August 10, 2022

It’s been almost a year since the NCAA gave college athletes the right to earn money from their own name, image or likeness, a move that supporters of the policy said would allow young sports stars to profit from the big bucks they help generate for their schools. Now, critics are warning of unintended consequences and even potential recruiting corruption, pointing to the growing number of private boosters brokering deals to entice top players to their alma mater.

So-called NIL deals have become so popular since the NCAA’s new policy was announced that the opportunity to cash in is now the main factor that promising young athletes consider when choosing a college, coaches and sports business experts told CBS MoneyWatch.

“What the public has to be aware of is that these NIL laws were created in the spirit of being beneficial to the players — and they are,” said Tim Derdenger, a sports marketing and branding expert at Carnegie Mellon University. “But teams are also utilizing them to make themselves better off, and they’re doing it by creating these booster entities that funnel NIL deals to these players.”

NIL deals happen when a company pays a college athlete to endorse or use their product or services. In most instances, players promote the business or product on their personal social media accounts. In return, the athlete is typically paid hundreds or thousands of dollars. 

In hopes of landing more NIL deals, many university boosters have consolidated their efforts and financial resources to form groups called “collectives.” Collectives effectively function as third parties that seek to pair high school and college athletes with companies that want to sponsor NIL deals. The collectives strike a deal with a company, then float the potential NIL partnership to a student athlete — if the player commits to attend a specific school. 

Collectives, and the wealthy individuals behind them, are willing to spend millions to land NIL deals for players in hopes they will lead a school to a championship — a financial bonanza for major sports such as football and basketball, CBS Sports has reported. 


Women’s college basketball players making more money in NIL deals than men’s players

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Yet a growing number of college officials and coaches are uneasy about the degree to which potential NIL dollars are influencing athletes’ higher education choices, said Todd Berry, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association in Texas. In theory, every school is supposed to have an equal chance at convincing a player to attend, and compete at, their institution. In practice, experts say the playing field is far from level and risks creating an environment where schools dangle NIL deals to “buy” players.

University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban last month accused rival Texas A&M University of exploiting the new rules to add players. 

“A&M bought every player on their team — made a deal for name, image and likeness,” Saban said. “We didn’t buy one player. 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.”

“The haves vs. the have-nots”

NIL has fundamentally changed the way college athletes select what school they’ll attend, Derdenger said. It’s no longer about getting a good education, playing for a great coach or living close to home. “Now, you go to the school that’s going to give you the best NIL deal,” he said. 

That could eventually lead to a system of “the haves and have-nots” in college athletics in which no more than a dozen or so top schools can deploy their booster collectives to arrange NIL sponsorships, Derdenger said. 

Schools that can’t offer lucrative NIL deals will have to offer different incentives to attract top players, said Hue Jackson, head football coach at Grambling State University in Louisiana. 

“The lesser teams are trying to find ways to play in this NIL world,” Jackson told CBS MoneyWatch. “As a coach, you want every avenue to have great things happen to them because otherwise you’ll have players say, ‘Why should I go here when I can get a better NIL deal here?'” 

For now NILs are mostly impacting college football recruitment, but they could eventually spread to college basketball and baseball, Derdenger said. 

How much can athletes make?

Only days after the NIL rules took effect last year, companies and college players began signing endorsement deals using apps like Air, MatchPoint and Opendorse. While some deals — like Ohio State quarterback Quinn Ewers’ $1.4 million deal with GT Sport — are highly lucrative, most are more modest three- or four-figure arrangements. Top college players earn an average of $664 per NIL deal, according to April data from Opendorse, a company that matches players with commercial sponsors. 

It’s unclear how many college players have scored NIL contracts through collectives, as no organization officially tracks those deals nationally. But CBS Sports reported there are an estimated 100 collectives in the U.S., suggesting that such groups are already playing a prominent role in arranging NILs.

Saban this week walked back his comments about Texas A&M, saying his words were intended to simply highlight how NIL deals are determining where players attend college. 

He and other coaches are concerned about the influence of NILs on recruitment because such deals threaten to weaken their own influence on where players matriculate, Berry said. Until recently, coaches could often sway an incoming student by offering a free, or at least affordable, college education.

“The academic side, that’s not being discussed at all,” Berry said. “The first question out of their mouth is ‘How much money am I going to get?'”

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