Starting Thursday, college athletes will gain a measure of economic freedom by being allowed to profit off their name, image and likeness. Essentially, they can work for, promote or endorse specific businesses while playing sports.
It might be signing autographs at a local car dealership. It might be promoting a local (or national) business on social media. It might be appearing on a billboard for a booster’s company even if it makes little financial sense for the booster other than as a way to support his or her favorite team.
This has petrified the NCAA and its supposed free-market, pro-competition old-school coaches for decades as they’ve fought in courts and legislative bodies. Supposedly this will cause top talent to congregate at a few wealthy schools that are willing to spend the most.
Nothing turns a capitalist into a regulatory-mad socialist quicker than college football recruiting.
In reality, the impact on talent dispersion will be fairly minimal and it will help rather than hurt the competitive balance of college sports — especially football, which is the operation that essentially funds everything.
The addition of above-the-table payments to the list of considerations of what school a top player will sign with — or continue playing for — should help spread talent out to more schools and more conferences.
Start with this: It can’t get much worse.
Over the past 10 years, Alabama has signed the Rivals.com No. 1 recruiting class seven times. Georgia got the other three. Ohio State has gone top five eight times. The Buckeyes, Clemson and Oklahoma have dominated their respective conferences. Those three, plus Alabama, have combined for 20 of the 28 slots ever handed out in the College Football Playoff.
The gap between the elite teams and everyone else is enormous. When Alabama played Notre Dame in the national semifinals last season, the Tide roster featured 22 Rivals.com 5-star recruits. The Irish had two. Not surprisingly, Alabama cruised to a 31-14 victory.
“It’s impossible for the competitive balance to get worse,” said Andy Schwarz, a leading sports economist and chief innovation officer for the Professional Collegiate League. “The current amateurism model is in no way inducing competitive balance and it certainly isn’t encouraging it.”
Each recruit has a unique set of priorities when choosing where to play: proximity to home, quality of coaching, chance for team success, level of competition, preparation for the professional ranks, academic reputation of the school, religious affiliation, campus life and so on.
It can go down to the ridiculous — say, school colors, helmet logos or who knows what else.
It’s why schools have spent frivolously on things like decorative waterfalls and mini golf courses in the football facility, unnecessarily opulent weight rooms or even bacchanal campus visits to lure players. They’ve also, over the century plus of major college athletics, so routinely offered under-the-table inducements that an entire industry of compliance and defense against the rule book was created.
Essentially, money talks. It cannot just be an addition to the considerations on where to play, it'll leap toward the top of many recruits' lists.
It's why cries of how this will create a Wild West of recruiting should be mocked. How much wilder can it get than escort scandals, relentless remodeling of facilities and the FBI wiretapping the phones of assistant basketball coaches?
Having the potential earnings derived from name, image and likeness become a factor in recruiting brings new elements to the decision equation — namely playing time, the chance at stardom and the fervency and size of a school’s market.
Schwarz argues that amateurism undervalues talent. A player won’t necessarily lose much by sitting on the bench for a few years, or by being the final member of Alabama’s recruiting class rather than the star of, say, Mississippi State’s.
“If you undervalue something, it is easy to hoard it because it’s cheaper,” Schwarz said.
Star players will now find their value. Being a benchwarmer decreases earning potential. While many players will still gladly wait their turn, some won’t. NIL will change recruiting at the margins.
Right now, a power program such as Ohio State will almost always defeat a mid-level Big Ten program such as Michigan State in recruiting. For the sake of argument, let’s say the Buckeyes would get nine of the 10 top-choice recruits they want against the Spartans and even seven of 10 of the second-tier recruits that fill out a recruiting class and add valuable depth.
Michigan State isn’t Ohio State, but it isn’t without extensive value. It has a huge alumni network, operates in a big state with lots of media markets and has numerous billionaire boosters with plenty of cash to burn.
The chance to be the crown jewel of the Michigan State recruiting class (rather than another top recruit at OSU) and/or get on the field sooner and cash in on some of that money might drop the Buckeyes' recruiting victory percentage over the Spartans to eight out of 10 of the first-choice recruits and six out of 10 depth guys. Maybe more. We’ll see.
“NIL makes it harder for Ohio State to win all those battles,” Schwarz said.
Does that immediately flip the pecking order of the Big Ten? Or course not. Again, this is just one factor, not the only one. Ohio State still has lots to offer. But extrapolate one or two or three more recruiting victories at MSU against Ohio State to the same thing happening at Penn State, Michigan, Wisconsin and the gap between the Buckeyes and the rest of the league is diminished.
The game is more competitive. Upsets become more frequent.
Schools such as Nebraska, which has a huge and passionate fan base built for NIL, will have another tool to overcome some unavoidable challenges — little local talent, weather, etc. The starting quarterback for the Cornhuskers is the biggest athletic star in the entire state, after all. Will he suddenly have a car deal? Maybe. But so what? So do the coaches.
Even so-called mid-major programs can follow that plan. Places such as Boise State or Fresno State are big deals in smaller (but not tiny) communities, allowing them to offer something to recruits that might supersede conference affiliation. The lines will blur.
“It will almost certainly be more profitable for some players to be the big fish in a smaller pond,” Schwarz said. “It’s weighing a risky move [will I become a starter?] at a high-value market [power team] against a certain move [I’m expected to start] at a lower-value market [a less traditionally successful team or smaller conference]."
As we've seen with free agency at the professional level, the chance to win is a big draw, but the chance to maximize earnings often trumps it.
“Do I want to take my chances at playing at Clemson or become the star at South Carolina?” Schwarz continued.
Essentially, every school has money. Every school has boosters and businesses seeking to access star players. While critics want to worry fans that Alabama has unlimited resources, it doesn’t.
In fact, even a place such as, say, Illinois (bigger school, wealthier state, a huge city nearby) could actually have more. Who knows?
Either way, football is going to get played. Someone will win and someone will lose. NIL is just one factor in each player’s decision. Here in an era when Alabama has won six of the past dozen national titles, how can it get more lopsided?
There is little college coaches and administrators like more than arguing against change — both by trying to regulate and legislate every last detail and warning that everything is an existential threat to the sport.
Those dire predictions rarely, if ever, pan out.
This one won’t either. Welcome to the NIL era. R-E-L-A-X. It’s going to be a good thing.
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