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Colleges are hiring general managers to help athletes navigate NIL deals

Kai Ryssdal and Sofia Terenzio Apr 11, 2024
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Schools want their athletes to benefit from their popularity "because it helps both the player, and it also helps the schools make sure they can get the best players," says Austin Meek or The Athletic. Above, Caitlin Clark in the NCAA championship game. Thien-An Truong/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Colleges are hiring general managers to help athletes navigate NIL deals

Kai Ryssdal and Sofia Terenzio Apr 11, 2024
Heard on:
Schools want their athletes to benefit from their popularity "because it helps both the player, and it also helps the schools make sure they can get the best players," says Austin Meek or The Athletic. Above, Caitlin Clark in the NCAA championship game. Thien-An Truong/ISI Photos/Getty Images
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Earlier this week, the NCAA held its men’s and women’s basketball national championships. Over 14.5 million people watched the men’s final on Monday. The women’s final, held Sunday, had almost 19 million viewers, making it the most-watched ballgame, college or professional, since 2019. All that goes to show just how popular college sports have become, and with that popularity comes the opportunity to make a profit.

In 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA could not limit education-related payments to student athletes. This ruling allowed student athletes to enter into name, image and likeness , or NIL, deals with brands and collectives without breaking NCAA rules. And since then, NIL opportunities for student athletes have greatly evolved.

“Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal spoke with Austin Meek, a reporter at The Athletic, about his piece on why some colleges are hiring general managers to help support student athletes navigating NIL deals. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kai Ryssdal: So, name, image and likeness is really good for the athletes. I want to understand the colleges and universities, their motivations for this. So how do they approach this newest challenge?

Austin Meek: NIL, since it became legal three years ago, has become a huge part of recruiting and retaining the best players. If schools want to succeed on the field or on the court, they need to have competitive NIL programs.

Ryssdal: So, what does the typical day of a general manager for NIL look like? Like making phone calls to brands and trying to hook these kids up? What do they try to do?

Meek: Yeah, in talking to some general managers, I got the sense there really is no such thing as a typical day for them. Every day is different. So it’s a lot of conversations with brands and sponsors, conversations with donors, with athletes, trying to stay on top of a legal environment that seems to be changing every day. Really now, especially with the transfer portal in college sports that allows players to transfer almost at any time, it really is a day-to-day type of thing to make sure that schools are providing everything they can in terms of NIL support to keep players at their school.

Ryssdal: This obviously empowers the student athletes, but it seems to be kind of a pain in the neck for the schools, right, that they have to manage all this stuff now? It’s a competitive challenge for them.

Meek: Well, it definitely makes their lives more complicated. So, there’s an old system and a new system that are kind of happening at once. And the schools are in the middle of this, trying to figure out how to get as much money as they can to their athletes, while not being able to pay them directly. And so, all of that money now is getting funneled through NIL, and it places huge importance on NIL and creates a big challenge for the schools to try to get as much of that money for their players as they can.

Ryssdal: There was a great piece in The New York Times the other day actually, a data analytics piece, not a sports piece, on how the basketball players in the NCAA tournament that just ended were getting paid. And just, I mean, there’s all kinds of stuff that these schools are trying to hook these players up with.

Meek: Yeah, it really runs the gamut, from a sponsorship with the local car dealership to a national ad campaign with Gatorade. If you think about Caitlin Clark, the basketball star at [the University of Iowa,] she has a huge platform, millions of people watched her games, the ratings were off the charts. So, there’s huge value in that for brands, for sponsorships. And for schools, they want to put their athletes in position to benefit from all of that because it helps both the player, and it also helps the schools make sure they can get the best players.

Ryssdal: We should say here, not to turn this into an NIL primer, but depending on the player like Caitlin Clark and some of the other really high-profile players, there’s a lot of money on the line here that the schools are guiding toward these players.

Meek: Yeah, absolutely. And I think the exact role of the school is one of the really complicated parts of this, because some of the entities that are involved in NIL, whether it’s consulting firms or third-party collectives, they have kind of a weird relationship with the school where they’re not directly affiliated with the school, but they’re working really closely together. And obviously, the school has a big interest in providing the infrastructure for athletes to be able to take advantage of this while not really directly facilitating it. So it gets really, really complicated. And I think all the schools are really, really struggling to figure out how best to do that.

Ryssdal: It seems we’ve traded one thorny issue — that is, should students be paid — for another thorny issue, which is how should we get those students paid, right?

Meek: Yeah, and I think everybody believes in the near future there will be a system where schools can directly compensate their athletes, but we’re just not there yet. And so for the moment, it all has to go through NIL, and that makes it just really complicated.

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