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How college football bowls and sponsors are navigating the NIL era

On the morning of Dec. 29, a pair of football players -- one from Oklahoma and the other from Florida State -- will post messages to their social media accounts while surrounded by fake cheese throw pillows and cracker-inspired interior design. They'll let followers know that, much like an anthropomorphized, excited wheel of cheddar wearing shoulder pads in a long-running television commercial, they have woken up "feeling the cheesiest." The folks at Kellogg's will pay them to do so.

Later that evening, the two players, who have not yet been publicly identified, will join their teammates to play in the Cheez-It Bowl in Orlando, Florida. In the current transitory business model of the multibillion-dollar college sports industry, this is one example of how money now reaches the main source of labor.

While NCAA rules place limits on how schools can pay athletes, the ability for players to make money from their name, image and likeness in the past 18 months has led to a series of new, creative ways for businesses and boosters to divert money that might have previously flowed through schools, and with far fewer limits, give it directly to athletes.

Boosters, for example, can now channel money to athletes by having them endorse a product, make appearances or sign autographs. Competition has led boosters to rapidly organize themselves into collectives that have played a big role in reshaping recruiting. If current regulations dictating how college athletes can be paid remain the same, several experts told ESPN that sporting events not operated by the NCAA -- bowl games and midseason basketball tournaments, for example -- are headed down a similar path, using NIL deals to attract the best teams possible to their event.

"One thing we've seen in the first 18 months of the NIL era is some are quicker to move than others," said Andrew Donovan, executive vice president of Altius Sports Partners, an NIL consulting company that works with dozens of colleges. "But once two or three move, others follow suit. I think you're going to see the same thing in the event space."

Not all bowl games are created equal. Some lower-tier games might not generate the budget or incentive to find ways to help facilitate significant NIL deals for their participants. But the prospect of NIL deals becoming a common perk for bowl participants raises an interesting question for the very top tier of the sport's postseason -- the College Football Playoff, a private business governed by the 10 FBS conferences and Notre Dame. If college athletes remain quasi-amateurs, will the CFP use some of those same creative NIL paths to share money with players? Will it want to?

"It would be premature to speculate on how that revenue might be distributed in the next agreement," CFP executive director Bill Hancock told ESPN this week.

The NCAA published new guidelines in October in an attempt to clarify what NIL activities are allowed and what falls on the wrong side of the sparse rules. The final bullet point of the four-page document said players could not be paid "directly or indirectly for promoting an athletics competition in which they participate."

Even to those who wrote the guidelines, it's not clear what would count as an indirect payment related to a bowl game.

Can the Oklahoma and Florida State players posting from their Cheez-It-themed hotel rooms remind their followers how to watch their game that night? Can they mention the reason they are in a cracker-inspired hotel room? Or say that they are carbo-loading with Cheez-Its to help them play their best in the Cheez-It Bowl that night?

Lynda Tealer, who chaired the NCAA working group that wrote the October guidelines and works as an administrator in the University of Florida athletic department, said it was up to the NCAA enforcement staff to make decisions on what crosses a vague line into prohibited payments. The NCAA declined ESPN's request to speak with enforcement staff.

Toby Baldwin, who oversees NIL activities for the Oklahoma athletic department, said earlier this week that he didn't yet know which, if any, of the hypothetical scenarios could potentially land a player or the school in trouble with the NCAA. He said he would likely review the player's script before he records the promotional video and determine then how best to make sure the player isn't crossing the blurry line between promoting a product and promoting a game sponsored by that product. This isn't unusual for someone in Baldwin's position trying to navigate the current rules of college sports.

"That's to be expected," he said. "That's how we operate. Case by case, day by day and hour by hour."

Florida Citrus Sports, the group that operates the Cheez-It Bowl and the Citrus Bowl along with other athletic events, is confident that the Cheez-It deal is on solid ground with NCAA rules because the athletes are being paid to promote the title sponsor and not the game itself. CEO Steve Hogan said he and his employees have been exploring ways to use NIL to make sure players in their games got the best possible bowl experience since the rules changed in 2021.

Hogan said they wanted to do as much as possible to provide more to athletes, but their top priority has been making sure that any NIL deals associated with the game won't create problems for the athletes by violating NCAA rules. His chief marketing officer, Matt Repchak, said the Citrus Bowl and Cheez-It Bowl had to revise some of their plans after the NCAA provided its new guidance in October because they weren't sure if their initial ideas would be allowed.

"I think the lack of certainty around what is allowable is slowing the earning potential of everybody -- all players, all opportunities," Hogan said. "A lot of people don't understand what you can do. When we get a little bit more clarity, I think you'll start to see [more]. The money will be there. Right now it's hemmed up in bureaucracy."

Hogan isn't alone. Michael Zoerb oversees NIL deals that are associated with bowl games for Opendorse, one of the largest NIL-facilitating companies in the industry. Zoerb said the number of endorsement campaigns Opendorse has helped to broker that overlap with certain bowl games has dropped from 10 last year to six this bowl season. He attributed that drop to the vagueness of the NCAA's new guidelines.

"We actually got a bit of a curveball thrown at us with the NCAA guidance," Zoerb said. "Unfortunately, what resulted was more questions. I believe we would have seen quite a bit more activity this year from bowls had that guidance not come out."

The bowl games that have gone forward with NIL plans have had to find creative ways to spend their marketing dollars on athletes without potentially stepping into an NCAA gray area. The Charlotte Sports Foundation, which operates the Duke's Mayo Bowl, plans to pay a player from this year's game $5,000 to be an ambassador for the bowl throughout the coming year. Because of the NCAA's guidance, the foundation is limited to picking a player who has exhausted his eligibility.

At the Memphis-based Liberty Bowl, a local sponsor is running a campaign to raise money for the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, also in Memphis. Players from both Arkansas and Kansas have sent tweets that include a link where fans can donate and an explanation that half the money raised will go to the children's hospital and the other half goes to players who are helping with promotion.

ESPN, which operates 17 bowl games and several college basketball contests, has not yet been directly involved in NIL deals associated with those events. The company is "investigating the viability, application and possible outcomes of NIL for its business," said Clint Overby, vice president of ESPN Events.

Zoerb said most deals Opendorse has facilitated this bowl season have been paid by bowl sponsors rather than the bowl operators. But it's not clear that a bowl game operator would be breaking the rules if it paid a player to promote something else associated with the weeklong bowl experience rather than the game itself. For example, it's unclear if Florida Citrus Sports could pay players to show up and sign autographs the day before a game at a fan event.

"That's one of the clarifications we'd love to get from the NCAA," Zoerb said. "If the bowl games want to pay players to promote their sponsors and not the game, from the way that it's written that seems like it would be OK. But most people are erring on the side of caution."

In basketball, where midseason tournaments compete more directly to attract the most appealing teams, some event organizers have been less tentative. NIL packages are now part of every pitch that schools hear when deciding on what tournaments to attend, according to Rick Giles, president of The Gazelle Group. Giles' company organizes several college basketball tournaments each year. He said this season it has paid players to promote the tournaments on social media. He also has signed contracts with some schools that, along with a payment to the school, include a promise that Gazelle Group will pay a certain amount of money to the booster collective associated with that school.

Giles said he and his company plan to keep offering the same deals to schools and players despite the NCAA's newest guidance.

"It's a part of every conversation now, and I think it should be," Giles said. "We are very much in favor of paying the players. I am individually, and our company is as well. We think the players enjoying a financial benefit and compensation in exchange for promoting things is a great benefit to them and a great benefit to us."

The NCAA has thus far been hesitant to regulate NIL activity in a way that appears to limit any financial opportunities for athletes. Heavy-handed rules could prompt legal complaints for antitrust violations, which the NCAA has struggled to successfully defend in court in recent years. Several experts believe that a hands-off approach to investigating NIL deals that are associated with tournaments or bowl games, combined with competition to attract the best teams, inevitably will lead to NIL packages becoming a ubiquitous part of these events.

Bowl games fill their matchups through long-term contracts with conferences rather than yearly negotiations with individual teams. Competition to create the best product moves on a different timeline than in the basketball world, but in the long run, bowl games also compete with one another to create the best experience possible for athletes in hopes of moving up the pecking order of a conference's bowl lineup to attract better teams and better TV ratings.

Donovan from Altius Sports Partners said the schools he works with haven't raised many questions about NIL packages associated with bowl games yet, but he sees a bevy of possibilities for bowl games, which are working to build their reputations for providing great experiences for teams and players.

"It just seems like there's a lot of low-hanging fruit for some of those opportunities that would help the bowl games, help their sponsors and help the athletes," he said.

Tealer said a future in which bowl games are competing with one another to create attractive NIL packages for participants is likely if Congress doesn't create new federal laws that give the NCAA the ability to create and enforce rules without running into legal problems.

"Without national legislation, we'll end up in some version of what you described," she said. "And I don't have a judgment if that's right or wrong. We're not making an effort to claw back privileges around NIL."

If college football does move into a future where the majority of bowl game operators are taking some of the money they make from their events and sharing it with players via NIL deals, that could put the College Football Playoff in a potentially awkward position in coming years.

Unlike most NCAA championship tournaments, the soon-to-be 12-team playoff in football is operated by a private company called the College Football Playoff. It also operates a charitable foundation. If other bowls pave a path to finding creative ways to share some of their earnings with players, could the CFP pay its players to promote its charitable foundation?

Hancock, the CFP's executive director, said there are no current plans to change how the CFP distributes money under the current contract, which expires in 2026. He said it was too early to make any comments about whether that kind of arrangement could exist in the future.

A portion of the money generated by the CFP already goes to supporting players and their families -- directly through helping them travel to games, and indirectly by filtering through conference payouts to individual schools, which use those funds to cover the cost of scholarships, stipends and other benefits the players receive. However, the CFP's revenue is expected to grow significantly when it signs its next broadcast rights contract. And if the NCAA's current rules remain intact, schools won't be able to pass on that increase to players in the form of any direct compensation.

Some players, such as Ohio State's CJ Stroud, and coaches such as Michigan's Jim Harbaugh, who are participating in this year's semifinals, already have said publicly that they believe players should get a bigger share of the revenue raised by the sport's lucrative television contracts.

If other private companies that operate bowl games are finding creative ways to share their revenue through NIL deals without NCAA penalties, the members of the College Football Playoff -- which is to say, conference commissioners and athletic department leaders -- might find themselves in a position where they have to either follow suit or explain why they are willing to pay their coaches hefty bonuses for winning championships while stopping short of doing everything they can to share money with their players.

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