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Not everybody is thrilled with those EA Sports College Football 25 contracts

Athletes have responded overwhelmingly positively. But there's frustration elsewhere.

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That’s a huge number. EA sent out the contracts on Feb 22, and to get 10,000+ college students to do anything in two weeks is a major logistical success. Given that the target number of athletes for the project is 11,135, or 85 players per the 131 non-service academy FBS programs, hitting more than 90% of the total goal with more than six weeks before the “soft deadline” is a huge win for EA and OneTeam Partners (the group licensing agent managing the project).

Sources familiar with the licensing project have also told me that many of the 10,000+ athletes who have opted in are among the biggest and most marketable names in college football. The bulk of the current uncommitted athletes, I’m told, are closer to “regular players who just haven’t signed the paperwork yet” than “huge names holding out over money.”

To the best of my knowledge, only one notable player, Arch Manning of Texas, has reportedly indicated he will not participate in the game. Multiple sources with direct knowledge of the marketing campaigns have told me that Manning, in addition to the $600 NIL license agreement, was also offered a secondary marketing contract to promote the game, as dozens of other high-profile athletes have.

The initial proposal was criticized by some agents and athlete advocates, with the CFPBA going so far as to call for college athletes to boycott the project. It would appear that those efforts have not been successful.

I’m not surprised, even if the CFBPA and many others have raised legitimate points about the process that led to the license, as well as the proposal itself. More than money and more than ideological goals, college athletes overwhelmingly want to be a part of this video game. It is a cultural touchstone and an emotional draw that trumps any concept of long-term labor solidarity or intellectual property valuation.

That’s a major reason why EA has so much leverage in the licensing conversation.

But EA doesn’t just have leverage with individual athletes….and it’s that power dynamic that has rubbed a few other parties in this video game the wrong way.

For one, I’m told there’s some real tension on the MMR side

Most FBS schools partner with an MMR company, (multimedia rights), like JMI, PlayFly, or Learfield, to handle licensing and sales of a school’s IP and digital assets. An MMR company may help sell signage on a scoreboard or across a stadium, sponsors for official radio broadcasts, banners on an athletic department website, and much, much more. These partnerships are some of the largest and most important for any FBS athletic department.

It’s common for MMR companies to also sell into the social feeds of official athletic department accounts. To have an official football account or official athletic department account say, tweet something about a brand, would typically cost a lot of money.

But over the last few weeks, social media accounts from all over FBS (and strangely, several who are not in FBS) have shared content promoting their school’s participation in EA Sports College Football 25. That represents an awful lot of impressions and social media activations that, according to school-side personnel I have talked to…EA Sports hasn’t paid for.

I’ve heard from at least one P5 staffer who told me their MMR partners have already complained about “free” social graphic promotions involving the game.

It’s likely not an insurmountable problem…schools, MMR companies, and brand partners benefit from the maturation of a college sports video game space, but it does represent a tricky tension on the school side…how to potentially balance their need to protect their IP and MMR rights with a need to promote a project that could have recruiting (and fan brand) value.

Social media personnel aren’t the only school-side employees feeling the pressure

Typically, school-side personnel are not the folks who bang the drums for athletes to opt-in to various group licensing projects, or even any NIL deal specifically.

Part of that is because sometimes, state law prohibits schools from doing so. But an even larger issue, I’m told, is concern over liability. If a deal doesn’t work out, the school doesn’t want to be responsible for directly encouraging athlete participation.

School officials might make athletes aware of deals. They might allow group licensing agents to speak to athletes and have those people push to sign up athletes. But school employees generally try to avoid putting their thumbs on the scale too much.

However, officials at four different schools have told me their experience with the EA Sports College Football NIL license was different. Not so much that the program explicitly forced athletes to opt-in, but that the school employees felt meaningful pressure to get athletes to engage with the deal as soon as possible.

As one member of an SEC staff told me, “It wasn’t OneTeam that got 10,000 athletes to sign up so quickly…it was us. We did the legwork.”

Why are operations staffers, NIL staffers, and others on the school side feeling pressure to force the issue a bit more? Like most things, it comes down to recruiting.

“If the coach feels like the game matters to recruits, and that being all in on the game will benefit the program, then they’re going to push that contract”, another staffer at a different power school told me. Some football coaches are already saying, in public, that they think the game is important. You don’t see that for other NIL deals.

Essentially, there’s no perceived recruiting or public backlash if athletes are insufficiently engaged with a trading card group license or an apparel contract. But the video game is a different story.

I’m not suggesting this is a great scandal or anything, but it does speak to what makes this particular project so unique

The fan and consumer interest in this video game project is massive, far outstripping any other licensing opportunity or commercial partnership that an athletic department might normally engage with. The public, and recruits, do not emotionally care about whether the department uses Coke or Pepsi if the QB signs an exclusive card deal with Topps or the retail reach of co-branded jerseys. That’s not to say those things aren’t important…but they’re just generally more important to agents and folks with .edu email addresses. You know, my premium subscribers.

The video game is different, which means it matters to coaches, who then convey that importance to the folks who run Instagram accounts, who provide NIL education, or who regularly speak to athletes. In that environment…EA is going to have tremendous leverage, beyond that what other licensing partners or vendors will have.

That doesn’t mean that the power structure will continue forever. It also doesn’t mean that EA is even necessarily abusing that position… I certainly don’t have any evidence to suggest anybody at EA HQ is calling coaches to shill for the licensing contract or anything.

That’s just the reality of large-scale commercial deals with schools. Even the very successful ones can get messy. I suspect the ramifications of this particular contract will extend beyond just EA and one single video game.

I wrote a bunch of other stuff this week that I think you’ll enjoy reading

I’ve got more original reporting, more unique deep dives, and newsletters coming your way next week. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you on the internet.

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