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VOL. 46 | NO. 38 | Friday, September 23, 2022

Too much to tackle alone

TV money, NIL, playoff expansion, transfers leave college football reeling. Is regulation by Congress the solution?

By Tom Wood

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For all the issues facing college football – everything from name, image, likeness (NIL) to the transfer portal (scholarship athletes leaving schools to play elsewhere), from conference expansion to expanded college football playoffs, from conferences changing their TV packages and states changing their NIL laws – there’s one underlying theme: money.

It might not be all about the money, as some suggest, but if it isn’t it’s certainly near the top of the list.

Granted, two of those key issues have given today’s student-athletes unprecedented rights that would have gotten previous generations suspended or banned. But money is a factor in those changes, too.

Student-athletes can now monetize their name, image and likeness – which was prohibited by the NCAA before July 2021 – and the transfer portal gives student-athletes the opportunity to find a program that fits them best without having to sit out a season.

“Obviously, intercollegiate athletics is at a moment in time like we’ve never seen before, and it’s a time that demands a level of change,” says Ohio Valley Conference Commissioner Beth DeBauche, who in June was named to the NCAA Board of Governors.

“It’s a time where the focus really is on student-athletes, so finding ways to provide more opportunities and benefits to student-athletes … it’s an interesting time as we look to provide more benefits and opportunities for those students.”

While many student-athletes will sign NIL deals that put a few hundred or thousand dollars in their pockets, the highest-profile athletes are poised to make millions off their licensing deals through collectives, companies and agents.

In June, for example, the Knoxville collective Spyre Sports Group announced Year One NIL marketing deals for 126 University of Tennessee student-athletes totaling $3.6 million. That amounts to an average of $29,000 per student-athlete in an 11-month period – almost double the annual U.S. minimum wage of $15,080.

There also have been reports that some elite athletes are getting NIL deals worth millions – the highest reported so far being $9.5 million.

Georgia’s Stetson Bennett celebrates after the College Football Playoff championship football game against Alabama earlier this year in Indianapolis. Nashville leaders are envisioning a similar scene in Nashville if the city can build a domed stadium to replace 23-year-old Nissan Stadium.

-- Photo By Darron Cummings | Ap

Melia Jones, executive vice president and general counsel of Nashville-based Athlete Licensing Company, was among those who, when NIL first launched, likened it to a wild west scenario where the only rules were that there were no rules.

“When we talked about NIL in December, there was kind of a feeling that we were in the wild, wild west,” says Jones, a Texas A&M and Texas Tech University School of Law and Rawls College of Business graduate. “Well, I’m here to report that the wild, wild west is even wilder than it was previously. The industry … is ramping up significantly in very interesting ways.

“While (collectives) were kind of fresh in the industry at the time, they’re almost pervasive everywhere – now across the entire spectrum. Most schools now have a collective that has an aim to support and provide NIL coverage to their students. So that’s been interesting. A little bit more limited in scope, but it definitely has not been that.”

Doug Mathews, a former Vanderbilt player and UT assistant coach who hosts several sports talk shows in Nashville, says college athletics is about more than money and that the changes he’s seen so far have been mostly positive.

“(NIL) is certainly about money, but that’s also about the student-athlete,” Mathews says. “The university (and) conferences don’t benefit from that. That’s about student-athletes. Transfer portal is about the student-athlete. … Now the College Football Playoff, the expansion, all of that is certainly about the money. No question about that.”

That viewpoint is shared by Nashville native Mark Dyer, who has served as a college sports executive with both Host Communications and IMG, as well as working with NASCAR.

“I think you’ve got a few huge things going on that are kind of factoring into what’s going on in the college sports environment. And college football as the leader, as the far and away huge money generator in the college sports industry,” Dyer says.

“So you kind of have to look at those things and kind of go from high altitude and drill down to how NIL affects players and let’s call it player rights. What do athletes deserve? What do they get?”

The haves, have-nots

The rollout of NIL opportunities mirrors Charles Dickens’ classic line, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

In recent months, individual NIL deals worth $8 million and $9.5 million have been reported for players still in high school, including one with Volunteer State ties.

The Athletic first reported the $8 million deal after reviewing terms of the agreement. Numerous publications linked that deal to 2023 Tennessee commitment Nico Iamaleava, a five-star quarterback prospect from California. He can officially sign with the Vols in December’s early signing period.

Not long after, iOn3’s Jeremy Crabtree reported that four-star QB Jaden Rashada chose to commit to Miami for a $9.5 million NIL deal after declining an $11 million from Florida’s collective. Florida’s collective called the report inaccurate.

In April, Tennessee amended its 2021 NIL laws at allow athletic departments to work with collectives regarding current athletes but not prospective athletes. And the NCAA still bars using NIL as a recruiting tool.

In a May interview with Volquest, UT athletic director Danny White affirmed UT will comply with the state and NCAA laws by hiring an NIL compliance director to work with collectives and others “on what the rules are and what the laws are. … So, there’s a line between recruiting and current student-athletes that we have been very strict about with our coaches and staff – and we will continue to be.”

Mathews suggests it will take a combination of NCAA reorganization and federal guidelines to make for a level NIL playing field.

UT has a collective that is providing an average of $29K annually for 126 student-athletes.

-- Photo By Jerry Denham |The Ledger

“It’s going to be that way until two things happen,” Mathews says. “No. 1, the reorganization of the NCAA, which is ongoing right now. Whenever that gets settled and whatever the organization that comes out of it – the governing body, that hasn’t been settled yet – that’s one thing.

“And then the second thing is if and when Congress will pass some type of law that kind of works with this. That’s what needs to happen. Instead of having 50 different state laws or 48 or 45 different state laws to have one national law.”

Since NIL has been permitted, nearly every university has drafted its own set of NIL policy and is working with some NIL collective or group.

Vanderbilt, Notre Dame and Temple are involved with NBC Sports Athlete Direct.

“As the collegiate athletics landscape continues to change, Vanderbilt’s vision is for student-athletes to maximize their potential in all areas – including with name, image and likeness,” Vanderbilt athletic director Candice Lee says.

At crosstown Tennessee State, the Tigers have partnered with Nebraska-based sports marketing technology company Opendorse Ready for NIL deals.

“Enactment of NIL legislation has created tremendous opportunities for student-athletes to develop successful brands, leverage their influence, as well as make positive, far-reaching impacts on their communities,” says Tennessee State athletic director Mikki Allen.

At SEC Media Days in July, nearly every coach spoke about the impact of NIL on their programs.

“We want to offer a robust program and plan to help our players in the NIL space,” Vanderbilt coach Clark Lea said. “When done the right way, we are certain that NIL opportunities can enhance the quality of life for our student-athletes while maintaining the integrity of a transformational experience.”

UT coach Josh Heupel, a star quarterback at Oklahoma, says he wished his era had NIL opportunities.

“I would have liked to have had an opportunity to have been afforded to take part in NIL,” Heupel says. “Would have liked to have worn my starting left tackle’s jersey or worn his shirt.

UT’s Hendon Hooker and Cedric Tillman were feted in NYC this summer for NIL promotion.

-- Photo By Spyre Sports

“I look at my own kids, Jace and Hannah, that get a chance to run around the house or run with their friends and wear a (UT wide receiver) Cedric Tillman and (quarterback) Hendon Hooker shirt or jersey. I think there’s empowering opportunities through NIL.”

Ins, outs of transfer portal

The transfer portal rules also are in the midst of change. ESPN reports universities may not contact athletes who put their name in the portal windows after Aug. 31. The ESPN report says the NCAA board of directors approved 60 days during the calendar year during which student-athletes can enter the transfer portal.

Mathews says the transfer portal “is not anything about money, really. Now what happens is, when you tie the transfer portal players in with (NIL) with (the current state of) what is happening in college football, that’s when it becomes about the money.

“But that’s pretty much about players and all transfer portal players. They don’t get in there just because of the money. Most of them are leaving because they’re not playing where they are.

“A few get in the portal to see if they can make any money off (NIL). I mean, they stay where they are because they get maybe some money there.”

Dyer says college football seems unable “to govern itself” and has “appealed to the Congress and the White House to help them regulate themselves because they don’t have a structure that allows them to regulate themselves.

“And every time they’ve gone to court over athlete rights, they’ve lost. So you’ve got a liberalization of transfer rules, which in my opinion has been really good.”

Stay tuned for TV deals

It might not be easy but try to keep up with this alphabet-soup/by the numbers explanation of both conference expansion and what channels to watch your favorite teams in coming years.

Both the SEC and Big Ten are planning to expand by two teams in the next two years, and along with that expansion comes increased dollars and attention from their TV deals.

“In the United States, sports in general is attracting so much investment because there’s so much money going through it in television revenue, gate revenue. You can’t talk about the subject without talking about the Big Ten TV contract they just signed,” Dyer says. “But you’ve got Texas and Oklahoma going to the SEC, and then the Big Ten brought in USC and UCLA.”

And those big payouts will get even bigger once the College Football Playoffs expand from four to 12 teams. Final plans have yet to be worked out, but it is expected to happen by 2026.

Mathews says it’s all about “adding eyeballs” for conferences and networks.

“What all the networks and all the streaming services will tell you, what they look for – and this is the regular season – what they look for is games that they can put on that have at least 4 million viewers. That’s the regular season.,” Mathews says. “I don’t know what the playoffs would be but the numbers would certainly be significantly higher than that. But that’s what it’s going to go to.”

Mathews also points out a noteworthy distinction between who runs the college football and basketball championships.

“This is a pretty big deal that a lot of people don’t know – the NCAA has nothing to do with College Football Playoffs. All of that money goes to the conferences,” he says. “In the NCAA basketball tournament, all of the money goes to the NCAA, and they distribute. In football, including the bowl games, all that money goes through the conferences, and they distribute.

“And the college football playoffs are considered bowl games. So the NCAA gets zero money from the postseason football. They get all the money from basketball, baseball and the other sports. A lot of people don’t know that. That’s a huge distinction.”

So maybe it is all about the money.

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