In the 1980s, the Southern Methodist University football program had numerous schemes to illegally pay off recruits and players with cash, cars, apartments, and more. The scandal was so bad that the NCAA ultimately gave the team the so-called “death penalty,” which shut the program down for an entire year.
But, that was then. Today, every NCAA Division I school can refer recruits to a comparable payment program to tempt potential student athletes with name, image, and likeness (NIL) packages worth thousands, and even millions of dollars. In the 1980s, it was a booster-fueled, under-the-table slush fund. Now, the new economy of NILs is being driven by above-board “collectives” designed to pool NIL packages to woo recruits to play at a given school.
A collective is, as the name implies, is a collection of NIL opportunities big and small assembled as a recruiting tool for a specific school. At the University of Tennessee, the primary collective is run by an agency. Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, is helping fund and organize the collective at the University of Oregon. At the University of Texas, one of several Longhorn-supporting collectives has brazenly framed itself as a non-profit that pays players for their work to support community charities. Where dazzling scoreboards and glittering facilities were once used to impress recruits, today it’s money and perks in the form of NIL opportunities that serve as the newest recruiting super weapon. The race among Division I programs to assemble the most NIL money has already gotten so big that Todd Berry, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, said, “It is the wild, wild West. Did anyone expect anything different?”
It should be noted that, according to NCAA regulations, a school can not pay a player directly to attend or play for a school, nor can the school directly arrange any NIL deals. However, a school can refer a recruit or player to a collective to make the most of their NIL opportunities.
The goal of these NIL collectives is to assemble every NIL deal available to recruits in one place so that “packages” can be offered. Those packages might include endorsements, cars, apartments, free food, or free car washes. The bigger the recruit, the bigger the NIL package. It’s the new frontier of college recruiting and, according to a recent article in The Athletic, it will just keep getting bigger.
“There will be an NIL collective for every Power 5 school by the end of 2022,” said Blake Lawrence, CEO of Opendorse, which helps businesses, collectives and athletes team up for endorsement deals. “And the top collectives will spend $10 million per year on NIL.”
The NCAA is taking a hands-off approach on NIL collectives, but that could eventually change. However, while NIL deals have been allowed for less than a year, it could be a while for any regulations governing them to be adopted, as the NCAA appears to want to avoid any action that might lead it back into the courtroom. Ultimately, it may take bad actors stepping into the fray and athletes being exploited to see any changes in NIL governance. Until then, NILs are driving the new economy of recruiting, and every school’s collective budget will depend on how much their boosters are willing to pay for the best recruits.