The return of college football this weekend will look familiar — packed stadiums, marching bands, crazed fans and everyone, as usual, chasing preseason No. 1 Alabama.
But appearances in this case are misleading. An offseason of change has transformed a game that once marketed itself as a bastion of amateur sport into a booming, rapidly evolving enterprise in which it seems everyone — conferences, coaches and players — is scrambling to cash in.
This offseason was the first in NCAA history in which athletes were allowed to profit off their own names, images and likenesses, or NIL. Stars can now earn cash from endorsements, and some of the top players are already earning millions of dollars.
With the loosening of college transfer rules, players can hit the open market essentially whenever they want to shop for a better program — or for a better deal with more money. Meanwhile, conferences are making billions of dollars in television deals, and the recent realignment is just the beginning.
Let’s make a deal
The tiff between the two coaching stalwarts was as entertaining as it was shocking. So, what exactly caused Saban and Fisher to put on the gloves and go 12 rounds? NIL, of course.
“A&M bought every player on their team — made a deal for name, image, likeness,” Saban said of his rival during a business event in May. Fisher responded by calling his former Louisiana State boss a “narcissist.”
In the summer of 2021, a Supreme Court ruling prompted the NCAA to drop some restrictions on athletes earning compensation for their fame while competing — a landmark decision that upended college sports. The NCAA still prohibits players from being paid directly, meaning the money is coming from partnerships, not from schools.
“We can’t play forever, and we have to have something to fall back on. The ball stops bouncing at some point,” North Carolina women’s basketball player Deja Kelly, who has NIL deals with Dunkin’ and Outback Steakhouse, told The Associated Press.
The examples of NIL deals run the gamut from profitable to logical to downright hilarious. The surprise winner of NIL’s first year was Norfolk State running back Rayquan Smith, who has been dubbed the “King of NIL.” Smith, who is running track for a historically black college in 2022-23 instead of playing football, has inked more than 70 NIL deals, including partnerships with BodyArmor, Eastbay and Arby’s.
The most recent partnership to make headlines was from Hooters, which signed 51 college offensive linemen to NIL deals to promote its Buffalo wings.
This season, when a college football star scores a big touchdown, no longer is he just an amateur athlete who goes to classes on weekdays. He is also a pitchman for a company — whether it’s a corporation as large as United Airlines or a business as obscure as College Hunks Hauling Junk. Some of them, including Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud and new Maryland point guard Jahmir Young, even have received new rides in exchange for hyping local car dealerships.
“When I was coming up, the joke was when the star player drives up in the fancy car. And now, all of the star players are driving up in fancy cars,” former NFL running back Ricky Williams told Front Office Sports. “The biggest taboo in college sports is now becoming the norm.”
It’s not just NIL that’s rocking the boat. The new transfer portal rules combined with NIL are shifting power away from coaches, teams and colleges toward the athletes.
In April, the NCAA approved a one-time transfer rule that allows athletes to move to a different school once and play immediately, ending the policy that forced most players to sit out a season if they transferred. That change — in conjunction with the allowance of NIL deals — created the most hectic offseason in college sports history.
Nearly 2,700 Division I FBS college football players (or about 20 per team) entered the transfer portal during an eight-month period in 2021-22 — far outpacing the record set the previous year. In college basketball, the number of players to enter the portal was a whopping 1,500. Georgetown alone had eight players hit the portal and seven transfer in.
“I’m curious about the long-term effects to this on amateur sports,” Williams said. “I’m just afraid that with the transfer portal and the NIL deals that college sports has pretty much already become professional sports.”
All about the money
Top-flight college athletics — for all its reliance on amateur athletes — has always been a money-making operation. But before NIL, it was the coaches (and the suits, of course) who were raking in the big bucks — and not just recently.
In 1905, Harvard’s Bill Reid was paid $7,000 for his three months coaching the university’s football team, according to the 39th volume of Public Opinion published in November 1905. The pay rate — worth almost $1 million today when adjusted for inflation — was more than any professor at Harvard earned that year, and the school’s president.
“One of the worst things in the frenzied football competition is the hiring of graduate coaches, who are thus practically professionals, at ever-increasing salaries,” Arthur B. Reeve wrote in a Public Opinion article titled “Should Football Be Abolished?”
“Ever-increasing salaries,” it turned out, was an understatement.
The highest-paid public employee in most states is a Division I football or basketball coach. Saban is set to make $10.7 million this season, and LSU’s Brian Kelly and Ohio State’s Ryan Day will each make $9.5 million. The average Division I college football coach in 2020-21 made $2.7 million, according to USA Today.
“That’s what football coaches have turned into — [they’ve] turned into a business,” then-Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez told CBS in 1998, when the average financial package for a D-I football coach was $417,000.
A “business” college football has always been. The difference now is that some athletes are getting a cut.
“We have got to stop complaining,” Notre Dame basketball coach Mike Brey told reporters this year. “This is the world we’re in, and last time I checked, we make pretty good money. So everybody should shut up and adjust.”
Location, location, location
The feeling that college football is operating on tectonic plates isn’t going away anytime soon.
In just two years, USC and UCLA are scheduled to join the Big Ten — a seismic shift to the college sports landscape that became official in June. A year later, Texas and Oklahoma will join the SEC.
Gone will be the days of conferences representing regions with rivalries mostly tethered to geography — a key aspect of why college athletics became so popular in the first place. Soon, USC will have to travel 2,800 miles to New Jersey to play a football game against Rutgers because those two schools will share a conference.
The nationalization of college football — even if it seems weird — could allow the game to thrive and solidify it as the clear No. 2 sport in the U.S. behind the NFL.
“Maximizing its potential hinges on the consumption from a national market rather than a regional one,” college football analyst Joel Klatt said in July.
To the casual college football fan, the moves may seem trivial. What’s really the difference between going from the Pac-12 to the Big Ten? Or from the Big 12 to the SEC?
Less than two months after the USC-UCLA move, the Big Ten signed a seven-year, $7 billion TV rights deal with Fox, CBS and NBC. The $1 billion per year beginning in 2023-24 is more than the Pac-12, Big 12 and ACC will make combined. Each Big Ten school is expected to receive an annual payout of $100 million just from the TV deal starting in 2025.
“Two conferences, the SEC and the Big Ten, because they have the biggest TV power, have really pushed the rest of college football aside,” The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman said this summer. “It makes a lot of sense because it’s going to make a lot of money.”
After the USC-UCLA move to the Big Ten was announced, Maryland coach Mike Locksley — who soon will have to prepare for West Coast trips to visit USC and UCLA — said at the Terrapins’ media day that the decision to allow the California schools to join the conference was a “great counter” to the SEC’s choice to welcome Texas and Oklahoma. That fact — that the Big Ten’s move was a response to the SEC’s — is why many have predicted these shifts are just the beginning. Oregon and the Big Ten are reportedly flirting, and Clemson and Florida State are rumored to be negotiating with the SEC.
Meanwhile, the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 are doing their best to remain relevant. The damage already could be done, and the Power 5 conferences might at some point be whittled down to a Power 3 with about 20 teams in each.
Some are concerned that these major changes could hurt the long-term health of the sport.
“We need to be really concerned about fan interest,” Saban told Fox Sports’ Colin Cowherd when asked how larger conferences will affect the college football schedule. “As soon as, in any sport, people quit coming to games, that’s the first bad thing we should all be concerned about, because eventually that will have a huge impact on the sport.”
• George Gerbo contributed to this report.
• Jacob Calvin Meyer can be reached at email@example.com.
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