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Does BYU's Walk-On NIL deal mean the end of scholarship limits? Probably not. But it's still cool!

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Last week's feel good story in college football came out of Provo, Utah. On Thursday, BYU announced a new NIL deal with Built Brands, a Utah-based protein snack company. But this wasn't a typical NIL deal, where the quarterback and a few other players tweet about protein bars in exchange for a few hundred bucks. This deal offered money for not just every member of BYU's 85-man scholarship roster, but it would also cover the tuition for every single BYU football walk-on.

You probably saw the announcement video:

BIG things happening at BYU!!Thank you to Nick and @bar_built. pic.twitter.com/ShJSiY21Bd

— BYU FOOTBALL (@BYUfootball)August 12, 2021

Virtually every national outlet covered it. Here's what the AP had to say.

Gary Vernon, BYU's Associate Athletic Director for Student-Athlete Experience, told me that it isn't completely accurate that BYU "brokered" the deal. He reiterated that each athlete's contract is specifically with Built, and that BYU is not a party to the contract. The athletes don't even have to use the money on tuition, if they don't want to.

According to Vernon, Built reached out to BYU, not the other way around, and BYU's involvement was more about providing regulatory compliance than it was about proactively building a specific deal.

That's aligned with what BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe told the AP, here:

Holmoe said BYU did not negotiate the deal with Built Brands CEO Nick Greer, who is a friend of Sitake’s, but it was vetted by the school’s general counsel and president.

Built Brands did not respond to my request for comment by press time.

For what it's worth, that tracks with my experience doing an NIL deal with BYU, albeit one at uh, a much smaller price range. When I worked with a BYU athlete, I sent a note to Gary giving him information about my company and budget, which he sent out to every BYU athlete. I talked to the athletes directly, negotiated a rate, and sent a contract to the athlete. BYU officials double-checked to make the terms passed their own regulatory muster, and then I paid the athlete directly.

Whether that constitutes "brokering" or not, I don't know. I know that other NIL analysts have suggested that other schools would not be able to provide any involvement without running afoul of state law, although I'm not sure if any state has really explained what the penalty for NIL CRIMES actually is.

Now, every member of BYU's football roster has the means to pay their tuition.

Is this going to be a trend? Did BYU football secretly kill the 85 man scholarship limit?

At least some analysts think so. Here's what ON3 wrote about the deal:

What does this mean now? It changes the game of how schools across the country have their donors utilize NIL as a tool to create the most talented and skilled roster. Say goodbye to folks believing they only have “85 scholarships” to give out. There is now an additional 40 players with the ability to have their school paid for through the help of the private sector and the desire to make a program the most attractive sell to a recruit.

The lede of the AP story wondered the same thing:

A deal BYU has made available to its football players could test how much allowing athletes to be compensated by outside companies for name, image and likeness can be used as a competitive advantage.

It is not often that "BYU" and "competitive advantage" are used in the same paragraph, but hey, we're in a new world.

It is certainly possible that other programs could end up with deals similar to BYU's arrangement. But I think it's a little premature to call this a nationwide trend or the end of the football scholarship limit.

For one, BYU is REALLY cheap, which makes it easier to pull this off

BYU is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and the church helps subsidize tuition for LDS students. According to their website, a semester's worth of tuition for an LDS student is only about $3,000. That may very well be the cheapest tuition of any FBS institution in the country. Even for non-LDS students, a semester of tuition is only about $6,000, still very much on the low end. Vernon told me that the vast majority of the current walk-ons would be paying the LDS student rate, and that any walk-on paying a higher rate, and thus getting a larger award, will be asked to perform more work for Built.

Using some rough, back of the napkin math, Built could offer $1,000 for every scholarship football player and a year's worth of tuition for walk-ons, for about $300,000. That's a lot of money! But to offer a similar deal for most public schools, even if we're assuming that the bulk of the walk-ons are paying in-state rates, could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars more. It isn't a cheap campaign!

There's also the question of fit. Roster management at BYU is harder than almost anywhere else in college football, since half the roster regularly goes on two-year LDS missions. Walk-ons routinely make BYU's two-deep, and those players have cultural currency with their fanbase in a way that is less common among high level FBS programs. I suspect BYU fans (or for that matter, Nebraska fans, or Wisconsin fans) are going to care about their walk-ons in a different way than say, USC fans.

I think this adds up to a perfect storm for a brand like Built. They get to enjoy massive earned media from their campaign, they know that their connection with walk-ons will give them extra attention in Utah Country, and it isn't crazy expensive. That may not be the case for Ohio State or Alabama, schools were walk-on may crack the two-deep only once every few years. And hey, the more schools end up with massive walk-on deals, the less earned media each brand will generate from doing the deal. They'll become less valuauble over time if the novelty wears off.

To put it another way...if you were an Ohio State die-hard and wanted to spend half a million dollars on an NIL campaign...would you really want to spend that on football walk-ons?

It's also worth mentioning that for a walk-on, getting your tuition paid for doesn't mean your college experience is free

The Built walk-on deal is for the value of the player's tuition, meaning most of these deals will be in the neighborhood of $6,000 for a year. That does not pay for that athlete's rent or boarding costs, their books, or their other cost of attendance fees. BYU's official estimation of those costs exceeds five figures a year. These are the kinds of expenses that are generally included in a full-ride athletic scholarship.

So I'm not ready to declare that BYU, or anybody else for that matter, is going to be able to use a similar NIL deal to greyshirt athletes on some massive scale. Even if a brand does set something like that up, an athlete would almost certainly be getting a better financial deal if they accepted a scholarship somewhere else...and it's not like you can play 130 players a season. If a player is good enough to play at another FBS school and has interest from another FBS school, not many will take that PWO spot.

This sort of arrangement could be a much bigger competitive advantage in sports other than football

Sometimes fans forget this, but most D-I sports scholarships aren't full rides. Olympic sport rosters are full of athletes who aren't on full scholarships.

If a brand decided to pay for, say, every softball player's tuition, that might be enough to dissuade an athlete from taking a partial-scholarship at another program, effectively giving a school extra scholarships. Over time, that could become a pretty big competitive advantage, one schools already often look for. Just go to any college baseball forum and ask about Vanderbilt's scholarship math.

Vernon told me that BYU is committed to complying with Title IX, and would be thrilled if other BYU athletes, including women athletes, had similar, roster-wide NIL opportunities. If a brand wanted to make a big splash and provide a meaningful competitive boost to a team, I'd reckon you'd get a better ROI giving money to the soccer walk-ons, not the football ones.

Competitive advantage or not, this is all still pretty cool

Walk-ons participate in the same practices, have the same time commitments, and get tackled just as hard as the scholarship players do, all without most of the benefits. Seeing dozens of them get an opportunity to continue their college careers and not have to take out as much student debt...is very cool to see, especially if you were the kind of person who was worried about locker room equity issues in an NIL world.

If this is the scariest unintended consequence of the early NIL era...well...I'd say things are off to a great start.

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