The NYT wrote another big college sports story...but didn't ask the right question
Can we retire this old NIL narrative for good?
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Earlier this week, the New York Times Magazine published a large article on the holistic impact of the NIL on the University of North Carolina. The author interviewed multiple athletes across different sports, talked to the school's athletic director, and even individuals on the brand side who brokered deals with Tar Heel athletes.
I don't want to say that the story holds no value, especially because I imagine the NYT Mag's readership is not nearly as deeply familiar with the ins and outs of NIL or college sports as, say, readers of Extra Points or Sports Business Journal. But I did come away feeling frustrated because I felt like the framing of the story was very similar to what we might expect from a national NIL story back in 2020 or 2021.
This is a great question, one that I really do think is worth examining on a national level. But I don't believe that was the one addressed here.
I don't want to dig into the story line by line, but I do want to share three big-picture type questions that I hope are more considered in the next glossy magazine-type NIL story:
Forget equality in NIL outcomes. Is there equality in NIL opportunity?
The story highlights Erin Matson, a former outstanding field hockey athlete for UNC, one of the nation's elite programs. Matson was a three-time national Player of the Year, but reported earning only about $50,000 over two years, far less than substantially less-accomplished members of UNC's football or men's basketball team made.
I'm not sure if this is a big problem. NIL earnings are not supposed to completely correlate with athletic success. Outside 'bagman' related talent-acquisition fees, NIL earnings are about athlete marketability, which is a completely different skill set. Field Hockey is played by less than 60,000 high school girls in the United States, and sponsored at fewer than 2,000 high schools. It's going to be harder for a field hockey athlete (or a water polo athlete, or a rifle athlete, etc) to capture big NIL opportunities if their sport is not wildly watched, or even understood.
I don't see a way for anybody to legislate equality in NIL outcomes, even with full employment. But equality in NIL opportunity is a different story. If UNC was promoting collectives that only provided NIL assistance to a handful of men's sports, that might be a Title IX problem. If athletes of color are facing structural barriers in participating in influencer marketing, that should be examined and rectified. If different athletes aren't getting the same information and support at a school, that's a problem.
But those are different problems from "the basketball player gets a car and hundreds of thousands of dollars and the cross country runner doesn't."
The 'who pays for the Olympic Sports?!?' question must be asked holistically, and with evidence
To paraphrase the story here, and a critique of NIL raised countless times elsewhere, the concern is that if boosters and brands move spending directly to athletes, instead of the school, then Olympic sports programs will no longer be financially viable, and schools will have to drop opportunities.
I do not talk to every athletic director every week, so I understand it is possible that some schools are reporting meaningful revenue losses due to NIL. But while that was a common concern at the start of the NIL era, that has not been the reality, according to most of the ADs I've talked to over the last year. Fans who are donating to collectives are often folks who weren't donating at all to the school, and development teams have still been able to convince bigger donors to give to both pools. Huge, national brands have honestly spent modestly on NIL...Nike isn't going to break up with UNC so they can do individual shoe deals, after all.
Maybe those revenue shifts happen later on down the line. If they do, we should be able to document them via FRS reports and prove that donor giving or marketing sponsorship has died off. The FY22 reports are just coming out now, but I am unaware of any program making that claim right now.
And even if that did happen, there's no reason to assume that athletic department expenses have to remain static. Schools can still afford Olympic Sports or other priorities if they simply decide to spend less somewhere else. If NIL becomes a bigger factor in recruiting, well, maybe the school doesn't spend as much on facilities or staff sizes. Maybe the school decides to be a bit stinger with coach contracts or contract extensions. Maybe the school sits down to renegotiate the ol' MMR deal.
There's no reason to believe that every other expense in an athletic department must remain static forever. Throwing up your hands and saying, "well, we can't pay for it anymore" is always a choice.
We SHOULD ask about the true costs of NIL
College athletes are crazy busy. I believe that's a major reason why the overwhelming majority of D-I athletes don't bother with NIL at all. Do the pressures of adding what is essentially a second job create negative mental health outcomes? Do athletes feel increased pressure from family members or outside parties to chase after NIL? What are the big picture costs of asking twenty-year-olds to somehow commodify their personal identities at a time when they might not even know what those are?
Those all feel questions worth asking! These are mostly unexamined in the NYT story. The questions they did ask, in my view, tread already covered ground.
Let's try to write something different next time.
Speaking of writing stuff, here are some other Extra Points newsletters you might have missed:
- I interviewed the folks behind an NIL deal between a northern Indiana church and a few Notre Dame athletes. Is non-profit groups and charities are aggressive in the NIL world...shoot, could churches join them?
- I also talked to a company that helps athletes run camps and teach private lessons, since that's a way anybody can take advantage of NIL, even without a big social media following.
- The internet seems to think that Chat GPT is going to take all of our jobs. I tried to use it to figure out how to fix the big problems in college sports. It didn't do a very good job. FOR NOW.
- And I read all of the College Athlete Protection Act, and dug into why I have some substantial concerns with the bill, even though I think it comes from a positive place. We also did a Going For Two podcast on this bill, if you'd prefer to listen, rather than read.
I'm able to hit the phones, write thousands of works a week, travel to conferences and more, thanks to your subscriptions and support.
We're working on finalizing a few pretty big behind-the-scenes stuff at Extra Points, as well a very silly project, which I hope to be able to share more about soon.
In the meantime, thanks for reading, and I'll see you in your inbox next week.
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