The financial engine driving college sports: Doug Glanville on the evolving NIL landscape
On September’s month’s episode of “Class is in Session”, Doug Glanville discusses the impact of the new NIL rules in college athletics, sitting down with University of Arkansas linebacker Grant Morgan, former Chicago Bear Chris Martin and NIL consultant Michelle Meyer. In this essay, Doug Glanville previews the upcoming class discussion and breaks down how NIL is reshaping the college athletics landscape. To watch the full episode, click here.
Name, image and likeness opportunities, otherwise known as NIL, are the new way college athletes have been able to make money while still retaining eligibility. Until a few pioneering states decided to limit the powers the NCAA had over these athletes with respect to controlling their own names and images, there were virtually no avenues for college athletes to benefit financially.
There has been a long-standing debate about whether college athletes should be paid, often reaching a stalemate over the idealism of “amateurism” and a concern for inequities, but there has been no dispute over the billions of dollars that are part of the financial engine that makes up college sports.
NIL policy changes open up a new market that allows athletes to negotiate deals for money or for product, often leveraged by their social media footprint, the star power of their affiliated athletic program, as well as personal performance.
It is surely a benefit when athletes are in high-profile college conferences on high-powered teams that regularly appear on national television. Winning certainly helps and the larger the program, and its successes, the bigger the audience, which is an attractive baseline for an athlete looking to monetize their brand.
Although NIL is for the athlete’s name, image and likeness, it also gives schools the power to offer incentives that they could not before as they position themselves to be able to tout the potential financial advantages of playing for their program. College’s business relationships can become a driver in making their university more magnetic to an athlete that is trying to build economic opportunity in a like-minded environment.
On episode three of Class is in Session, we discussed this dynamic with academics and sports history experts from Arizona State University and one of the original endorsement deal kings, Sonny Vaccaro, who was central to what became known as the sneaker wars, a series of battles fought at the corporate, NCAA, and university level, where the players were not beneficiaries except for a new pair of sneakers and an expanding scholarship marketplace.
The sneaker wars not only changed the shoe business and sports marketing, they also increased the viability of certain sports, particularly basketball, as the money flowed in and the reach and revenue expanded. Yet throughout all of these years of expansion, the athletes remained just parts in the financial machine that anchored college sports.
NIL does not necessary address the elephant in the room, which is the concern that the college system still is not engaging in any direct compensation system for these athletes. NIL rather privatizes that equation by allowing the business sector direct access to these athletes, without the NCAA or the university standing as a go-between.
If the goal is to have the universities and NCAA acknowledge how much money they make from these athletes and allow them to share in that windfall, NIL just shields us from that conversation, at least for now, as colleges and universities race to create their own paths toward securing greater connections with the deep pockets. In the meantime, we will have to wait and see if any money gets diverted from the NCAA and colleges to the players, or if there is just more money to fill the pool than was even understood.
For now, it is a trial run and many deals are being made. In our newest episode of Class is in Session, premiering September 29, we revisit the NIL discussion following the implementation of several policy changes this summer. In this episode, we learn from Grant Morgan, a University of Arkansas linebacker that has already been able to secure more than 15 NIL deals ranging from payments to products.
Many of these agreements are with local businesses around the market of the university, serving as a relationship-builder between player and community. This could be a building block for life after the game, whether by maintaining those connections for when a college career comes to a close or by learning how to represent oneself for future work in business, as there seems to be a significant parallel education occurring with these athletes that are learning how to value their work and image.
Time will also reveal more about equity and whether this new order maintains a rich get richer system or if the NIL will bring more athletes into the financial fold. Not every player will get an NIL deal, and if they do, they will not be on par with the star in every locker room. This internal disparity will be something to manage, not unlike a professional clubhouse that can struggle through contract negotiations and a sharp awareness for how everyone is being valued.
We will also learn more about the world of agency representation as the markets open up for these athletes to be professionally managed. It appears many resources are also popping up to help understand NIL, including allies at the various universities who recognize eligibility can be on the line if players do not know the rules of engagement, thus protecting themselves and the player.
In the meantime, NIL is a fledging system with new changes that have been a long time coming. There will be bumps in the road, and concerns about how equitable it will be for sports that do not command the big payday. As a result, we should expect a constant evolution, but in the meantime, at least these athletes, who for decades have underwritten colleges and the NCAA, are finally getting a taste of what they are worth.