and spend.”
Different perspectives from coaches
While players and parents are trying to navigate this new endeavor, college coaches are trying to adapt to the added wrinkle to their job description. There have been differing opinions from coaches on NIL and whether or not the direction it’s heading is even good for the sport.
“It’s an absolute mess and a train wreck, and the kids are going to be the ones who suffer in the end,” Clemson Tigers coach Dabo Swinney told ESPN’s Chris Low in April.
But it’s more nuanced than that and intricate for coaches to deal with. From personal guidance to recruiting operations, coaches are being forced to refine policies and help their players navigate NIL.
Technically, it is still illegal to use name, image and likeness deals as an enticement to a recruitment, but it is happening. Michigan Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh is still trying to rely on what a university has to offer, beyond potential NIL deals, in the recruiting process.
“Our philosophy is that coming to the University of Michigan is still going to be a transformational experience rather than a transactional experience,” Harbaugh said. “I hear a lot … I just don’t know how much is real, how much is accurate. It’s like, is it accurate or not? Is it like fish tale stories.”
Not knowing what’s real and what’s not is part of what has kept Harbaugh from discussing NIL with recruits and their families. Once they have signed with the school, Michigan, however, has had players bring in some large sums of money and has a group of alumni, led by former linebacker Jared Wangler, who started an NIL management firm called Valiant Management.
Wangler and his group have helped secure multiple NIL contracts for Michigan players. With that, Michigan has utilized NIL to keep players already on the roster happy, rather than as a recruiting ploy.
“I’ve always been for student-athletes being able to profit off their name, image and likeness. I think it just makes sense. Right?” Harbaugh said. “We could say that the sale of a jersey for example, or who should profit, who should have some share of the profit. Isn’t that the actual person whose jersey it is rather than just the institution? I think we can all agree that that’s something that’s fair and right.”
Like Harbaugh, who played college and professional football, Arkansas Razorbacks gymnastics coach Jordyn Wieber has been in her athletes’ shoes.
When Arkansas gymnasts receive Instagram DMs from companies offering them free gear or to pay them to promote a product, they walk into their head coach’s office and ask for her advice. Wieber, the 2011 world all-around champion and a member of the 2012 “Fierce Five” U.S. team that won gold at the London Olympics, made the impossible decision, at age 16, to turn pro, capitalize on her name, image and likeness and give up her dream of competing in collegiate gymnastics.
Until NIL became policy last July, NCAA rules prohibited Olympic athletes who made money in their sport from competing in college. So elite gymnasts — those who competed on the national team — had two options: They could turn pro at the peak of their careers, sign deals and forgo competing in college, like Wieber, or maintain their amateur (unpaid) status and sign with a college team.
“I don’t think any 16-year-old should have to make that decision,” Wieber said. “I’m glad now they can have the best of both worlds.”
In the past year, Wieber has leaned on her experience working with agents and brands to help her gymnasts determine their own brand identities and the companies with which they want to partner.
She teaches them to research the company and its values — “start by typing the company name and ‘controversy’ into Google,” she said — and to be certain those values match their own. She encourages them to be creative, seek brands that can help jump-start their careers and shares practical advice such as holding photo shoots and “banking” social media content to fulfill weekly posting requirements.
Arkansas was also the first university to hire a full-time NIL staff. The three-person department, which includes former Arkansas gymnast Sydney McGlone, teaches athletes how to set up LLCs and file taxes, works with agents and brands, and advises Razorbacks coaches and local business owners on the ever-changing NIL world.
Wieber says the school’s support of NIL is a boon during recruiting: “We are supporting and championing NIL instead of being scared of it and wishing it away.”
Facing compliance questions
While universities like Arkansas and others dedicate staff to NIL guidance, school compliance officers, whose job it is to monitor and comply with NCAA, school and conference rules, as well as state laws, are facing an evolving challenge with few resources to find answers.
Nine months after committing to the University of Texas — and just three weeks after the NCAA adopted its NIL policy — 17-year-old Lydia Jacoby became a breakout star of last summer’s Tokyo Olympics.
She captured a surprise gold in the 100-meter breaststroke, becoming the first Alaskan swimmer to win Olympic gold, and swam the second leg of Team USA’s silver-medal-winning 400-meter medley relay team. Endorsement deals started rolling in, and because of NIL, Jacoby was able to sign with an agent and field those offers while continuing to prepare for her freshman season at Texas in the fall of 2022.
But because Jacoby was still a high school student and NIL state law in Texas, like that of other states does not permit high school students to engage in NIL activities, Jacoby’s agent and the university’s compliance director worked together to ensure her deals were above board. With state laws on the books, they superseded NCAA policy.
“With Lydia, the first thing we had to research was if Alaska had its own state law,” said Blake Barlow, associate AD for compliance at the University of Texas. “It did not, so she is operating under the NCAA’s interim policy, while a high school student who is a resident of our state is operating under Texas state law.”
Texas also has an exclusive uniform and apparel agreement with Nike, which requires athletes to wear the brand’s signature swoosh logo during practices and competition — something that created confusion among brands interested in signing Jacoby. But since Nike doesn’t make swimwear, and Texas allows its swimmers to wear whatever swimwear brand they prefer, Jacoby signed with Arena last October.
“That is a difference-maker,” Barlow said. “Our athletes can have their own deal with a manufacturer and wear that in our races, knowing Nike still owns when they are on the deck, in the stands or representing Texas in team travel.”
The seeming ease of one scenario has not made solutions to broader NIL issues easier to find.
“It’s been difficult because the NCAA has been hesitant to answer questions,” said Barlow, who is also a member of the National Association for Athletics Compliance [NAAC] board of directors. “As compliance practitioners, we lean on each other a lot. Those who sponsor FBS programs, I think there are eight or nine Texas schools represented in a group chat and we say, ‘Hey, what do you think about this? How would your general counsel interpret this?’
“We are so used, in the compliance chair, to asking the NCAA a question and getting an answer. They’ve been all things when you have a question that needs to be addressed. And now, with them being hesitant to provide NIL guidance, it has been challenging. We all look at each other and say, ‘What are you doing? What are you doing? How are you approaching NIL compliance?’ It’s been difficult not having a lot of that guidance from the NCAA, which in turn has caused people to push the envelope.”
Agencies’ involvement in NIL
The prohibition of using agents was always an easy NCAA rule to remember in the pre-NIL world. Those days are long gone.
When Excel Sports Management hired Parker Cain, a veteran sports marketing agent, to help with the company’s NIL agent representation, it was a clear sign of how impactful name, image and likeness had become in sports. A large global agency such as Excel, who represents talent in the NBA and WNBA, NFL, MLB, PGA Tour and LPGA Tour, getting involved with college athletics meant that there is a staying power and sustainability within this relatively new aspect of college sports.
“I got into a conversation with a brand recently and they were deciding whether they should allocate budget to NIL or something else,” Cain said. “And the fact that they’re actually debating, ‘Do I allocate this budget to NIL, or do I allocate it to the sport that I usually spend on professionally’ shows you how crazy it is.”
Agencies are representing college athletes, and for Cain, he and Excel are focusing on education of the process, brand building, media opportunities and social media.
“I think, in order for NIL to continue to be successful at this level, and continue to grow as a marketplace, you really are going to have to identify leaders in the space who can be trusted and who can really be educational experts,” Cain said.
The bigger the marketplace grows, the more opportunities there will be for student-athletes, and Cain believes that we’re just at the tip of the iceberg of how big NIL can get.
“We’re almost 12 months in and we’re just now getting to the point where brands are actually planning and building NIL spends into their budget,” Cain said. “Regional brands, national brands, we’re going to see significant investment from brands in NIL because the space and the platform is so strong.
“… I think this is just the beginning.”
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