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NIL and transfer changes hurt small college athletic programs

Developments in college sports make it almost impossible for non-Power Five schools to compete consistently. Changes to the transfer portal and name, image and likeness (NIL) rules steepen the already uphill climb for smaller schools to stay competitive.

Systematic changes

In 2021, the NCAA officially approved changes to the rules for student-athletes transferring schools. These changes allowed athletes to transfer and immediately play for their new school so long as they met academic requirements.

This change was made after multiple years of legal battles over the NCAA's process for determining transfer eligibility.

For a product that brings in millions of dollars annually, these changes should be noted as an absolute win for the students who help make it what it is. However, the mess in the resulting aftermath has begun to blur the line between college athletics and their professional counterparts. College athletes now constantly transfer in search of more compensation and opportunity, making college offseasons look more like the free agency periods of professional sports than the stagnant times of past amateur offseasons.

According to NCAA research, 13,025 Division I athletes transferred in 2023, a massive increase from 2021's figure of 9,806. This number will likely continue to rise as the portal gains popularity and NIL deals become increasingly ludicrous.

Cash is king

Part of the worry for smaller programs is a lack of NIL funding to draw in star transfers and recruits. With the easing of restrictions on both the transfer portal and student-athletes' ability to profit from NIL, if a player performs above expectations, they can transfer to a larger program with more NIL money on the table.

It was reported that Utah State forward Great Osobor would transfer to the University of Washington. In doing so, Osobor has NIL agreements in place to give him the highest evaluation in college basketball this year, which is $2 million, according to ESPN's Jonathan Givony.

Small schools and even mid-majors simply lack the resources to attract and retain star players like Osobor.

Local effects

The Charlotte 49ers men's basketball program lost two notable undergraduates to the transfer portal following the most recent season. Star guard Lu'Cye Patterson, who ranked No. 2 in the American Athletic Conference in scoring, transferred to the University of Minnesota. Charlotte's top rebounder, forward Igor Miličić Jr., transferred to the University of Tennessee. Both were named Second-Team and Third-Team All-American Athletic Conference (AAC) and main contributors to a 2023-24 Charlotte team that finished No. 3 in the conference.

Along with Patterson and Miličić, Charlotte men's basketball lost two other starters, junior center Dishon Jackson and graduate guard Jackson Threadgill, to the transfer portal. This leaves only one player from the starting lineup still on the roster.

Charlotte's football program lost its two graduate tackle leaders, Demetrius Knight and Nikhai Hill-Green, to the University of South Carolina and the University of Colorado, respectively.

Women's basketball saw graduate guard Dazia Lawrence lead the team in points and represent USA Basketball at the FIBA U23 3x3 World Cup in Poland. Following the season, Lawrence transferred to the University of Kentucky.

The portal and NIL had one of their most harmful years on Charlotte's teams in the 2023-24 season. The portal and NIL will continue to draw talent from Charlotte unless Charlotte adapts or the NCAA implements some sort of speed bump for the quickly changing NCAA world.

The little guy

Charlotte is not the only school seeing a drain of talent. Fellow AAC member Florida Atlantic University lost two key senior contributors to its men's basketball program: center Vladislav Goldin to the University of Michigan and guard Johnell Davis to the University of Arkansas. Both were among the top three scorers on the team during the 2022-2023 campaign, during which the Owls made a run to NCAA men's basketball's Final Four.

These changes have resulted in a worrisome state of affairs for small schools. With the importance of NIL deals and a lack of restrictions on transfers, it becomes a question of whether it is feasible for smaller programs to retain talent.

Looking forward

Given the current state of college athletics, it is clear that both schools and the NCAA must better navigate a rapidly changing landscape. Increased transfer and NIL freedoms for student-athletes have empowered players but have introduced new challenges for maintaining program stability. What is certain is that college athletics is evolving, and the decisions made now will shape its future.

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