University of Alabama Head Football Coach Nick Saban, who already has seven national titles and is favored by many to win another this year, is widely considered the greatest college coach in history. So, when the successful if prickly coach gets something off his chest, people listen.
In May, Saban took a direct jab at rival Texas A&M – one of the only teams to beat the Crimson Tide in 2021 – decrying the school’s strategy of luring players through name, image and likeness (NIL) deals.
“I know the consequence is going to be difficult for the people who are spending tons of money to get players,” he said. “You read about it; you know who they are. We were second in recruiting last year. A&M was first. A&M bought every player on their team. Made a deal for name, image and likeness. We didn’t buy one player. A’ight? But I don’t know if we’re going to be able to sustain that in the future, because more and more people are doing it. It’s tough.”
The comment came off like crocodile tears for Saban, given his team’s dominance and his suggestion that ‘Bama suffers a disadvantage, the same cash-strapped institution with which he inked a new 8-year deal recently at a cool $11.7 million per. But it was good off-season theater, especially after an unsurprisingly pointed response from A&M coach Jimbo Fisher, after which Saban did some spin control.
“Believe me, I’m all for players making as much as they can make,” Saban said two weeks later. “But I also think we’ve got to have some uniform, transparent way to do that.”
Saban’s attempted walk-back did little to dilute his point: As much as facilities, recruiting and, yes, even coaching, NIL is the new secret weapon throughout college sports. NIL, the guidelines that relaxed almost all of the NCAA’s long-held rules against college athletes seeking commercial deals, has so revolutionized how college sports operate, it’s easy to forget it has only been in place for one year.
According to estimates by opendorse.com, college athletes earned about $917 million last year, and 2022 will all-but-assuredly see these collective earnings pushed over the $1 billion mark. Football accounted for half of the total dollars, but the marketplace is surprisingly diverse, with almost 8 out of 10 athletes receiving at least one deal.
That rate of growth has resulted in all sorts of mechanisms for connecting athletes to brands, things that would have been unthinkable just a couple of years ago. Sports Illustrated reported in June 2022, that scheduled alongside of the College Football Hall of Fame ceremonies was the inaugural NIL Summit, recognizing current athletes for their marketability.
And NIL has also enabled the formation of collectives, which are stand-alone organizations that exist solely to raise funds from business and booster alike, to be distributed directly to a particular school’s athletes, as well as advise players on how to monetize themselves, maximizing their exposure, sharpen their social media game and generally professionalize the process.
Critics claim collectives – which support, but are independent of a given school – give more leverage than ever to name-brand schools in attracting prized talent, even within conferences, as the Saban-Fisher hissy fit illustrates.
It’s also created situations that border on the comical. The University of Tennessee benefits from the Volunteer Club, which distributed about $4 million to 130 UT athletes last year, per Sports Illustrated. Marketing agency Spyre Sports Group, which also manages the Volunteer Club, jetted starting quarterback Hendon Hooker and wideout Cedric Tillman to New York for meetings and wine-and-dines with national brands on a full-blown media and marketing tour. That Madison Avenue junket took place just days after the NCAA formally accused the Vols of recruiting violations that allege former coaches doled out meals, transportation and cash.
Many sports fans agree with the NIL in principle, rightfully pointing to decades of universities getting fat on television contracts, licensed gear and even the likeness of players who did the work. But the amount of money circulating, and the perceived land-grab loopholes that exist, are also leaving a bad taste in certain segments of the fan base. Perhaps the most infamous: $1.4 million to University of Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers to skip his senior season of high school and enroll early at Ohio State, where he redshirted before transferring to the Longhorns this season. (In a tidy bit of karma, Ewers was named the Longhorns’ starter, which in Week 2, bought him a dance with none other than Saban’s Crimson Tide.)
Examples such as these aside, most NIL deals provide little more than walking-around money for most athletes, especially outside of headliner sports. Businessofcollegesports.com reported the average value of NIL transactions across all athletes in all classifications was a little more than $1,800 while the average value of deals in Power 5 schools was just over $2,100.
This low entry point has opened up opportunities for local and regional business entities to leverage local athletes to promote their organizations. Last July, the Conway Convention & Visitors Bureau became the first public entity in the nation to sign an NIL deal, enlisting 30 University of Central Arkansas athletes across men’s and women’s sports to promote the city.
“Our philosophy was always that NCAA athletes have valuable stories,” said Jamie Gates, executive vice president for the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce and Conway Development Corporation. “What we know, being a college town, is that their stories are often really incredible, and they are attractive spokespeople because of who they are and what they do and what they’ve done. We thought, we don’t have big-budget athletics and big names, but that doesn’t mean that our athletes are any less compelling than anyone else’s.”
Athletes who were selected for the deal were used in marketing and advertising efforts by the CVB, and received between $500 and $2,000 compensation. The athletes also received invaluable training through Conway entrepreneur incubator The Conductor, educating them on how to approach themselves as a business.
“We wanted to help athletes really look beyond their athletic careers only,” said Jeff Amerine, Conductor managing director. “We called it the 4+40. We said, ‘You’ve got four years to make a difference in your chosen sport. You’ve got 40 years to make a difference in the world.’ That’s kind of the way we approached it.”
Amerine assembled a team of professionals for the training, which included matters of finance, marketing, agent representation and assigning a mentorship. The athletes also attended a pitch night by which they promoted themselves to local businesses.
Gates said the UCA students weren’t the only ones who learned a lot in Year One of the deal, which has been reupped for 2022-2023.
“We do not have everything figured out, and this year probably won’t look like last year for us because we are still learning how to take advantage of this program,” he said. “When you have college students, you’re going to have high turnover because you won’t have a 10-year relationship with someone in a spokesperson role. We have to figure out what that looks like, repeating year after year.”
Another unique program with Arkansas roots is the 4th and 25 Fund, a new 501(c)(3) organization supporting local families and communities in Arkansas. Launched by Little Rock native Keith Grayson, the fund links athletes a fundraising mechanism to support the causes closest to them and a platform to promote those causes and the fund itself.
“We want to help a collection of people in Arkansas, and we want to raise money for different charitable organizations and different ways to give back,” said Grayson, who now lives in Arizona. “We use student athletes at University of Arkansas to help promote that on social media.”
Thus far, Razorback wide receiver Trey Knox and linebacker Chris “Pooh” Paul Jr. have signed with 4th and 25 Fund: Knox to promote animal adoption and Paul to champion Lyft ride credits for people without transportation to get to work or get medical attention.
“I could not make a dime, but I would be rich in my heart just knowing that I help others,” Paul told Hogville.net.
Grayson wants to see both the fund (425fund.org) and its roster of athletes grow in order to help more people, but said he is content to do it incrementally as part of a wider movement.
“There are 400 scholarship athletes attending the University of Arkansas right now,” he said. “I think that we need to have something in some capacity that introduces them to community engagement. They’re getting that, but I think we can help with that.
“There are other programs like ours that are popping up and everything helps. There’s a private fund that helps more from the mentoring aspect, where they’re working one-on-one with somebody, and then there’s everything the University of Arkansas is doing in this area. We’re not in competition with one another. I think given that society is so monetarily driven these days, bringing everyone to work together toward a charitable cause is nothing but positive.”