Playing Money Ball In College Sports

Illustration of college sports players with money signs instead of jersey numbers
Illustration by Lincoln Agnew

WHAT’S IN A NAME? NIL refers to Name, Image, and Likeness, and is a way for student-athletes to receive compensation without violating NCAA rules.

RUSH THE COURT. The college sports industry generates more than $19 billion per year. Student-athletes have long received scholarships to defray tuition costs—the average price of a four-year degree from an in-state school is $102,000—but they weren’t able to profit from their on-field and -court roles until July 2021, when the NCAA lost a 9-0 Supreme Court decision in Alston v. NCAA.

BIG DEAL. The decision enabled student-athletes to accept money by making endorsements and appearances, headlining camps, writing books, and engaging in a variety of other commercial activities.

CROWDFUNDING. After the court ruling, alumni, fans, and private agencies created NIL collectives, pools of financial resources to administer on behalf of their favorite school’s athletes.

JUMP BALL. The NCAA was dragged kicking and screaming onto the new landscape, causing confusion in lieu of guidelines. In the void, 29 states passed NIL laws (Indiana isn’t among those), throwing inconsistency into the mix. Finally, in July, outgoing NCAA President Mark Emmert appealed to a group of federal lawmakers at a Senate committee hearing. “With ongoing serial litigation and NIL legislation pending in over half the states, we may need your help to accomplish this,” he said.

SETTING THE MARKET. With lots of money at stake, NIL collectives have become a recruiting tool. A former Indy-area high school basketball standout has scored one of the most lucrative NIL deals to date. Nijel Pack, who played at Lawrence Central, started his collegiate career at Kansas State, but has since transferred to the University of Miami, where he will receive $800,000 and a new car as the point guard for the Hurricanes.

College sports player Trayce Jackson-Davis has the ball
Indiana forward Trayce Jackson-Davis (23) drives on Illinois center Kofi Cockburn (21) in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game at the Big Ten Conference tournament in Indianapolis, Friday, March 11, 2022. Indiana defeated Illinois 65-63.

HERE COME THE HOOSIERS. Indiana University became the first in-state program to launch its foray into NIL, setting up a collective a month after the Supreme Court decision and put six-figure deals in place for some athletes. NIL deals have been credited for helping to keep current star Trayce Jackson-Davis from entering the NBA Draft and luring future ones to their highly rated 2022 recruiting class.

ANTE UP. “It’s almost like poker,” explains Jeff Rabjohns, who covers Indiana University athletics as publisher of “You have to have a robust NIL program card to play … and it can’t be the two of diamonds.”

BOILER BUCKS. Never to be outdone by its mortal enemy, Purdue introduced the Boilermaker Alliance in September, which is backed by former stars like recently retired Super Bowl XLIV MVP Drew Brees and NBA Draft lottery pick Jaden Ivey, now with the Detroit Pistons. “From the outset, our board members made it clear that we didn’t want to be involved if the organization couldn’t create a competitive advantage for Purdue,” says Jeff McKean, the collective’s president. “We’re confident the Boilermaker Alliance is one of the most robust programs in the country.”

DAWG DEALS. Don’t expect any six-figure deals from Butler. The Bulldogs have a strong program in place—the All Good Dawgs Collective—but understand their charity-focused NIL program isn’t for everyone. “If a kid is shopping around [for the highest NIL bidder], then he’s probably not a Butler kid,” says Matt Howard, who serves on the board of All Good Dawgs and was one of the faces on Butler’s back-to-back NCAA finalist teams.

MORE OF THE SAME. “While NIL is impacting athletes and individual player movement, the best players are still going to high-profile programs,” says Mike DeCourcy, longtime college basketball writer for The Sporting News. “I don’t think that will change.”