There’s a distinctive smell to college football. While we speak of sights and sounds — tailgate barbecues, marching bands playing fight songs, the clash of shoulder pads, the roar of a student section pounding the bleachers under the lights — the smells are even more visceral. It starts with fresh-cut grass on crisp autumn air, clean like an unblemished record or a new semester. But later, if you’re close enough to the sidelines, you can feel it turning acrid and metallic, laced with blood and sweat as the players grind toward victory or defeat.

That’s not how it smells today, as hundreds of administrators, sports agents and student-athletes descend on the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta. In cavernous halls and virtual displays, the sprawling complex showcases the game’s greatest competitors and the moments that defined them and celebrates the broader tapestry of this most American tradition. But this gathering is not about the pageantry of the old ways. Rather, they’ve come to chase a piece of the future, a suddenly wide-open field of opportunities to profit from the renown of these young stars. Here, it smells like any conference center in corporate America.

In a large atrium, powerful sports agents take turns offering advice that just two years ago might have launched a scandal. “How many of you have reached out to a brand on direct message and set up a relationship?” one asks. “Do that. Everyone should be doing that.” Act quickly, another one argues. “College is short, not a lot of years. Think of it as a platform to expand your opportunity.” A crowd of student-athletes, seated at round tables, nod. Some take notes, with no fear that the meeting could tarnish their amateur status.

The first-ever NIL Summit — a forum for college athletes to learn how to leverage their personal brands into corporate partnerships and cash — feels like the center of a new gold rush. Short for “name, image and likeness,” NIL refers to an athlete’s right to profit from their representation on a billboard or a T-shirt, in a TV commercial or a video game. A wave of falling legal dominoes climaxed in June of 2021, when the Supreme Court ended the NCAA’s antitrust exemption and a bevy of new state laws opened the gates. Making money while playing a college sport has gone from taboo to totally cool — basically overnight. As corporate and licensing attorney Matt Reece says, “it’s a brand-new market.”

Some fear the NIL market will hurt amateur sports. Several name-brand football coaches have expressed concern that blue-chip recruits will simply go to the highest bidder, or the one backed by the most generous car dealership, or that their competitors may take undue liberties in the process. Commissioners from the Pac-12 and SEC have met with members of Congress, and the University of Arizona athletic director has said that NIL could “erode our overall Olympic programs or we’d have to be completely restructured.” Old-school fans fret that this new cash flow — part of a series of major structural changes, like conference consolidation and the transfer window — could upend the traditional kinship they’ve felt with players and make it even more difficult for smaller programs to compete nationally. 

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But NIL is, essentially, a business proposition. Many players have already struck lucrative deals with brands — some in the six and seven figures. After the session, Jason Ranne hustles out to the street to catch an Uber to the airport. He’s a high-ranking executive at Wasserman — a leading talent agency. Wasserman’s logo is on the summit brochure. I ask him how much hesitation the student-athletes are showing in this new world. “Zero,” he says. “The stigma from making money is not there with these athletes.” 

Jim Cavale has tried to pull off this event before. In 2019, the CEO of INFLCR — a company dedicated to athlete brand-building — reached out to schools nationwide, inviting them to gather in Studio J of the TNT studios here in Atlanta. “Only administrators showed up,” Cavale says, “because all the schools said bringing athletes would be an improper gift.” This time, he’s pulled in 300 student-athletes. And some have eye-popping stories. Leah Clapper, a gymnast at the University of Florida, says she’s “lost count” of how many NIL deals she’s done. She even invented a gymnastics board game and sold hundreds of copies. “Seeing what has happened in just under 12 months is absolutely incredible,” she says.

It’s easy to freak out about the end of college sports as we know it, but it’s much harder to figure out which forces are causing which changes.

This year’s summit has wooed some big corporate names: Meta, Invesco and even the WWE. Meta hands out a flyer titled “Athlete Well-Being Tools on Instagram.” Legendary pro wrestler Triple H (with his 7.6 million Twitter followers) gives a speech and introduces a “Next In Line” class that includes a volleyball player from the University of Miami, a football player from Michigan State, a cheerleader from Ole Miss and a couple of wrestlers. “All of those companies had a common problem,” Cavale says. “None of them could get a direct line to the athletes. And NIL has broken that. The middleman has been cut out.”

The “middlemen” at the universities are still there, but they’ve done a remarkable about-face. Rather than watchdogs, a lot of officials in athletic departments are now facilitators. At the summit, Jeff Rudy, the associate athletic director for football at the University of Utah, is positively buoyant. “We want to learn how to better support the student-athletes in their opportunities for NIL in the future,” he says. “NIL gets a bad name sometimes, but we see it with our roles as helping the student-athletes and educating them.”

Continuing, he explains that the two forbidden categories are “inducements” — come to this school and we will pay you — and “pay to play” — throw three touchdowns and you get a bag of money. Rules vary from state to state, but the bottom line is this: Students must do something outside of sports and school to earn the compensation. “We’re trying to educate our donor base,” Rudy explains. “Don’t give the kids money; give the kids an experience.”

Standing with Rudy is Gavin Van Wagoner, Utah’s director of major gifts. Van Wagoner scrolls through the INFLCR app as a demonstration of how this world works now. Student-athletes can browse a menu of possible deals, respond to those that interest them, and then send a deal to the school’s compliance department for approval. That way, the athletic department and the athlete both know it’s OK to proceed. There’s even a way to request a tax form. “We try to innovate as a department,” Van Wagoner says, “teaming up with the business school and the app to give them a one-stop shop where they can go in, access content to brand-build, disclose their deals with compliance and access opportunities with one click of the button.”

So allowable “compensation” for athletes — once restricted to a scholarship, tuition and meals — has expanded significantly. In 2017, a BYU graduate named Brian Fagan started Oncoor Sports Marketing to help former college athletes. In the first month after NIL went online, Oncoor did a reported $300,000 worth of deals for its clients — with backers ranging from a credit union to a taco joint.

Like any literal gold rush, this one has yielded some shiny nuggets, but few have truly gotten rich — and the digging can be arduous. “The most surprising thing about NIL for me,” says Kentucky quarterback Will Levis, “is the amount of work you have to put into it to get out what you’re looking for. When it first came out, everyone thought it would be an easy couple bucks here and there, but it is a job, and you have to block out the hours of the week you put into it or else you’re not going to get the reward you are looking for.”

Keep in mind: Levis is one of the NIL winners so far. He struck a deal with Claiborne Farm in Kentucky to back thoroughbred racehorse War of Will. It was a smart move, timely and locally focused. It also came after a flood of requests. “In the beginning, before I had any representation, it was a crazy amount of people — not only brands reaching out to me but representation companies reaching out to me,” Levis says. “I was just overstrung talking to too many people.” He felt “burdened” by not saying “no” enough, and eventually he turned down “four times as many deals as I accepted.”

“Coaches are very used to operating a system where they are in control of everything. I don’t hear them saying their own $9 million contract is ruining the sport.” —Jim Cavale, CEO INFLCR

Now consider the student-athletes who don’t have any idea what they’re doing, and don’t have the right voices in their ear. It’s not like they aren’t oversubscribed to begin with, considering all the hours doing homework and practicing and traveling and playing. Some helpful advice can come from schools, but when a panel of athletes at the summit is asked to name the biggest thing their schools have done to help them through this time, a deafening silence fills the room.

“Right now, the thing that worries me is the information-gathering and making sure we’re able to disseminate that information,” Rudy says. “We’re trying to remove roadblocks for our student-athletes. For those who want to be in this space, we want them to know we have the resources.”

College sports hinge so much on a reliable routine, but right now, NIL is a huddle without a playbook, at a chaotic point of the game. More players are transferring, more schools are switching conferences and the pandemic threw athletic department budgets and eligibility rules into flux. It’s easy to freak out about the end of college sports as we know it, but it’s much harder to figure out which forces are causing which changes. Is a player transferring to a different school because of an NIL deal? Or because he doesn’t like the new offensive coordinator? Or is it simply because he’s got an elderly relative who he wants to see more often? The knee-jerk reaction is often to assume the worst. If a player leaves a program, the spin will almost surely be that “he’s greedy for money” rather than “I botched his development.”

“I think it’s going to wreck the (coaches’) world because they won’t have all the control,” says Amanda Paule-Koba, professor of sport management at Bowling Green State University. “Coaches are very used to operating a system where they are in control of everything. I don’t hear them saying their own $9 million contract is ruining the sport.”

Despite a culture so bent on planning — football teams usually arrive at the stadium with their first 15 offensive plays already chosen — the NCAA didn’t plan for this. Many of the athletes, however, dreamed of this long ago. Britain Covey, for example, a Utah wide receiver who is now in the NFL, employed NIL to start a foundation dedicated to honoring his late cousin by teaching “hope, confidence and resilience in young women through equestrian training.”

Yes, some student-athletes simply see dollar signs. But quite a few want more meaning from NIL than stereotypes suggest. Many want to lift their new communities and give back in a way they could not do before NIL. And that may bring them closer to fans, rather than driving them away. It’s the same with commercial appearances: A poster signing at a local book shop, for example, can help to humanize the athlete behind the face mask. A 10-year-old kid isn’t likely to care if the athlete drove a free car to a charity event.

“I don’t think the sky is falling,” Paule-Koba says. “It’s a shift for power dynamics, and athletes realizing their worth. And that is scary for coaches and athletic directors and people who are used to being in charge.”

But won’t this just bring a huge concentration of power? Just this summer we’ve seen Pac-12 giants UCLA and USC announce moves to the Big Ten, and that was after Big 12 giants Texas and Oklahoma announced moves to the SEC. Won’t NIL just shovel more money and power to the fewer and fewer?

Maybe not. Athletes who rush to the most dominant schools may be chasing a scarcer number of deals in one place. It may be advantageous for some players to look at communities that have more creative solutions to offer than the usual name-brand programs. And the lure of the pros may be offset (at least to some extent) by on-campus income. Some students have already said they are staying in school because it’s financially easier to wait now. “Since NIL happened, I’m not really in a rush to go pro,” says Michigan track athlete Aasia Laurencin. “I’m staying. I’m going to be here until my eligibility runs out.” 

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Still not quite convinced? Let’s go to the movies. This whole scenario reminds me of a time when famous movie actors signed long-term deals with studios, appearing in several films during a contract. Then the sands shifted — led in part by legal action — and the talent could sign for one movie at a time. Eventually, stars became much bigger, leveraging their fame into huge paydays from the goliath studios. “It used to be the movies weren’t so much about the actors and actresses; it was the fascination with moving pictures,” says Glenn MacDonald, professor of economics at Washington University in St. Louis. “Over time, they became about the artists. That commanded a much higher rate of pay.”

All these decades later, the movie industry has not died. It survived television and the internet and streaming. College football will likely survive NIL for the same reason: People will still want to watch their favorites. “People think there’s not enough money or it’s going to ruin things,” says Michigan basketball player Hunter Dickinson. “There’s always been enough money. College coaches can get paid $10 million a year, so they’re able to find some money. If they’re able to build a $190-million practice facility for football, they’re able to find some money.”

David Berri, professor of economics at Southern Utah University, compares the NIL market to professional free agency — but not in a pejorative way. “We already saw this play out in Major League Baseball,” he says. “Back in the 1970s, they said if you allow free agency, you’re going to kill the popularity of the sport. It didn’t make a difference.”

While many are afraid that traditions will vanish, new ways of thinking will emerge, along with new leaders and even new careers. Every deal and every decision is a precedent for generations to come. “Unlike more mature markets where you know what fair market value is — where everybody has some education, some assistance, some help, some agents, even a pro players’ association, the league, the teams,” Reece says, “here it’s a little more fluid.”

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For enterprising student-athletes, the NIL market isn’t scary at all. It’s exciting, representing more than a short-term financial boon. Rather, it’s an intersection of sports and entrepreneurship, a new field where they can make their mark and perhaps change their lives without depending on the NFL’s eventual perception of their talents. “You look at the great startups — the Snapchats, the Facebooks, the Googles of the world — they were created by thought leaders on campuses as students,” says UCLA quarterback Chase Griffin. “Now student-athletes are able to be part of these and get equity as a part of growing generational wealth.”

If that’s how it plays out, it will happen through a dynamic free market driven by innovation and initiative. And what could be more American than that?

Maybe not so scandalous after all.  

This story appears in the September issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.

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