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College football is booming, after all the hand-wringing, thanks to NIL and the transfer portal




Earlier this week, Michael Mulvihill, president of insights and analytics at Fox Corp., tweeted an eyebrow-raising nugget as pertains to interest in college football.


Total viewing of college football is up 12 percent this season and up 28 percent over the past five years, he tweeted, adding, “among well-established major properties, I don’t know what in all of TV is trending any better than CFB.”


Some might chalk up that trend to the rise of legalized sports gambling, but even sports TV’s crown jewel, the NFL, has seen a more modest 7 percent increase over the past five years, per Nielsen data.


College football is uniquely booming right now, and though there’s no singular reason why, I can think of two: the transfer portal and NIL.


Coaches, commissioners, athletic directors and NCAA presidents have spent years warning us of these two supposed bogeymen’s ruinous effects. Instead, they have been a massive boon for those leaders’ most valuable sport, allowing long-stagnant programs to turn themselves into contenders and star players to gravitate to less-established programs.


All of which makes the sport more exciting and more interesting.


“You can look across the landscape of college football this year and probably pick some pretty good data points to show where the portal and NIL have helped distribute talent in a more competitive fashion across the country,” said Walker Jones, executive director of The Grove Collective at Ole Miss. “You see there’s a little more parity this year.”


For the first month of the 2023 season, Deion Sanders and Colorado turned a long-dormant program’s games into a weekly star-studded event. It likely would not have been nearly the phenomenon had Sanders been coaching last year’s dreadful Buffs roster.


USC went from 4-8 one year to the cusp of a College Football Playoff berth the next, thanks in large part to a transcendent quarterback, Caleb Williams, who was able to transfer from Oklahoma and play right away in 2022. That would not have been possible before the NCAA’s one-time transfer exception went into effect in 2021. One-time power Florida State, which had cratered to four straight losing seasons from 2018-2021, is back in the national title mix this season thanks to a roster coach Mike Norvell upgraded primarily via the portal. Texas is (almost) back, led by a quarterback, Quinn Ewers, who transferred after just one season at Ohio State and started the next.


And just as the vaunted SEC has shown cracks for the first time in ages, the downtrodden (and soon to be extinct) Pac-12 is having its most exciting season in a decade, thanks in large part to transfer QBs like Williams, Oregon’s Bo Nix and Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. The latter two will square off Saturday in the first-ever Oregon-Washington game where both teams are ranked in the top 10.


“It’s so refreshing,” said former Colorado, Washington and UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel, now an analyst for CBS Sports. “It’s been fantastic to see this kind of parity, and the seeds that were sown to get there, we need to keep track of so that we don’t lose it. It’s NIL and the ability to (transfer) to a place where you’re going to be coveted and taken care of.”


It’s not a coincidence the five-year period Mulvihill cited began with the 2019 season — the Year of Joe Burrow. LSU’s national champion and the eventual No. 1 pick likely inspired a host of future players looking to jump-start their careers. Also that same year, Justin Fields went from a freshman backup at Georgia to starter for CFP participant Ohio State (he was granted an immediate eligibility waiver), and Jalen Hurts, who started in two national championship games at Alabama, led new school Oklahoma to the CFP.


Critics that bemoan the “professionalization” of college football often cite how the portal has spawned NFL-like free agency. The thing is … free agency is kinda fun.


Until recently, college football lacked the fan frenzy that comes when a big star in the NBA or MLB changes teams. ACC record-setting QB Sam Hartman moving from Wake Forest to Notre Dame isn’t quite Aaron Rodgers leaving the Packers for the Jets, but it certainly added a layer of intrigue to this year’s Fighting Irish.


And Hartman’s move probably wouldn’t have happened in the pre-NIL era, before proven transfer QBs could enter the portal and fetch seven-figure deals.


Similarly, in the pre-NIL era, Nix, a fifth-year senior, and Penix, a sixth-year “super senior,” would have almost certainly entered the NFL Draft last spring. Nix is believed to be making several million dollars from his deals with Oregon’s NIL collective, Division Street, as well as Bose, Hugo Boss, Topps and other national and regional brands. Penix has deals with Washington’s Montlake Futures collective, Panini trading cards and Adidas.


“I don’t think (NIL) has hurt college football in any way, shape, or form, like we were warned over and over,” said sports agent Mike McCartney, son of legendary Colorado coach Bill McCartney, whose firm, VaynerSports, represents Notre Dame’s Hartman. “Colorado has generated so much interest, and this (turnaround) never could have happened without the combination of NIL and transfer portal, so that’s exciting. Now there’s hope for a lot of schools, whether it’s this year or in the future, and that’s cool. That’s fun. That’s great for college football.”


Many NCAA doomsayers also predicted that a star college player making millions of dollars more than their teammates threatened to fracture locker rooms. USC’s Williams, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, is almost certainly making many millions. He appears weekly in national television commercials for Dr Pepper, Nissan and Wendy’s, in addition to deals with Beats by Dre, United Airlines and others.


USC is 17-3 since Williams arrived, and by all accounts, he is revered by his teammates.


The sport as a whole has a more positive vibe than it did back in 2018, when Clemson and Alabama met in the national championship game for the third time in four seasons, Ohio State beat Michigan for the seventh straight year and Oklahoma won its fourth straight Big 12 championship. College football had grown stale.


A year later, though, buoyed in part by Burrow, CBS, ABC/ESPN and Fox all saw significant viewership increases. Audiences for all sports dipped in 2020, but college football rebounded quickly. In 2022, ESPN reported its highest viewership in five years, and last week, the network announced that 2023 is on pace to be its best season since 2016. Saturday’s Oregon-Washington showdown on ABC will assuredly help drive ratings.


But then, three days later, in true buzzkill fashion, the Senate Judiciary Committee will be holding a hearing entitled “Name, Image and Likeness, and the Future of College Sports” — the 10th such hearing on Capitol Hill since 2020.


College sports leaders have spent the last year lobbying Congress to help rein in NIL. In March, Notre Dame president John Jenkins and AD Jack Swarbrick co-authored an op-ed in the New York Times that declared “college athletics is in crisis.” In June, Sen. Tommy Tuberville, a college head coach for two decades, decried “this runaway NIL situation that we’re in,” and questioned players’ ability to transfer “at any time.”


Their fear-mongering should really be sent in a time capsule back to 2021, because in 2023, NIL and the portal have largely become normalized. NIL collectives, which first began appearing in late 2021/early 2022, were viewed suspiciously at the time. Many were thrown together quickly and haphazardly and led to a few cautionary tales, most notably a Florida collective’s broken $13 million promise to recruit Jaden Rashada.


Today, most schools’ NIL collectives have evolved into professionalized operations, and the practice of soliciting donations from fans and boosters to attract and retain players has gone from salacious to standard. Coaches and ADs that once frowned on the practice now record social-media videos encouraging fans to donate.


“There’s a level of sophistication now with how collectives are being run, that we did not have last year,” said Jones, who’s expected to testify at next week’s NIL hearing on behalf of the new trade group The Collective Association. “We’ve got another year under our belt to see what’s happening with the valuation of players in the marketplace, both when they’re in the portal, or when they’re on your current roster, that is helping make dollars stretch further and be more impactful.”


That’s not to say there aren’t bad actors clouding the sport’s new landscape.


Tampering, by which coaches are recruiting players off others’ rosters, has become common practice, with the NCAA seemingly powerless to deter it. Figures masquerading as agents have taken advantage of economically disadvantaged athletes and their families seeking NIL riches. In a particularly egregious case, Chicago Bears rookie Gervon Dexter, a second-round pick from Florida, recently sued investment firm Big League Advantage attempting to invalidate a contract by which Big League paid him $436,485 while still in college but is now owed 15 percent of his lifetime NFL earnings.


But the NCAA’s Division I council recently introduced a set of sensible proposals, including a registry for agents and standardized NIL contracts, that would help protect athletes without attempting to put constraints on their “market value.”


The College Sports Establishment spent many decades and many, many millions in legal fees fighting to preserve its traditional model of amateurism. One of the centerpieces of its defense was the unsubstantiated fear that Americans would lose interest if college athletes were ever treated as professionals. At the seminal Ed O’Bannon antitrust trial in 2014, the NCAA called an expert witness, John Dennis, who had conducted surveys about the public’s opinions on paying college athletes.


His conclusion: “Paying student-athletes would lead to situations where the viewing public would attend and watch fewer games.”


Whoops.


“There’s a lot of alums that care about their schools, whether they’re a top-10 program or not,” said McCartney. “I can’t imagine college football has ever been bigger than it is now.”

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