Could bowl games slow opt-outs by paying out NIL deals? We asked some.
Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.
Friends, we're on day four of a strike/lockout here with Chicago Public Schools, and now my wife is out of town. In my opinion, this means it's a perfect time for an Andy Wittry newsletter. I'll pass the mic over to him, and he tackles one of those questions everybody is talking about right now.
"I can't even put into words how excited I am, how thankful and grateful I am, man. That's all I ever wanted. You know what I'm saying? Like, my first-ever start. I didn't think I had an incompletion and we won a bowl game, so I'm excited, man."
That was South Carolina's converted, first-time starter, replacement quarterback Dakereon Joyner, with tears crawling down his face as he spoke with local media, after delivering a 9-for-9 passing performance for 160 yards and a touchdown in a 38-21 Duke's Mayo Bowl win over North Carolina. It was the 13th game of the season for two teams that entered with 6-6 records, one that ended with first-year South Carolina coach Shane Beamer enduring a postgame mayo shower. This was the game that inspired Matt to actually try to do math again.
On the "How college football is this?" dial, the last paragraph was about an 11.
Simply put, this is the Dakereon Joyner the lowcountry has known since he was a KID at Fort Dorchester. Now he's a man, an MVP of a Bowl Game, and the emotion of this interview is 100% real. The tears, true. Dude cares, tremendously, about USC. This is why they play bowl games.
— Scott Eisberg (@SEisbergWCIV)
Dec 30, 2021
Joyner, the Duke's Mayo Bowl MVP-winning quarterback who has a Twitter bio that identifies himself as a wide receiver, is not only the new, proud owner of a 100-percent, single-game completion percentage, a 286 passing efficiency rating and 224 yards of total offense, but he's now the first-ever Duke's Mayo Bowl Ambassador.
"He actually had to stop talking. He was so overwhelmed with emotion," Miller Yoho, the Director of Communications and Marketing at the Charlotte Sports Foundation, which owns and operates the Duke's Mayo Bowl, said during a phone interview with Extra Points, explaining why they picked Joyner.
"So I think that shows you know the person he is and then also what the game meant to him, so it was pretty easy for us to make that selection."
Believe it or not, but it wasn't a guarantee that the bowl game, whose festivities concluded with a Gatorade cooler full of mayonnaise getting dumped onto the head of the winning head coach, would get involved in NIL
"It was a very drawn out conversation to make sure it was the right fit for us," Yoho said. "When it comes to our social media, our marketing, everything, we want to stand out and we want to be able to engage people in unique ways.
"So NIL is an opportunity to utilize the participants of the sport to help explain what their bowl week experience is, to showcase Duke's Mayo, and then now we were able to announce for the first time a Duke's Mayo Bowl ambassador after the game to be able to talk about what the game actually meant to them. What does it mean to play in it? And then also to kind of continue the story of the bowl game."
By mid-December, at least seven bowl games, including the Pinstripe, Holiday, Alamo, Duke's Mayo, LA, Independence and Music City bowls, were using Opendorse to facilitate NIL deals with participating players and even famous alumni, too, according to Opendorse Senior Director of Communications Sam Weber. Most of those bowl games invested in the high-four figures or low-five figures, with various approaches, ranging from every participating player having the option to receive an NIL deal to a bowl working with a specific player.
The Independence Bowl elected to pursue a deal with an NFL player, rather than a college one.
"The challenge for the Independence Bowl is that we've been around since 1976, 11th-oldest bowl in the country, but because of the number of bowl games that there are now in existence, (we've) kind of been passed up a little bit in the pecking order," said Logan Lewis, the Director of Marketing & Memberships for the Radiance Technologies Independence Bowl, "so all of that stuff comes down to money and we just don't have a ton of it. Some of the other bowls might be able to afford a big splash and spend $10,, $15,000 on NIL. We really didn't have that much to spend."
Lewis said he wanted to make sure the bowl's budget for potential NIL deals – less than $5,000 – provided the bowl with added exposure and that the bowl wasn't spending money just to spend money. With the bowl being held in Shreveport, Louisiana, between BYU and UAB, bowl organizers saw a marketing opportunity with New Orleans Saints quarterback and BYU alum Taysom Hill.
"We decided, 'Let's just take it all at one shot,'" Lewis said, "and the way we spent our money towards any type of NIL deal was just to do a tweet from our account about the Independence Bowl, like, 'This is the date and time, this is where you get tickets,' and then Taysom Hill came and shared the copy that we helped write."
One concern with potential NIL deals with college players, Lewis said, was that the Independence Bowl has an agreement with its partner schools that it won't market tickets to the bowl game in the schools' markets – so in this case, Birmingham and Provo.
"It's kind of a gray area, right?" he asked, rhetorically. "You're paying the player to promote the game. Technically, they live in-market, so I don't know, I guess maybe if they really wanted to be technical about it, yes, that would probably be a violation of the agreement but I don't know, it was just like, why even bring it up? Like, no big deal.
"If we did have the money, like going back, and if I'm playing with Monopoly money here, (BYU's) Tyler Allgeier is an All-American, a great running back. That's somebody we would probably want to talk about the experience they had during bowl week. I think that brings value to us."
Lewis brings up a good point. These deals still have to make business sense...for everybody.
Joyner, the Duke's Mayo Bowl MVP and the bowl's first-ever ambassador, received $5,000 for being named the latter – "we publicly put that out there, just because we felt that was an amount that shows how important it is to continue that conversation," Yoho said – and it might take 200 times that amount for a projected first-round NFL draft pick, who would otherwise opt out of a bowl game in order to protect his professional and financial future, to consider playing.
"It would be millions, right?" Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Steelers beat reporter Brian Batko asked rhetorically, when asked to describe the potential gap between the NFL and NIL earning potentials of Pickett, a player Batko previously covered while covering the Pitt football beat. "With his marketability, it was kind of a weird thing because he wasn't a household name until this year. He wasn't even like a Bryce Young, who was a top recruit.
"He was just a guy, basically, for his first four years."
The amount of money it might take to convince a projected first-round pick, who would otherwise opt out of a bowl game, to play is likely "something in the seven figures," said Steve Salaga, an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Georgia who specializes in sports finance and sports economics. "But even then, say you're a big Pitt donor, is it worth a million dollars to you for Kenny Pickett to play in that game? Even if they win, what does that do for Pitt? If they lose, what does that do for Pitt?
"It really doesn't change the outcome that much, to be quite honest with you. Could something like that happen? Yeah. Because it's certainly feasible. I just, I don't know, unless the game really meant something to one of the schools, I think it's probably unlikely. And even though that was the Peach Bowl, even though that's one of the premier bowls, it's really not a game-changer either way for either program, in my opinion. It's just not."
Under the NCAA's 11th-hour, interim NIL policy, which is still in effect, the NCAA has said pay-for-play is still not allowed. Extra Points reached out to an NCAA spokesperson to clarify if an NIL deal contingent upon a player competing in his school's bowl game would be considered pay-for-play, but the NCAA hasn't responded at the time of publishing.
When a player such as Pickett, a Heisman Trophy finalist, opts out of a bowl game, it's arguably hard to find an immediate loser, other than the literal one (see: No. 10 Michigan State 31, No. 12 Pitt 21). And yes, Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker, the sixth-place finisher in the Heisman voting, also opted out of the game.
The majority of local fans and commentators in Pittsburgh who are on Batko's admittedly curated social media feeds understood Pickett's decision.
"Most of the people I saw opining on it basically get it," he said. "They pretty much understand it by this point, I think, with the way college football's been trending ... I think with Pickett, specifically, and Pitt, specifically, there was much more of a sense of, 'This guy had an incredible transformation to help lead us to heights that our program hadn't seen in 30-some years and we're not about to begrudge him for missing one game after everything he had done.'"
While Pitt lost the Peach Bowl, as it was forced to play its third-string quarterback, the entity with the next-most at stake from Pickett's decision fared just fine.
"The bowls are really for television, you know, and ESPN certainly has a lot at stake in these bowl games," said Salaga. "They either own the bowl games or they broadcast them, so I think ratings-wise, it's certainly ESPN that's on the big hook there. But I haven't really seen enough of the new ratings data to see if these opt-outs are really impacting the ratings of these games substantially yet."
Per ESPN's own press release, the ratings for the Peach Bowl between Michigan State and Pitt were "up more than 25 percent from the past two standalone weekday primetime games," meaning the 2020 Cotton Bowl and 2019 Orange Bowl.
"I think anybody that's trying to sell a sponsorship to one of these bowl games, a lot of times, that stuff's done before these guys are opting out," Salaga said. "You know what I'm saying? All the TV ads are already sold. Everything's pretty much set, so the immediate downside I can potentially see is if players start opting out and ratings drop substantially, well, then that's gonna hurt ESPN next time down the road when they try to go sell ad spots during these bowl games."
"But my gut feeling is that ratings, without seeing it, probably aren't that impacted by these guys opting out and I think part of it is because there's betting interest in these games."
Friends of Lewis, the director of marketing and memberships for the Independence Bowl, have asked him if the bowl will someday have to pay all of the players involved to actually compete in the game
"I'm like, 'No, I don't think that's the way that it's going to have to work,'" he said. "I mean, look, a lot of times we get caught up in the hyperbole of the situation at hand and we forget, especially if we've never actually played on a college athletics team, that the culture of a team is different from team to team.
"The culture of the team will hold a lot of people to stay with the team or play together. There's something more than money that goes on inside the locker room and that's not the case for everybody, but do I think that we'll have to shell out, you know, a bunch of money to get the star player to play? Ehhhh, that may happen in the future. It wouldn't surprise me if that happened once but I don't think that would be the norm."
There's a reason that online search interest for Duke's Mayo - as measured by Google Trends, where a value of 100 represents peak popularity – peaked in December 2020 and December 2021, after the mayonnaise brand first sponsored the bowl game in the 2020 season.
Steps: 1) Take a household condiment brand, 2) sponsor a bowl game in a top-15 college football market with bowl tie-ins to Power 5 conferences, and 3) mix in some clever marketing, and voila, you get the results below.
NIL now plays a role those marketing efforts, too.
"We wanted people to be talking about Duke's Mayonnaise and so they did offers with players to post during bowl week," Yoho said. "They all got the individual jar as part of the player gift. They got a jar that had both teams' logos. Very few of these were made, so they're very unique. So they spent the bowl week promoting these jars while they're in Charlotte, which is a cool way to kind of build up to the game and speak to their fan bases and then for us, afterwards."
"A lot of times, bowls, once your game happens, a few days later no one talks about it."
Thirteen players who attended the Duke's Mayo Bowl committed to an NIL deal in which they posted a picture or video of the custom-made jar of mayo on social media. Do the operators of the Duke's Mayo Bowl have plans for how they might approach NIL next season?
"Come on, we're six days after the game," Yoho said, laughing.
So, what's the future going to be here? Small deals? Big deals? Mass opt-outs?
"I just think at the end of the day, the overall impact (of opt-outs) on the institution or the football program, wherever it may be, it's just not that big of a deal," Salaga said. "You know, they're playing in the game, they're generating their revenue off of it. They're playing the regular season, they're generating the revenue off of it. Financially, it doesn't matter that much to these institutions or these programs. So, I kind of think it's a bigger media story than it is an actual financial issue in college sports."
But as is worth a reminder in any NIL-related conversation, it's still early.
"I don't think we can even comment on it or have an understanding of how NIL is affecting things," Yoho said. "It hasn't been a full calendar year yet. But I think looking at Dakereon – like look at what that video of him on the field after the game – and I think that shows what these games can mean to players."
"And in the end, it's also a personal decision, whatever a player does, so it's tough for us to comment because we believe players have their own decision to make and we don't want to influence either way."
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