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In the wild NIL marketplace, who makes sure promises are kept?

Ensuring college athletes receive what is promised can be a challenge. Here’s how the The Royal Blue collective at BYU handles the matter.

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A Built Brands logo can be seen on the helmet of this BYU player during fall camp in 2021.

A BYU player carries his helmet during during fall camp in 2021.

Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo

The markets of Morocco are busy places with merchants offering incredible deals at every turn. The advice to us Americans as we walked through was to avoid eye contact and keep moving.

I did my best until a man shouted something that stopped me in my tracks. I turned and looked right at him. He was standing next to a variety of trinkets and, while motioning me over with his hand, he said it again, “Come, it’s cheaper than free!”

Astonished I pulled out my phone and wrote it down so I wouldn’t forget. I’d never heard of anything that is “cheaper than free?” The pitch was uttered in a tone of both desperation and deception. After all, nothing is cheaper than free.

Today’s college sports landscape, with its enticing name, image and likeness money and transfer portal, resembles that Moroccan market as athletic programs promise the earth, moon and stars to get student-athletes to look their way — knowing that some will come their way.

College football used to be a place where student-athletes could develop to where professional teams would pay them to play, while the university made millions. Today, the schools are still getting their money, but with NIL, kids don’t have to wait to get theirs. Some are promised millions before they even finish high school.

The difference between NIL and NFL is clarity. Professional football players (and other pro athletes) have ironclad contracts that spell out the guarantees and owners have salary caps with significant oversight. College kids entering the new NIL world are wandering wild and free. If not careful, they can sign up with a handshake but get left with an empty hand.

“I’ve definitely heard of instances where players are not getting what they were promised,” said Mark Comer, co-chairman of The Royal Blue collective, the official collective of BYU Athletics. “That’s the challenge with NIL because there is not a great governance going on.”

Anyone can sign a student-athlete to an NIL deal and there is no limit to how much they can pay them. The only guidelines the NCAA has provided is that a student-athlete can’t be induced, can’t be paid for performance, and can’t be paid without doing something to justify the payment.

Other than that, have at it. But buyer beware.

“I am hearing that some talented college teams are starting to crack because of NIL payments not being made on time,” former New Mexico basketball coach and current ESPN broadcaster Fran Fraschilla wrote in a tweet on Dec. 14. “NIL promises not kept or jealousy among teammates. Not a value judgement on NIL. It’s just human nature. The ‘new normal.’”

The “new normal” is still abnormal and vulnerable to abuse. Comer said BYU’s TRB collective is designed to deliver on its promises, with a string of checks and balances. The BYU grad is co-chair of a seven-member advisory board that meets weekly to discuss the college landscape and raise money for NIL opportunities. The collective has partnered with Oncoor Sports Marketing to determine an athlete’s value.

The money that funds the collective is generated by wealthy donors, fans and area businesses.

“There is no discussion of a deal until the athlete has signed with the school,” said Russell White, president of Oncoor Sports Marketing, and a BYU grad. His company also operates collectives at Arizona State, Louisville, TCU and others.

Kedon Slovis transferred from Pittsburgh to BYU to play quarterback. He announced his intentions just before Christmas and he is in his first week of classes on campus.

“We didn’t speak to Kedon until after he announced he was coming,” White said. “Kedon will have a deal through the collective. He has other NIL deals (outside the collective) as well and he can get as many as he wants.”

TRB will require Slovis, and every student-athlete at BYU who has an NIL deal, to fulfill the terms and conditions of the collective before getting paid. Those conditions, which are presented in writing prior to an NIL agreement, are called “deliverables” and they may include social media activity, appearances at company events, community events and service projects, etc.

The athlete shows up and takes a picture of him or herself at the event and uploads it into the Oncoor software. The computer program recognizes it and issues a payment. The athlete won’t get paid until the required deliverables are accomplished.

“They know what they need to do and what we are promising to do. We want it to be very clear. It’s a two-way street between them and the collective,” Comer said. “A big emphasis of TRB is to get these athletes out serving others.”

Last week, for example, the BYU men’s basketball team made 125 sandwiches for The Road Home family center. While it served an NIL obligation, it also encouraged the players to interact with the community.

In addition to the terms and conditions, the collective also provides athletes with financial leadership classes, help with taxes, branding, marketing and mentoring.

“We want to take all the positives from NIL and give BYU student-athletes a Plan B for their lives if a profession in sports doesn’t work out,” Comer said. “Yes, the world has changed and there is a lot of ugliness around it, but these athletes will have great opportunities when they are done playing as they leave BYU and start real life.”

As for life on the field, court, track or diamond, the college game is forever changed.

“NIL was built out of necessity for kids to profit off their name, image and likeness and not be taken advantage of by the university that is making millions off of them,” White said. “Too often people approach NIL as a new scary space. It’s just the same kind of endorsements that have been out there for entertainers and influencers for years.”

Paying college kids to compete in sports is a tough sell for old-school fans, but the younger generation sees it differently. Comer notes 30-to-40-year-old men is the demographic that is spearheading most of TRB’s fundraising.

“The ‘Moneyball’ era of NIL is already here,” White said. “We don’t have to overspend, but to get top talent to fit into the culture at BYU, but we must spend wisely.”

By NCAA rule, BYU cannot have anything to do with the collective. Head coach Kalani Sitake cannot ask the collective or anyone else to come up with money to buy a player. He has said before that if a recruit’s top priority is the amount of NIL money BYU can provide, he stops recruiting him. Sitake is selling the school and the program. Once a commitment is made, the collective can sell the rest.

“We do a deal with the athlete and Oncoor makes sure the athlete and TRB is compliant so there is no gray area,” said Comer, whose collective is also a BYU corporate sponsor. “BYU needs to have a high level of confidence with us that we are making decisions that are in line with their vision moving forward.”

Moving forward with such little NCAA oversight, the future of collegiate sports looks like the marketplace in Morocco. It’s noisy and distractions are at every turn, with voices promising athletes anything and everything to get their attention — and not everybody follows the rules.

The wise will keep focused on landing an NIL deal that offers a guarantee, while the others wander about and fall victim to the man with all the trinkets who says, while motioning with his hand, “Come, it’s cheaper than free.”

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “BYU Sports Nation Game Day,” “The Post Game Show,” “After Further Review,” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv. He is also co-host of “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com.