College football goes full-pro through NIL

Name Image Likeness (NIL) reforms have opened up a gusher of cash for formerly “amateur” college football athletes.

With little debate or notice, top-level college football has gone fully professional.

A series of incremental reforms through court orders and changes in state laws have opened the way for college athletes to be paid, not directly for their play on the field, but for endorsements, advertising and the like.

What started out as a trickle of money for top stars to, say, appear in a local car dealer TV commercial, has ballooned into a big business brokered by the universities themselves.

Of course, not all players are making big bucks. However, this lengthy and detailed report from Sports Illustrated (SI) in May 2023 (with the provocative headline “We’re All Money Laundering”) suggests that even down-roster average players, with no name recognition, are getting paid through the new system. SI quotes an NIL executive about compensation for players at top college programs,

The average compensation for a Power 5 football player from [an NIL] collective ranges widely, usually around $10,000 to $50,000 annually, but “about five players per roster are making more than $100,000 on average,” he says.

Of course, this would be in addition to the value of any scholarship they receive from the University as a “student-athlete.”

The Eagle, the local newspaper which covers College Station, Texas, and surrounding areas, has an interesting article about Texas A&M’s NIL operation. The Eagle submitted a data request to the public university and received the following results,

Last year [2021], male Aggie athletes earned $4,076,931.82. In the first year [of NIL], football players alone made $3,367,517.52, according to the initial open records request.

Assuming 85 scholarship athletes on the A&M football roster, that works out to an almost $40,000 per player average in NIL money. But that was just the first year, The Eagle reports for 2022,

A&M’s male athletes also more than doubled their revenue, bringing in $8,412,816.96.

A itemized breakdown by sport was not provided by the university for the second year of NIL compensation, even though the exact same open records request was filed for both years.

The unitemized second-year figure suggest that college football can be more lucrative than minor league football for players.

The minor-league XFL pays its active-roster players an average of $60,000 per season, with the competing USFL offering a similar amount per player.

Now, Texas A&M may be an outlier. Last week, the Dallas Morning News reported that A&M ranked second only to Oregon in terms of booster support, with Texas at Austin ranking third, nationally. Reportedly, A&M uses its official nonprofit 12th Man Foundation to support athletes through NIL. The foundation makes this pitch to prospective donors,

Currently enrolled student-athletes who engage with the 12th Man Foundation for NIL opportunities will receive fair market value compensation to promote the organization’s mission through marketing services such as social media posts, appearances at events and speaking engagements.

12th Man adds regarding the legally separate “+ Fund”,

12th Man+ donations are tax-deductible and earn a variety of 12th Man Foundation benefits including priority points and exclusive NIL content. 

Players would not be compensated directly by the university or the team, but by a separate nonprofit organization.

Back in June, Sports Illustrated reported that the NCAA sent warning letters to A&M and other schools. SI reports,

The NCAA pointed out that NIL wasn’t intended to be used as a “pay for play.” And every state has different laws that dictate its use.

In Texas, for example, [SI reporter Ross] Dellenger reports that “Texas A&M donors will earn priority points through the school’s fundraising arm for donations that eventually funnel to athletes.”

Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork recently responded to the NCAA’s NIL guidelines by saying, “The state law is going to govern how we do business… In terms of this, the state law will reign. And that’s how we’ll move forward.”

Sports Illustrated previously reported that not all states have laws as permissive as the one in Texas. Florida, for example, prohibits such actions by its public universities. SI writes,

If the University of Florida carried out those actions, it would be in violation of NCAA rule and its own state law. The same can be said for a handful of other SEC schools in Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee.

College football seems to be in a bidding war for top talent. Media reports have top college quarterbacks signing deals directly with advertisers valued at millions of dollars. It should be noted that athletes in other sports, female athletes, and even high school stars are getting cash through NIL.

But the university-led NIL programs seem to be of a different character. A&M’s wholesale approach to NIL allowed the school to attract the top-recruiting class in football last year, ranking ahead of perennial national powers in the sport.

No doubt, the sport’s top stars create value for their team and should be compensated. Even bench players contribute to the result and should see something for the effort. College football has long been big business, generating billions of dollars and, previously, only the coaches were able to cash in as individuals.

But it’s worth noting that of the current top 25 teams, 22 represent public universities (the exceptions being Notre Dame, Duke, and Tulane). Let’s face it, no minor league professional team based in Athens, Georgia, to take one example, would attract more than a handful of fans.

As it happens, top programs attract huge crowds, and huge ratings, in part because they trade on the brand name of the host school. That university has been subsidized by state and Federal taxpayers and the stadiums themselves were usually built with taxpayer money.

But we live in a world where media rights have resulted in the death of a century-old conference (the PAC-12).

All of that is forgotten on a Saturday afternoon when your alma mater is up by a touchdown with only minutes left on the clock.