This week in college football started with two monumental events. On Sunday the CFP committee announced its final four selections for the national championship and on Monday the college football transfer portal opened for business. While half the pundits think Florida State “got screwed” in the committee’s decision to omit undefeated FSU, the other half seem to think the committee got it right. The debate centers on the fact that FSU was left out thanks to the loss of star Quarterback Jordan Travis. Travis is the QB who couldn’t start at Louisville, entered the transfer portal and resurrected his team and his career at FSU.
While thinking about how the portal had transformed Travis I read a report in The Athletic entitled, “Ohio State QB Kyle McCord enters transfer portal.” Huh???? Didn’t McCord, a former 5-Star himself, just win the QB1 job at Ohio State and take the team to an 11-1 record while posting a 65.8% completion rate with 24 TD passes vs only 6 pics for 3,170 yards??? Ok, I get he (and the rest of the Buckeyes) didn’t beat Michigan (for the 3rd year in a row). But good grief, how do you measure success? According to the article’s author, Cameron Teague Robinson, when asked who would start at QB for the Buckeyes in the Cotton Bowl against Missouri, Ohio State head coach Ryan Day “didn’t give a definitive answer.” What???? Not standing by your man, Coach Day?
So Much for Job Security
The Athletic’s Robinson goes on to evaluate McCord with descriptions like “elite arm” and “McCord has talent” but counters with “McCord struggled against pressure” and “missed people open running downfield” and this beauty “… wasn’t comfortable in the pocket.” How do you go 11-1 with your QB not comfortable in the pocket and struggling under pressure? How can a Quarterback experience this level of success and still be under this type of criticism? Somewhere between football pundits and Ryan Day there was a crack in Kyle McCord’s armor. Or was there? Did, in fact, Ryan Day just run off Kyle McCord, or is Kyle McCord seeing greener pastures?
First Day of the Portal
Monday December 4th was the day college football players could access and register in the transfer portal. You get 45 days in the portal to negotiate with other schools. The number of top-flight Quarterbacks entering this year’s portal is mind-blowing. Start with Washington State’s Cam Ward who started as an FCS transfer from Incarnate Word to WSU where he posted huge numbers like 61 TD passes vs 16 pics for 7,165 yards in two years. Cam has one year left and he’s choosing to exercise it elsewhere. Granted, in his case, he started at a school in the Pac-12 which has now been reduced to the Pac-2 (along with Oregon State). So also pencil into the portal Oregon State’s DJ Uiagalele. The former 5-star who was resurrected via the portal from two underperforming years at Clemson by the pro-style system at OSU. DJ tossed 27 TD passes vs only 7 pics for the #20 Beavers. Sweet, but, he’s leaving.
So what’s happening here? Well, Matt Ruhle, the head coach at Nebraska came up with his own point of view. Said Ruhle at his year-end press conference ( Cornhuskers were 5-7 in 2023) “Make no mistake: A good Quarterback in the portal costs $1 million to $1.5million to $2 million right now.” Ruhle is talking NIL money and not NFL money.
$2 million for a tier one college Quarterback? Really? How exactly does that work? Well, it’s complicated.
Thank California for NIL
On September 30, 2019 the state of California passed a law allowing college athletes to be paid for use of their names, images, and likenesses (NIL). Governor Gavin Newsom called it the Fair Pay to Play Act. It took effect in September 2021. Twenty other states were considering similar laws at the time. NCAA officials called it “harmful,” “unconstitutional,” and an “existential threat to college sports” as reported in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. On June 12, 2020 the state of Florida passed a similar law.
Soon, the US government began to raise antitrust concerns about the NCAA position. Finally, on June 21, 2021 the US Supreme Court (yup the Big guys/gals) ruled unanimously that the NCAA could not limit education-related benefits to athletes. Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote, “Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate.” And, “The NCAA is not above the law”.
Wait, This Just in from Day Two of the Portal
Excuse the interruption but how about Riley Leonard at Duke just entering the portal? Leonard is a great athlete (google video of his basketball dunks) at 6’4” and 215 lbs. He can beat you with his arm and his legs. In 2022 he posted 3,666 yards and 33 TD passes vs just 6 Ints. But he was injured early and often in 2023 and would finish the season on the mend. He has hit the portal with a designation, “Do not contact,” an indication he already has found his new home. Notre Dame? Maybe. In fairness to Riley he is leaving a school that just lost his head coach, Mike Elko to Texas A&M. Back to the NCAA.
Back to Business
On June 20, 2021 the NCAA essentially washed its hands of NIL oversight by stating that “athletes in states with applicable laws can engage in NIL activities that are consistent with the law of the state where the school is located.” And oh by the way Congress, don’t take away my favorable antitrust status. The NCAA continued to stress that rules against recruiting inducements still stand.
So since mid 2021 it’s been the Wild Wild West in the world of college football and basketball for NIL deals. But that “rules against recruiting inducements still stand” comment by the NCAA has been problematic for the athletic programs. They fear violations and suspensions of coaches, players and, hell, ADs and University Presidents. So the schools don’t make the offers. A new group, mostly headed by boosters, raises the money and makes the offers. They are called “Collectives.”
Wait! Another Update!
I can’t get through writing this article without another portal announcement! Kansas State star QB Will Howard (36 TD passes his last two years) has squeezed his 6’5” 242 lb frame into the portal. And down in Miami, Tyler Van Dyke has decided to put the coaching changes and his inconsistencies behind him via the portal. Add QB Will Rodgers at Mississippi State. Rogers played for Mike Leach’s Air Raid attack at MSU, and will leave behind 12,315 passing yards in Starkville as he enters the portal. And the list goes on…
Back to Collectives. Collectives have been stumbling down the NIL road trying to figure out their structure. Are they “for profit,” or “non-profit?” Booster groups tended to be non-profit prior to NIL because the funds were donations, and thus, tax-deductible. But in the first round of collectives attempting to fund NIL payments a booster would donate money to a charity, the collective “hires” the student-athlete to represent or perform a service (think endorsement) for the charity. The Collective pays the student-athlete a fee for the service. Sounds cool? Well, not so fast.
You see many of the collectives were giving the vast majority of the “donation” to the student-athlete and not the charity. In some case 80-90% of the funds have been funneled to the jock. In June, 2023 the Internal Revenue Service, you’ve heard of those guys? The IRS? They released a memo saying, “Donations made to nonprofit NIL Collectives are not tax exempt because the benefits they provide college athletes are not incidental both qualitatively and quantitatively to any exempt purpose.” Yikes. You mean, you can’t receive a charitable tax break if the charity is not really receiving most of the benefits? Imagine!
The IRS Rules the Day
As reported by SI’s Ross Dillinger back in June, “This means that across the over 200 Collectives, dozens of which have been granted 501(c)(3) status, they are receiving millions in donations from boosters that are under the impression that their gifts fall under tax deduction.” At the time of the IRS announcement Charlie Baker, President of the NCAA said, “In the context of what NIL is about and how it is supposed to work… which is a service for an entity that is basically making what we’d describe as a business expense… yeah, it should be treated as a taxable event.” And, can we please keep our favorable antitrust benefits?
OK, so we have the IRS and the NCAA agreeing on the status of nonprofit Collectives. Since these developments last summer there have been a flurry of nonprofit Collectives fold their tents and some even reneging on offers to student-athletes. So, it looks like Collectives need to exist as for-profit entities if they want to stay in the NIL business. What’s still lacking is regulatory oversight. Who will track offers, who will ensure offers are actually fulfilled to the athletes and how will those offers be communicated? From the Schools or from the Collectives or both?
Dillon Gabriel? Really?
This just in: Dillon Gabriel, QB at Oklahoma just entered the portal! After starting at UCF Dillon transferred to the Sooners. He had a monster year at Oklahoma (10-2) including the huge win over rival Texas. My two cents is Gabriel had a top 5 QB year passing for 30 TDs and only 6 Ints. The strange thing is he has only one year remaining, so why transfer? I’m not sure, but remember the name Jeff Lebby? Lebby was Dillion’s OC at UCF AND Oklahoma and he was just named the head coach at Mississippi State. We already know they need a QB since Will Rodgers is already in the portal. So keep an eye on any plane tickets to Starkville for Dillon Gabriel.
Back to Collective oversight. Well, this past summer we have seen the launch of The Collective Association (TCA). This group has as many as 30 members (it’s hard to keep up!) who are all Power 5 schools. The TCA was formed to work directly with its members on NIL-related issues, including lobbying for state (and federal) legislation, creating an agent registry, and developing a revenue-sharing model. You see, with no federal oversight yet, the athletes in 50 states are operating by 50 sets of rules.
How Does This NIL Thing Work?
Here’s a hypothetical look at how NIL is currently “working.” A highly sought-after high school 4-star Quarterback is being recruited by 20 schools. He goes on a visit to, say, Southern Cal. The USC coaches give him the grand tour and he enjoys a great social weekend with his designated team handlers. Before leaving he meets with his recruiting coach who sits him down and tells the recruit how much USC wants him. He adds that the school has an NIL collective. While the coach cannot make an offer he can say, “Here is the range of NIL money that has been paid to our last three QBs.” Let’s say it’s a range of $750k to $1mil. The coach adds, “Now I can’t promise you anything, but I can tell you we want you as much as the earlier QBs who received those payments.” But, the offer must come from a third party outside of the athletic department.
The 4-star heads home and the coach calls his Collective and informs them this 4-star is at the top of the team’s recruiting list. The Collective meets to determine the amount to be offered and notifies the recruit of its interest in developing a relationship. The Collective is not going to guarantee the amount, but like the coach, they will represent a range of potential Collective money that will come the recruit’s way IF he enrolls at USC. The QB commits and shows up on campus. At this point he can sit down with the Collective and discuss the actual amount of his NIL reward. This amount is probably coming from several sources including donations, sponsors and social media promotions. You think all the above needs some oversight?
Where is Big Brother?
I’m not much for big government, but if ever there was a need for regulation it’s NIL. Multi-billionaire boosters and agents negotiating with 18-year-olds and their parents regarding the biggest decision of their life?
And the Collectives are running off the rails with cash. There is a group called On3 that estimates and tracks the value (not actual payments) of student-athletes (both high school and college). The current front-runners are 1. Bronny James, $5.9 million 2. Shedeur Sanders $4.0 million 3. Livvy Duane $3.3 million 4. Arch Manning $2.8 million 5. Caleb Williams $2.7 million . The listed amounts are the estimated value of what they should be able to make in NIL, and not their actual earnings.
Pay for Play
So when Matt Ruhle made the observation that “…a good Quarterback in the portal will cost at least $1 million,” it appears he was in the ball park. But we won’t know for sure because it’s all mostly confidential. Granted, when you see Shedeur Sanders driving around Colorado’s campus in a Rolls Royce you get the feeling his NIL is substantial. To date, there is no centralized suppository or exchange to track these deals and ensure the integrity of the deals with state law. But, we have no reason to believe there are any football boosters out there who would, in fact, ever break an NCAA rule or state law in an effort to get a recruiting edge for his or her school… right?
So what was it with Kyle McCord at Ohio State? Did Ryan Day run him off, or was McCord attracted to the potential of his value in the portal? On3 has tracked several McCord NIL deals while at OSU. The OSU Collective is known as “The Foundation” and On3 lists McCord’s deals with Mark Wahlberg Chevrolet (Really?) and Rhoback, an active wear brand, that has also signed Alabama’s Jalen Milroe as an “Ambassador.” In fact, Rhoback has signed over 3,000 NCAA athletes across all sports. My guess is most of those athletes are not making what Jalen and Kyle are making. McCord’s valuation with On3 is about $750,000. Perhaps that goes up substantially now that he’s in the portal and teams are bidding for his services?
Brock! Not that Brock, the Other Brock!
Oops, this just in: former University of Georgia backup Quarterback Brock Vandagriff, who entered the portal Tuesday 12/5 has just committed today (12/6) to Kentucky! Brock was a 4-star recruit out of Prince Avenue Christian School in Bogart, GA. He entered the portal as a red-shirt sophomore and has two years of eligibility remaining. Brock is 6’3” and 210 lbs. In his three years at Georgia sitting behind Stetson Bennett lV and Carson Beck he has thrown a total of 21 passes in his college career. On3 had his NIL value at $470,000. I hope he gets it all! Good luck, Brock!
The Wild Wild West
Here’s my biggest problem with all this. For decades (hell, a century) student-athletes have not received their fair share of sports revenues. They have been the product on display representing their university and in return many received a free education. Years ago that seemed like a fair deal. But the TV, merchandise and now streaming revenues have distorted the equation. The student-athletes’ share or percentage of all revenues is way out of skew. An adjustment has been needed for quite some time. The NCAA, in fear of anti-trust laws, has become an ineffective oversight manager of NIL. It is the Wild Wild West as the athletes dive in for the land-grab.
What prevents a football player from entering the portal multiple times and bidding up his or her services? NCAA rules following the extra COVID year as well as the introduction of the transfer portal has rendered transfer regulations “murky.” It’s not completely clear how many times you can enter the portal. This year we are seeing many football players enter for the second time to transfer to their third school. We already have plenty of football players skipping Bowl games (See Caleb Williams) when they become NFL Draft eligible, so loyalty to school and teammates be damned. Why wouldn’t you simply put yourself up for bid in every year of eligibility? See what that does to your On3 rating! So Congress, I know you can’t pass a budget nor can you promote a General in the Army, but please step in and bring some sanity back to college football!
This Doesn’t Look Sane
We just asked for some sanity, right? This just in: Wednesday, Dec 6 from Noah Henderson at Sports Illustrated: “NCAA President Charlie Baker has sent a proposal to all D-1 programs outlining the creation of a new tier of college athletics. The proposed model will not be subject to the NCAA’s longstanding restriction of direct financial compensation to student-athletes. Schools can now compensate players through direct NIL payments and a trust fund.” OK, what does that mean? Henderson: “During a week of pandemonium in college athletics highlighted by NIL inducements in the transfer portal and coaches calling upon boosters in an NIL arms race, the time seems right to change the chaotic NIL Collective system. Schools will now have the ability to compensate athletes directly.”
That all sounds pretty good, right? Until it doesn’t. Baker’s proposal goes on to say that D-1 programs will have the option to opt-in to this new framework. However, this opt-in does not grant full autonomy to schools (of course not!) to decide their payment structure. Entry into this subdivision requires a minimum annual investment of $30,000 per athlete into an “enhanced educational trust fund” for at least half of a school’s countable athletes. Huh? So, which half gets the dough? Well it goes on to say the funds will be distributed directly from the schools, likely making the payments subject to Title lX compliance, requiring half the student-athlete investment to be bestowed to female student-athletes.
SI goes on to say the NCAA is looking to separate high-revenue athletic departments from the lower level schools. There are 363 D-1 schools and only 70 will be categorized as “Power 5” schools in 2023-24. In 2024 the Big10 media deal will pay nearly $100 million annually to EACH of its member institutions. By comparison, the current Mountain West Conference media deal pays out only seven million annually to each school. The difference between the Power 5 and D-1 FCS schools is even starker.
Oh my, this just in: Max Brosmer, QB New Hampshire (FCS) has just committed to Big10’s Minnesota via the portal. Brosmer led all FCS Quarterbacks in passing yards (3,449) and has tossed 56 TDs over the past two seasons. Gee, I wonder what New Hampshire’s Collective offered him to stay? They don’t have a Collective? Oh.
The Rich Get Richer?
I really look forward to a deeper explanation as to how the NCAA and member schools who opt-in to the new trust fund plan intend to determine which half of their entire student-athlete population receives the $30,000 salary. Given football will take at least 86 of those it would seem that most of the remaining would need to go to the women’s sports if Title lX is to be enforced. And what does that do to all the Group of 5 and even more so, the FCS schools who have had a real shot at recruiting men’s baseball, track, lacrosse, and track athletes that are on the cusp of the Power 5 but maybe not offered? Same goes for almost all women’s sports save basketball. Being able to offer a $30,000 job to a recruit who under “normal” conditions would not have been offered a scholarship is going to get the rich richer in a hurry. Sorry, but we’re all going to need more info on this latest NCAA powder keg.
It’s early, but where do we stand after four days of the football portal taking reservations? Well, on the first day 532 FBS players registered, which is 16% higher than the first day last year. There were 304 registrations from Power 5 schools and 228 from Group of 5 schools. Almost 100 walk-ons registered. From the FCS we saw 421 first-day registrations. That’s a grand total of 1,127, which is up 44% year to year. That number will go over 1,600. See a trend? Of the FBS payers, 85 were Quarterbacks. The losers so far? South Carolina has lost 15 players, while North Carolina State, Vanderbilt, and Western Michigan lost 14 each. Only two Power 5 programs have zero in the portal (as of Wednesday): Michigan and Northwestern. Wow. As a sidebar, give credit to head coach David Braun at Northwestern for inheriting a real shit-storm and keeping it all together. The Wildcats finished 2023 with a 5-5 record. Well done.
Is it the opportunity to succeed at new levels or is it the cash? Hard to say and certainly the answer is a mixed bag. If you look at the second careers of Bo Nix, Michael Penix, Caleb Williams and Jayden Daniels, all portal babies, you’d have to conclude it’s a great way to get ahead. But if you are motivated by the financial renumeration you can’t reject the idea of raising your value by inviting in multiple bidders. Whatever the motivation, it is clear that all of us; players, coaches, families, and fans, need help. We need structure. We need oversight. Finally, here’s the best story I’ve heard from the portal:
I Really Like This One
Tyler Buchner was a highly recruited Quarterback out of Helix High School in California. He committed to Notre Dame and was named the QB1 to start the 2022 season. But in the devastating week two loss to Marshall, Tyler suffered a severe shoulder injury and was sidelined for the season. He did return for a day of glory in the Irish bowl win over South Carolina in which Buchner scored 5 TDs, but the Notre Dame QB room was crowded in 2023 with the addition of Wake transfer Sam Hartman, so Buchner hit the portal and followed Irish OC Tommy Rees to Alabama. The competition at this level never wanes and after starting one game in 2023 Tyler was benched in favor of Jalen Milroe. We know how Jalen’s season turned out and it’s still on high octane.
So what about Tyler? Well, believe it or not he has once again hit the portal this week. There is a twist. You see, at Helix HS Tyler was also an elite Lacrosse player. In fact, he was offered by Michigan in 8th grade. He eventually turned it down to focus on football. Well, guess where Tyler is landing via the portal to play Lacrosse? Yup, South Bend, Indiana. He’s back to where it all started and back to fulfill yet another childhood dream. Good Luck Tyler! We’re all pulling for you.