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NIL money becoming a major player in college athletics

It’s been a year and a half since the NCAA’s name, image and likeness policy went into effect, and student-athletes are cashing in.

But luring and keeping elite athletes means universities need to have a lot of NIL opportunities available. And that generate a lot of money.

That was never more evident than when Ohio State football coach Ryan Day told a group of Columbus business owners last summer he needed $13 million in NIL money to keep his roster intact

Indiana coach Tom Allen said any coach would love to have half that money available for their athletes to collect.

On his weekly radio show late this season, Allen spoke at length about NIL, lamenting how athletes making money has impacted the balance of recruiting, favoring traditional Big Ten powers Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State.

“(Michigan) Coach (Jim) Harbaugh says, ‘we think we can do better than that.’ And, and (Penn State) Coach (James) Franklin said, ‘we better be at least right there, because that's what these other guys are doing,’” Allen said.

“That's how the game is played. And if you're not in the game, and you're not on the train, you're gonna get left out and run over.”

Allen said at the start of this season, eight Hoosiers were making about $150,000 each, and the total NIL money available for football around $3 million.

But schools like Indiana are getting run over.

Alabama coach Nick Saben said quarterback Bryce Young earned more than a million dollars in NIL endorsements - before playing his first game two years ago. He’s making three times that now.

It’s those deals that inflate what the average athlete makes, which is around $3,700, according to Opendorse, a leading NIL collective. It expects total NIL earnings to exceed $1 billion dollars in this year.

Les Morris, an adjunct professor in IU’s Media School who teaches a course on NIL, is concerned that the money elite athletes are making is the norm.

“They read stories that make news like the University of Texas quarterback that gets a deal with a Lamborghini dealership, and that's the exception,” Morris said. “And that drives up the average.”

Les Morris taught his NIL course for the first time this fall. In it, students learn about the underpinnings of the policy, how to work with NIL partners and advise student athletes.

He said a whole cottage industry has sprung up to manage the complicated world of NIL collectives, which likens to clearing houses that take in money and distribute it to the student athletes.

IU's Marketplace page on NIL collective Opendorse.

I-U has partnered with Opendorse, which runs the Indiana Marketplace, a one-stop shop all where Hoosier athletes can be pitched NIL opportunities, make deals and get paid. Universities cannot fund collectives, but they can fundraise for them and market them.

“IU has at least three or four people whose sum of their responsibility is NIL in the athletic department,” Morris said. “They work with various outside groups on marketing, and also on strategic initiatives. They’re lawyers, they’re PR people, they’re agents, they’re professors.”

On Opendorse, each athlete’s profile, NIL options and contact information are listed. Social media can be a big money-maker. Opendorse said during the first six months of the policy a tik-tok post could be worth around $900, an Instagram post around $500 and a tweet around $75. On average, appearances earned athletes $1,700 an hour.

Indiana women’s basketball star Grace Berger says most of the time, businesses reach out to her for a product endorsement or an appearance.

“If me or my teammates have an interest in a local business, we'll reach out to them,” Berger said. “And we found that businesses are really, really excited about doing deals with us when we reached out to them first.”

Morris said the biggest complain he hears is from NIL partners is about student reliability.

“They say they're going to post on social media, then they don't post or they post late, they just forget about it,” Morris said. “So, I tell my students, make sure that you're working with your student athlete so that she'll post when she says she's going to post, because that's what she's getting paid for.”

The Hoosiers For Good office is located in The Mill.

For the most part, collectives are for profit. One that’s not is Bloomington-based Hoosiers For Good. It solicits donations, then compensates athletes for their time supporting more than 20 charities.

“We’ve developed a charitable incubator program to allow student athletes who are passionate about a specific cause to submit proposals to us about specific charities they want to impact and what they're going to do to impact them,” said Travis Harris, the executive director of Hoosiers For Good. “And we could enter into NIL agreements with those student athletes, help them find their voice and raise awareness for that specific cause.”

IU athletes sign up for a year-long commitment to Hoosiers For Good.

“They're going to be making a lot of appearances and required to put out a lot of social media posts to really raise that awareness for charities,” Harris said.

This week, Hoosiers for Good announced an anonymous donor’s $1 million dollar pledge challenge at the end of 2022 had been matched, bringing in a total of $2 million new dollars available for the collective to use on its IU athletes.

“We also want to have some sort of metrics that we're using to make sound decisions. This is not a way to just funnel money to athletes. That's not what we're about."

IU women's basketball players, from left, Gracer Berger, Mackenzie Holmes and Chloe Moore-McNeil participate in a TikTok video.

Berger is one of the more than two dozen I-U athletes partnered with Hoosiers for Good.

“Anytime you can make money, that's a great part of it,” Berger said. “But, you know, it's kind of a double benefit, that you make money while helping the community. And Hoosiers For Good, something like that is something I would have been completely willing to do and excited about doing, even if there was no money involved.”

There was no NIL money to be had when Berger was being recruited to Indiana. Now, what NIL opportunities are available – and how much money can be made – plays a role in recruiting.

“You can go into an athlete's home and kind of show them where the current athletes on our team have gotten deals from what kind of money they're bringing in,” she said. “Obviously, that just gives (bigger schools) an advantage over smaller schools or other schools that might not have that community interest or market size.”

And that’s what rankles Allen. He said using NIL money to recruit reaches past luring prospective high schoolers and into the transfer portal, where other schools can poach top players.

“You used to think, ‘Hey, when the season finishes, you go out and recruit your class,’” Allen said. “And now, when the season ends, you do that and you have to recruit your own, which is a whole new … it’s never gonna change.”

Berger is now in her fifth season at IU. She said NIL money makes it easier for athletes like her to take advantage of an extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA due to the pandemic.

“I think you definitely see it kind of being a reason that a lot of these top athletes are staying around,” she said. “Obviously, for the experience of playing the sport, but also to make some money while they're doing it and really set them up for their future and life after sports.”

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