The NCAA & NIL $$

Ed O’Bannon, a former UCLA Bruins basketball player who led his team to a national championship in 1995, saw his college-era image on the cover of a video game, and got upset. Then he got a lawyer, eventually bringing an antitrust class action lawsuit against the NCAA which would change college sports forever. The suit was first brought to court in 2009, finally tried in 2014 as Ed O’Bannon v NCAA, with a verdict declaring that college players are entitled to own & sell their Name, Image & Likeness (NIL) rights for money. The NCAA appealed, and as this case bounced around higher courts, its ruling was amended in the process until it finally was appealed to the US Supreme Court, which denied to hear the case in October 2016.

It was a slow rollout for NIL rights in their inception. No one in the NCAA knew how to do this under these new legal guidelines. Finally, in July 2021, NIL rights became codified into NCAA bylaws, and universities could now allow their student athletes to be paid. NIL rights means endorsement money. Micheal Jordan was the first modern athlete who was highly charismatic & marketable in this sense. NIL deals go to players who can win, but also those who are marketable. Winning makes you marketable in sports. Having a famous father who was/is a great athlete helps even more.

Bronny James is the eldest son of NBA superstar LeBron James. Bronny James is a freshman at USC, averaging 5.0 pts, 2.8 rebs, 2.4 asst coming off the bench for the 6-12 Trojans. Yet, Bronny James NIL valuation is $6.1M, the highest in college athletics. “Will he go to the NBA?”, the pundits ask. My reply, “Why should he? He’s the six million dollar kid, paid though a corrupt system of glorified paternalism. As far as making money goes, it doesn’t get much easier than that. Stay in school, son.”

Of course this NIL money doesn’t disappear once the athlete goes pro. But in turn, it’s harder to win in the NFL & NBA, the competition is tougher & more skilled. It’s easier to win and be a star in the NCAA, so staying makes sense with the money involved. Case in point is Angel Reese, the LSU women’s basketball star in her junior year.

Angel Reese’s NIL valuation is $1.7M. She has at least 15-20 deals where she sells her NIL rights to a business that uses her for their commercials, advertising & marketing campaigns. This allows any university booster to directly pay an athlete through legal channels. It’s an advertising expense for the booster’s business, and it’s NIL money for the athlete. Slush funds for top recruits are no longer necessary.

The rookie salary for top WNBA draft picks is ~$70K/year. Angel Reese is considered a top WNBA draft pick, but why come out early after her junior year, when she’s winning at LSU and making NIL money that dwarfs her expected WNBA salary? Obviously there will be endorsements for her as a pro, but it’s easier guaranteed money if she stays.

NIL money incentivizes athletes to stay in college, so now we have 5th-year & even 6th-year seniors with NCAA eligibility. Iowa basketball star Caitlin Clark just announced she will forgo her 5th year of eligibility and declare for the WNBA draft. It wasn’t an easy choice for her.

A lot of the men’s athletes aren’t good enough for the NFL or NBA, but they can help their college team win, and that means NIL money for them. This is what the transfer portal is all about. Free agent college athletes looking for the best deals for themselves, at the expense of team & university. This has hurt college football & men’s basketball irreparably. There are very few college football & basketball programs anymore.

Here’s Tom Brady in The Athletic last November: “I actually think college players were better prepared when I came out than they are now. Just because so many coaches are changing programs, and I would say there’s not even a lot of college programs anymore. There’s a lot of college teams, but not programs that are developing players. So as they get delivered to the NFL, they may be athletic, but they don’t have much of the skills developed to be a professional. When I played at Michigan, I essentially played at a college program that was very similar to a pro environment. When I see these different players come in, they’re not quite as prepared as they were, and I think the game has shown that over the last 12 to 13 years. I think things have slipped a little bit.”

The blueblood, win-at-all-cost universities are all-in on paying athletes NIL money. Take a look at this list below, published less than 6 months ago, which gives the reader a good indication of which college teams are going to be good this year. These are the going rates for top players, and if your school isn’t paying, it likely isn’t winning.

Top 20 College Athletes With The Highest NIL Valuations
Published on September 15, 2023

Bronny James – $6.1M (LeBron’s eldest son) USC hoops freshman
Shedeur Sanders – $4.1M (Deion’s son) QB junior Colorado
Livvy Dunne – $3.2M gymnastics LSU junior
Arch Manning – $2.9M (Peyton’s son) Texas QB freshman
Caleb Williams – $2.6M junior USC QB
Travis Hunter – $1.8M soph Colorado CB
Evan Stewart – $1.7M Texas A&M soph WR
Angel Reese – $1.7M LSU junior hoops
Drake Maye – $1.5M QB UNC, redshirt soph
Bo Nix – $1.4M QB Oregon, QB senior
Marvin Harrison Jr. – $1.4M WR Ohio State junior
Michael Penix Jr. – $1.3M QB Washington senior
Bryce James – $1.2M (LeBron’s 2nd-eldest son) Committed to Duquesne University
Quinn Ewers – $1.2M QB Texas, redshirt soph
Hansel Emmanuel – $1.2M Austin Peay freshman hoops
Jordan Travis – $1.2M QB FSU redshirt senior
Nico Iamaleava – $1.1M QB Tennessee freshman
Jared McCain – $1.1M V Duke freshman hoops
Flau’jae Johnson – $1.1M LSU women’s hoops freshman
Blake Corum – $1.1M Michigan RB senior

NCAA cheating used to consist of boosters creating a slush fund to entice top recruits to attend their university. Suitcases of cash, money secretly wired into accounts, expensive cars, and other perks were funneled to players through the boosters using hidden means to evade NCAA enforcement & sanctions. Bluebloods are allowed to get away with an acceptable level of this because their programs have great traditions of winning which makes money for everyone involved. Pony Exce$$  (2010) is the ESPN ’30 for 30′ film that best examines this style of “old school” cheating in NCAA football.

ESPN’s ’30 for 30′ film series was perhaps the best thing that network has done in the 21st century. For those too young to remember, ESPN used to show regular sports, new sports (X-games, monster trucks, Asian kickboxing, etc), PLUS the highlights of all the MLB, NBA & NHL games. That was ESPN’s staple programming from its 1979 inception through 2000.

When ESPN started broadcasting Texas Hold Em poker in the early 2000’s, the network changed forever. Gambling & fantasy sports became mainstream, and thus football boomed, because the NFL is by far the highest-wagered sports book, with NCAA football second. This is when Stephen A Smith, Michael Wilbon, Chris Russo, etc, rose to prominence by screaming about sports on ESPN.

Classic ESPN at least had Bob Lea going Outside the Lines once in awhile, in an effort to educate sports fans. But when ESPN became Skip Bayless & Pat McAfee yacking everyday, all day, sports journalism became so degraded that it wasn’t taken seriously anymore by most sports fans. ESPN’s decline is a large reason why so many Americans have cut the cord. ESPN is a large part of your cable/satellite TV bill, whether you want it or not.

Sports are expensive. It costs a lot to broadcast & televise these games (NCAA & professional league), and that is reflected in the number of commercials you see during a game on TV. It is reflected in the salaries of the players in the professional leagues, the high cost of team merchandise, and now in the Name, Image & Likeness money available to college athletes.

Epilogue: What we have in college sports now is a few great individual performers and then a bunch of crap. Not only are coaches & players coming & going at will, but major conferences are falling apart. USC & UCLA are abandoning the Pac-12 to join the Big 10 in 2024, which will then have close to twenty teams from coast to coast. The travel & logistics of all this scream “DON’T DO IT”, but it’s about to happen and it’s all about money. The SEC is the power conference everyone else in the NCAA is chasing. The SEC is absorbing Texas & Oklahoma from the Big 12. Gee, I remember when Texas was in the Southwest Conference and Oklahoma was a Big 8 football powerhouse under Barry Switzer. Back then, coaches stayed at their schools forever and their teams were arguably better and certainly more entertaining to watch. It’s the big money that turns everything to crap.