ATLANTA – Almost a year into the NIL era in college sports, there has been much angst about booster-funded collectives, million-dollar quarterback recruits and the need for federal legislation to regulate how athletes monetize their fame. Nick vs. Jimbo, in fact, has been the story of the spring.
At the College Football Hall of Fame this week, the inaugural NIL Summit included none of that.
“Everybody has their own experience in NIL,” said Leah Clapper, a University of Florida gymnast and entrepreneur.. “A lot of the things that are in the news are those big stories of these huge deals or collectives swooping up players from universities and all of these crazy things that are happening — and in my experience, that’s not what’s happening.”
The summit is actually an example of the disjointed nature of this new world where college athletes can be compensated for use of their names, images and likenesses. Unlike the Southeastern Conference meetings in Florida two weeks ago, no one was stressing about NIL at the summit.
“I feel that if I were to give a message to like any adults or people who kind of maybe didn’t have NIL (when they were in school), it would be be just see what these younger athletes are doing,” Florida linebacker Derek Wingo said. "See the impact that they’re making. This is our future."
Hundreds of athletes attended the summit, many with representatives from their schools. They heard from companies such as INFLCR, the main sponsor for the event, Meta and Wasserman on how to build brands, find reliable representation and manage finances. Paul Levesque, known to wrestling fans as Triple H, gave a presentation. So did Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow.
“Obviously, most of the media coverage is lately on the pay-for-play type deals,” said Mit Winter, a sports attorney from Kansas City. “So I think it is good to have an event like this to really celebrate the people that are doing what people thought NIL was going to be.”
Missing from the three-day event was anyone from the NCAA and representatives from the major conferences. The number of athletic directors from more than 350 Division I schools in attendance could be counted on one hand.
“It’s a little bit head scratching that everyone is saying that NIL is the number one issue in college sports right now, but they’re not sending people to the place where they can learn how to navigate it all,” said Jason Belzer, whose company, Student-Athlete NIL, is managing collectives at Penn State and Rutgers.
Belzer said about 400 athletes attended the event, some on their own such as Rachel Glenn, a high jumper from South Carolina. Glenn is part of the the WWE's second NIL class.
“This is actually my first NIL deal and I’m blessed, truly blessed, that my first deal is as big as WWE,” Glenn said.
The professional wrestling organization has jumped into the NIL market as a way to recruit its future performers. Considered it a paid internship — athletes make five figures — that could lead to a wrestling career, the way it did last year for Olympian and former Minnesota wrestler Gable Stevenson.
Even if it doesn't, Levesque said, the athletes should come away from the experience with better a understanding of how to raise their profile and earning potential.
“What we do is teach people how to present themselves as brands and stars, larger than life,” he said.
One of the few athletic directors to attend was Fordham's Ed Kull. He brought water polo players Victor Schultz and Mark Katsev, who created a company called Opp4U that companies can use to connect with college athletes.
“I see NIL as part of the job placement and career develop that we can provide for our athletes,” Kull said.
Bridget Perine, who joined Memphis as the athletic department's first student-athlete branding and image coordinator in February, didn't bring any athletes with her because she's still getting to know them. She also said she expects athletes to soon arrive at college ready to take advantage of NIL opportunities.
“A lot of this will become innate understanding,” she said.
Michigan basketball star Hunter Dickinson said many of the concerns about what NIL will do to college sports comes from a combination of ignorance and fear.
“You hear a lot about the universities and people in administrations, coaches, they speak negative about it. I think it’s just because instead of a college coach earning 10 million, they might have to only get 7 million and actually be able to give it to the players that are allowing them to make the salary that they get,” Dickinson said. “Or instead of having $190 million football facility, they get $185 million football facility, which I think will still be pretty good for them.”
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