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Local college athletics are about to change in a big way
Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker is expected to soon sign a bill that will give college athletes the ability to profit from their name, image and likeness. The law passed through the state legislature with overwhelming support and is expected to take effect on July 1.
A similar federal bill is working its way through Congress and is expected to pass sometime before the end of 2021.
That means college athletes from coast to coast will soon be able to profit from their own likeness, something they legally haven't been able to do under current NCAA laws.
But local athletes from Champaign to Lincoln Park should be able to do so two weeks from today. Illinois has even hired a director of branding and creative media.
I'll admit to not knowing about the NIL bills and their expected effects as much as I should. So I called up Matt Brown, one of my good Internet friends and the proprietor of Extra Points, a newsletter that covers the off-field forces that shape college athletics.
I conducted the following Q&A with one big question in mind: Just how is all of this going to work?
Midway Minute: So let's start here: I ran a link the other day where Bret Bielema was saying this will be such a big advantage in recruiting for Illinois. How big of an advantage would this be for both Illinois and Northwestern when it's signed into law on July 1?
Matt Brown: In the very, very short term, it may be a small advantage. But you have to remember that even if there's no federal bill by July 1 , we're looking at 16 different states are going to have a name, image and likeness law, including Michigan, and likely Ohio, and also most of the South, which means that most of the places where Illinois is going to be recruiting athletes are going to have similar legislation.
So it's not going to be an enormous advantage there. I can see potentially an advantage if a player was considering Illinois versus Purdue or Indiana, where they don't have that law. But there's almost certainly going to be a national standard by the end of this year. We don't have a federal bill yet but a federal bill is coming. If you're going to make this a competitive advantage, it'll be because the university and the recruiters do something really exceptional, rather than something that's unique to the bill. If Illinois wanted a true advantage for their schools they should have passed this bill six months ago.
MM: So once that federal bill comes into play, that supersedes everything? Or can individual states still gin up their offerings?
Matt Brown: It's going to depend a little bit on the law. The major reason why the feds are taking this up and why university administrators and the NCAA are telling them to get involved is so that they have a law that supersedes all the states. Because if I was an athletic director — and I think (Illinois AD) Josh Whitman would agree with this —you don't want 26 laws that are a little bit different, because that creates a big regulatory challenge. A federal bill will make the market more efficient if there's one uniform standard. Whether that happens in August or November, we don't know yet.
MM: Do you have a good sense if Illinois and Northwestern are really equipped right now from an institutional standpoint of administering and overseeing this?
Matt Brown: I don't know exactly how Northwestern is doing things. But I would imagine they've contracted with one of the three or four major companies in the space. One of the unique situations is that the school itself can't broker these NIL deals. The only thing that the school can do is maybe provide resources to help athletes get images and videos for their own social media accounts. It can give them instruction on the basics of brand building, it can walk them through a compliance perspective. But they're not going to be able to sit down and help an Illinois football player get a deal with Lou Malnati's. That's up to the player and the player's agents. I think anyone right now who tells you with absolute certainty, that our school knows exactly what's going to happen, and we're completely equipped, it's bullshit. And the reason is that the regulations in this market are just going to be shifting so much. There's going to be a little bit of chaos.
MM: What advantages will the state's schools have once there's a federal NIL bill?
Matt Brown: What Illinois, Northwestern and some of the other schools in the state can tell people is "Listen, we have some of the best business schools in the country. We have some of the best communications and marketing professionals in the country. We have big budgets. We have a presence in a large market. There are experts at our schools on this, that know everything about building a brand and know everything about legal advice." That's something I think that Illinois and Northwestern will be able to tell to a recruit. That's a compelling message.
MM: You brought up Lou Malnati's, but I would assume that most of the money being made here is not going to be with somebody taking a bite of pizza on an ad, but rather probably somebody hawking t-shirts on their Instagram account. Is that right?
Matt Brown: I think you're almost exactly right. You're probably looking at three different kinds of deals within these first six months. At the top end, you're going to have national brands wanting to roll out coordinated multi-platform campaigns that are going to go to a tiny handful of highly productive football and men's basketball players. If Gatorade could have done a deal with Trevor Lawrence last year, they would have paid him a million bucks. and put him on and who would have paid him a million bucks.
Nobody in Illinois is going to get one of those deals (laughs). Certainly nobody from Northwestern. Maybe once a decade, somebody from one of those schools might be able to do that. You know, maybe one of the programs lands on a super basketball prospect from Simeon or something. Then yeah, maybe they can do that. But it's not going to be common here. There's not going to be many of these across the country, because it's a risky proposition, spending that much on a 20-year-old
MM: Well, let me stop you there. What prevents someone at Illinois from saying, "Look, I really want Dosunmu or Cockburn to stick around Here's a $2.5 million dollar deal to advertise my steel or tech company?"
Matt Brown: What prevents that is nobody cares about Illinois that much.
MM: But a rich booster might?
Matt Brown: I mean, in Illinois, no. I don't mean to say that flippantly. But that's not something that NCAA rules are really going to be able to circumvent. But you really would have to offer that much money for someone like (Dosunmu and Cockburn) to pick that over the NBA, which provides more security. And then if you're a business person who's accountable to your board and your employees, will you be able to justify spending that much of your marketing budget on something that's clearly just to get one student to stay? ... If somebody had $2.5 million dollars to throw at an Illinois athlete, they'd already be giving that money to Josh Whitman right now. But it's not happening for a reason. There just aren't that many Illinois fans with that kind of money.
MM: It makes sense. Obviously, I think Bielema is talking a big game about it being an advantage and it sounds great and whatever. But like you said, there are also just existing realities for every school.
Matt Brown: So there's a reason Illinois doesn't have a hockey team yet, even though they've been talking about it for five years, right? Part of it is money. And I know Bielema is really excited about these resources and Illinois was kind of first to develop a lot of them.
But everyone else in the Big 10 is going to have something very similar, if not better. Getting back to the original question, the largest component is going to be small deals from social media. And the exciting thing about this, if you are a member of any athletic team in Illinois, is that you don't actually have to be really good at sports to make money. You have to be really good at Twitter or social media.
What I mean by that is, if you're a really good volleyball player at Illinois State, or even just a rotational volleyball player at Illinois and you have 10,000 Instagram followers, guess what? You can make money from your name, image and likeness, which means that women athletes are going to overwhelmingly benefit more from this. And it's something that can be available to basically the entire football team or any athlete at the school who has an entrepreneurial spirit.
You can put this in print, I am trying to sponsor athletes (to endorse my newsletter). Partly because I want to understand how this market works in real-time. But I also think that this is a population that that would be effective in marketing my publication. The deals are pretty small. If I'm going to go pay an athlete, for three sponsored tweets, and an Instagram post, it might be $250.
People like me are going to pursue this. There will be apparel companies and bars and people trying to grow campus parties. It's going to be low stakes, low level and this is going to be the largest group as everyone gets more comfortable.
MM: So we're not talking about thousands of dollars to the top recruits?
Matt Brown: The thing that gets brought up all the time in these discussions is this idea of the proverbial local car dealership and it being a front for the bag man, right? But what I'm going to tell you is this: It's still a hell of a lot easier to just do the bagman thing! People are still going to give kids money in the McDonald's bags, they're still going to do the big coin, they're still going to the $500 handshake, in part, because once you start making this formal advertising campaign, the bagman becomes accountable to different people: The business community, their employees, their shareholders, the IRS.
It would not be surprising if we look at this nine months later and the biggest NIL deals for Illinois athletes are not the smaller social media-related things.
MM: That's interesting. You and I both know that takes a lot of time to do social media effectively. Being a Division I athlete takes even more time than that. So how much of this do you think will be administered by third-party companies?
Matt Brown: That's a great question. And I've tried to hammer this home every time I get an interview about it: A lot of athletes aren't going to take advantage of this at all. Because unless you are so stupid good that people are going to come to you anyway, it does require you to be a little bit entrepreneurial. That's why you're also going to see a disconnect between the highest-earning athletes and the best-performing athletes on the field. Because you can be average or just above average or be in a smaller program. But if you decide this is a priority to me, you can make money.
MM: I would assume that the one thing we haven't talked about is autographs. Right?
Matt Brown: It's actually two other groups, I guess, right? One is autographs and the other is teaching clinics. To go back to our Illinois example. If you are a softball or volleyball athlete at Illinois, and you're from the state, particularly downstate, you are probably the best athlete in your county and you're probably a big deal locally. So you can do work in a coaching clinic or give kids lessons in your spare time over the summer. I think back when I started my journalism career, I covered more rural Ohio, where the entire county maybe would produce one MAC kid a year. But there were kids there who even just went to play Division-III football, who were locally famous and could probably go down to the local mall and charge $50 an autograph session, and then charge $50 to teach kids how to hit the A-gap for a half-hour. That's going to be available for a lot of athletes.
MM: Last question: I think a lot of people view this as the athletes will get their NIL rights and then it stops the paying players argument. Do you think that will happen?
Matt Brown: No. I can tell you that right now, at least two US senators, the number in actuality is probably closer to 10 are pushing for college athletes to be recognized as employees and to then earn collective bargaining rights and have the union just like professional athletes do.
I can tell you that almost every athletic administrator I've talked to over the last eight years, even if they started out being against name, image and likeness reform is now in favor of it, I think once they realized that the world's not coming to an end, and that everybody can get a little bit of money this way.
There are a lot of other components to college athletics reform, that have not been talked about as much because everybody's focused on ending economic exploitation through name, image and likeness. Once that's kind of resolved, I would expect those conversations to shift to places and one that I plan on writing about is athlete health care, and the athlete educational experience. You're going to see politicians, athletes, academics and activists try to bring a lot more attention to those areas.
Listen, if your primary compensation is your education, there are a lot of reasons to be skeptical that the education is as valuable as the schools are making it out to be. I think that's going to be the next conversation here once some baseline agreement on NIL is reached.
A big thanks to Matt for his expertise and time. You can read more of Matt's excellent work on NIL and others issues affecting college athletics at extrapointsmb.com. For 20 percent off a six-month paid subscription, use the code MIDWAY at checkout.