What is NIL and how is it changing the face of college sports?

What is NIL and how is it changing the face of college sports?

Once a week through October, Nevada Sports Net will publish an article on Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) and how it's impacting college athletics and, more specifically, the Nevada Wolf Pack. This series is presented in partnership with Friends of the Pack, Coit Services, EC Construction, Champion Chevrolet and Bradley Drendel & Jeanney. Today's feature is an NIL explainer.

Three simple letters have changed the face of college athletics — NIL.

Those letters stand for "name," "image" and "likeness," and it allows college athletics to capitalize on the value they bring their schools. After more than 100 years of being a purely amateur operation, as least for the players, NCAA athletes can now cash in on their talent.

"It's really the branding of the student-athlete themselves and what they bring to the university as a student-athlete," said College Football Hall of Fame coach Chris Ault, formerly Nevada's head football coach and athletic director. "College sports used to be the greatest amateur programs going, and it's not amateur anymore. With the NIL opportunities now, it's become a semi-professional opportunity for student-athletes. Nothing wrong with that. Because of the funding TV is providing and all that, they should get to share in the wealth."

In June 2021, the Division I Board of Directors approved an NIL policy after being pushed in that direction after individual states began making it legal for college athletes to cash in on their name, image and likeness. While schools and athletic administrators are craving more rules and regulations for what is and isn't allowed with NIL, including dozens asking for Congressional intervention, what has been determined in the short term is there's immense earning potential for college athletes.

Until now, college athletes capitalizing off their name, image and likeness had not only been frowned upon but was an NCAA violation that would threaten eligibility. Something as simple as getting paid for autographs would cost players multiple games or perhaps even a full season. Now, players are able to cash in on their abilities, the top athletes to the tune of seven figures annually.

While Nevada and Mountain West schools haven't been able to cobble together deals of that magnitude, they have joined the arms race in making sure their players are compensated, which is essential in modern-day recruiting and retention battles.

"It's sad in a way that this is what college football has become, but it is what it is," said Jackson LaDuke, a Spanish Springs High graduate who played for Oregon football for three seasons before joining Nevada this winter. "And if you're not keeping up with other Mountain West teams or other power teams, you're not going to be able to keep up and you're going to get left behind."

Schools are not allowed to directly pay players. That remains an NCAA violation. But collectives can be set up on their behalf. Collectives are third-party operations that raise money from donors, with that money essentially being used for player salaries. Nevada's most active collective is Friends of the Pack, which culls money and gives it to Blueprint Sports, which was founded in Las Vegas in 2020 and backed by tennis legend Andre Agassi.

Blueprint Sports distributes the money raised by Friends of the Pack to Nevada athletes in exchange for them doing community service events. Beyond Friends of the Pack, businesses can directly link with Wolf Pack athletes for commercial efforts (for example, DoughBoys Donuts' partnership with Nevada basketball player, Will Baker, last season).

While specific numbers and school-by-school comparisons are difficult to draw because of the third-party nature of the current NIL landscape, setting up the infrastructure to ensure their athletes get NIL payments has become vital for Division I schools.

"I think it's very critical," said Virgil Green, a Super Bowl champion and Nevada football's director of player personnel. "In the world we live in sports now, that's what kids are looking for. They're looking to see if they can go to a market where they can capitalize on their brand and on the talent they've been blessed with. It's a big deal. In order to get better players in here, you've got to have a solid community structure where the players have the community's back and the community has the players' back."

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