Leigh Steinberg, the longtime agent, likened Thursday’s mad scramble for endorsement deals by college athletes to the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889.
“There were wagons that had carefully plotted the land they were looking for, that had been prospecting ahead of time and had calculated how to get the best speed off the mark to get to the land first,’’ Steinberg said in a phone interview.
It was one of the most astonishing days in the annals of college sports, as the Name, Image and Likeness era was unleashed — and it was clear that the territory had been well-plotted in advance. Many athletes were ready to announce their endorsement deals at 12:01 a.m., striving to be the first to make history (we’ll call it a multi-way tie).
Throughout the day there was a nonstop torrent of revelations of apparel deals, branding agreements, video game endorsements and the like. It was men and women, representing both high-revenue and Olympic sports, and hailing from the full gamut of schools, ranging from traditional powerhouses to the smaller and less prominent.
There is absolutely no doubt that the NCAA’s decision to capitulate on NIL — which came only after conceding this was a battle it had lost in every arena, including the courts — is going to radically change the very fabric of college sports. This is truly a revolution, folks.
It’s going to be eye-opening. At times, it’s going to be shocking. It’s definitely going to be messy, and boundaries are going to be pushed — and crossed. Enforcement is going to be difficult, if not impossible.
But contrary to the scare tactics that the NCAA has used for decades to insist that the end of amateurism would be the death knell of college sports, it’s going to ultimately be a good thing. For everyone. Certainly not the “existential threat” to college athletics that NCAA president Mark Emmert predicted of NIL in 2019.
It will be good for players, obviously. No longer will they be exploited for their labor while coaches reap millions and the NCAA brings in billions off their talent. The quaint notion that a scholarship is compensation enough can finally be put to rest. That’s valuable, of course, but there’s no reason that athletes shouldn’t have the opportunity to earn money off their popularity.
Will there be disparity in the earning power of, say, an Alabama quarterback and a mid-major cross country runner? Of course. But as Steinberg points out, that’s the nature of sports at all levels — stars tend to draw the most attention and reap the most benefits. Any athletes who are effective in building their brand (a phrase that is suddenly on everyone’s lips) through ingenuity, savviness, humor, a unique backstory, aesthetic appeal or simply their transcendent talent have the potential to thrive and potentially prosper.
“The currency in today’s marketing is how many followers does someone have on Twitter, or Instagram, or Snapchat?” Steinberg said. “And so I think you’ll see athletes branding themselves. The ones branding themselves in dynamic ways, because the internet has become an information center, can establish a vibrant presence.”
Here’s a bonus: The new NIL culture might actually induce players to stay in school rather than leave early to chase the lure of professional dollars. If they’re making decent money in college, as the top players stand to do, they might decide that it’s worth sticking around to get that diploma.
How much will players make? That’s the big question, and no one really knows. It will sort itself out over time. It might not be the windfall that some are expecting, but Steinberg, who has represented dozens of NFL stars over the years, including current client Patrick Mahomes, predicts that collegiate superstars have the potential to clean up.
“Think back to Johnny Manziel or Jameis Winston,’’ he said. “The most marketable stars have the potential to rival pro stars.”
That list of highly marketable collegiate superstars includes women, too. LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne, with 3.9 million TikTok followers and 1.1 million Instagram followers, is widely predicted to be the first college athlete to garner millionaire status under the new rules. And twins Haley and Hanna Cavinder, basketball players from Fresno State who also have a huge following on social media, announced deals with Boost Mobile and Six Star Pro Nutrition on Thursday.
The NIL era will be good for female athletes, who in most cases don’t have the opportunity to make huge sums at the professional level that is available to men of similar accomplishment. Someone like a Sis Bates, a superstar on the UW softball team, would no doubt have been able to leverage her popularity into local endorsements. Now top players like her have a shot to do just that, or make money via other avenues now available, such as hosting camps, private lessons, speaking engagements or even recording personalized greetings on Cameo.
It will be good for college programs, too, despite the talking point that this will allow football powerhouses like Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma to lure all the best players because of the passion of their fan base and alumni. They will become dominant, the argument goes.
Hello? The fact is they are already dominant, getting the bulk of the five-star recruits and having top-rated classes year after year. Those four schools have earned 20 of the 28 spots in the College Football Playoffs. How much more dominant can they get?
If anything, NIL will help level the playing field — and that would make it a good thing for fans, too. After all, those aren’t the only schools with passionate fan bases and well-heeled alumni. You don’t think that schools located in places like Lincoln, Nebraska, or Manhattan, Kansas — or Pullman, Washington — where a star athlete can be a huge fish in a small pond, won’t lure some top prospects if they figure out a way to maximize their NIL potential?
The smart colleges — including Washington — are embracing this with every ounce of power in their arsenal. Because they recognize that it is an equalizer in the constant battle with the superpowers. And it could be a separator if you get the reputation as a place where NIL opportunities abound. The Huskies are playing up their presence in one of the tech capitals of the country, and their ability to use UW’s top-notch business school to teach you how to play the NIL game.
Oh, it will be unwieldy for a while. There is a danger that athletes will be exploited by unscrupulous agents or companies. They need to learn the tax ramifications. They could get distracted from excelling at the sport that’s earning them the money in the first place. It’s going to be hard, if not impossible, to enforce violations, and to keep this from crossing the line into pay-for-play or quid-pro-quo inducements (compensation for work not performed).
That sounds scandalous, but college has been beset with scandals centered on getting money to players for decades. At least now it’s above board. Like it or not, all these lines are going to keep getting blurred. The Supreme Court made it clear in its recent Alston decision that any attempts to limit the earning power of athletes is liable to be struck down.
For now, it’s the Wild, Wild West. It’s 50,000 people lined up to find their piece of 2 million acres of land in Oklahoma.
It’s going to be crazy, and it’s going to be unsettling. It might be hard at first to undo a lifetime of indoctrination about the sanctity of amateurism in college. But an existential threat? I suspect that in a couple of years, when everyone gets a handle on all this, we’ll wonder why it took so long.