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As NCAA grants NIL rights to college athletes, Maryland’s athletic departments prepare to enter uncharted territory

During a spring football practice in April, Maryland football coach Mike Locksley took to the program’s Instagram account to give watchers a live look at the team’s workout.

As Locksley meandered to different position groups scattered across the team’s indoor practice field, he rattled off key points from the program’s recruiting pitch for prospective student-athletes. Locksley pointed out the university’s academic standing as a public institution. He noted its proximity to Washington and Baltimore. And he emphasized the potential to build one’s brand surrounded by these major markets, which has increasingly become part of the program’s messaging since Locksley took over in December 2018.

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“We’re real big here on, ‘It just ain’t about football,’” Locksley said.

These words have since taken on much more significant meaning. The NCAA, the governing body for college sports across over 1,200 institutions and conferences, will allow student-athletes to profit from their names, images and likenesses (NIL), doing away with rules the organization has said for decades were in place to preserve its amateurism model.

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College athletes are now able to use their fame to engage in activities they were previously barred from, such as endorsing products and services, establishing camps and clinics, creating businesses, selling autographs and much more. Some student-athletes could pocket thousands of dollars — if not more.

Governance bodies from all three NCAA divisions on Wednesday approved an interim policy recommended by the Division I Council after the organization was unable to pass full-fledged rules and efforts to pass legislation in Congress stalled. According to the stopgap provision, institutions in states with NIL laws set to go into effect (including Maryland) would abide by those regulations. Schools without any legislation to follow would be able to create their own NIL policy.

This hands-off approach would seemingly prevent the NCAA from being hit with any additional litigation, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled two weeks ago that it violated federal antitrust laws in capping the academic-related benefits that schools could provide.

There are still restrictions on what deals athletes can enter into, who can execute them and their terms. Universities won’t be able to broker deals with or for prospective and current students. Any deal must expire before a student’s time at a university ends and cannot be connected to the athlete’s participation or performance. And in several states, athletes won’t be able to endorse products such as alcohol, tobacco and sports betting.

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NIL legislation or executive orders in about a dozen states went into effect Thursday. Maryland’s Jordan McNair Safe and Fair Play Act will allow student-athletes in the state to monetize their names, images and likenesses; however, that section of the law does not go into effect until July 2023.

Damon Evans, athletic director at the University of Maryland, said the athletic department is working on developing its NIL rules for student-athletes. He said the department is drawing on the state’s bill and will incorporate other provisions as it sees fit.

“This is significant change in our industry,” Evans said in an interview the day before the NCAA Board of Directors approved the interim policy. “But as I’ve always told our student-athletes and our staff and coaches, we have to embrace change and be ready to adjust and adapt and best position ourselves moving forward. And that’s what we’ll do with this. At the end of the day, I think we’ll look back on this time and this period of intercollegiate athletics, and we will have said that may have been what some describe as a major sea change.”

In the near future, it should be no surprise to see an athlete, such as Taulia Tagovailoa, at one of Maryland’s institutions sell merchandise, have a paid speaking engagement — or even appear on TV to promote a local company’s product.
In the near future, it should be no surprise to see an athlete, such as Taulia Tagovailoa, at one of Maryland’s institutions sell merchandise, have a paid speaking engagement — or even appear on TV to promote a local company’s product. (Julio Cortez/AP)

The university in April started its MOMENTUM program to assist student-athletes in the era of NIL empowerment. As part of the program, Maryland entered a four-year partnership with Opendorse, a third-party marketplace that assists athletes in education and brand development and serves as a medium for athletes to get content for their social media platforms.

At Towson University, the athletic department has partnered with INFLCR, a company that also assists student-athletes in brand education and development.

“It’s like a new offense: How do we effectively execute it so that we can help student-athletes?” said Pat Skerry, the men’s basketball coach.

Towson athletic director Tim Leonard said after the Supreme Court ruling that representatives from INFLCR have spoken with student-athletes and the university would have another discussion with them once there was more clarity on what NIL rules they would have to follow.

“Until we get into it and we go through a couple cycles of it, I don’t know if we really know what is going to happen,” Leonard said.

NIL does not apply to the service academies such as the Naval Academy due to military rules on endorsements, a Navy spokesperson said.

Across the state, leaders in athletic departments are walking a fine line of being proactive, but also monitoring the ever-changing situation and adjusting as needed. There’s a realization that they’ll need a firm grasp of the ins and outs to best serve student-athletes and to speak with recruits.

“When we talk about recruiting, I feel like NIL is just like anything else,” said Terry Porter, associate athletic director for compliance at Towson. “You show people your facilities. You talk about academics. You talk about your school. And then now, we’re going to be talking about NIL on top of that, and what type of resources we’re providing our student-athletes, how they’re doing in terms of their brand and in terms of social media and how they’re doing in terms of monetizing from their name, image and likeness.”

Maryland women's basketball coach Brenda Frese speaks to her team during a timeout. There’s expected to be a lucrative NIL market for some athletes outside men’s basketball and football, particularly women's athletes who have built large social media followings.
Maryland women's basketball coach Brenda Frese speaks to her team during a timeout. There’s expected to be a lucrative NIL market for some athletes outside men’s basketball and football, particularly women's athletes who have built large social media followings. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

Jim Ferry, men’s basketball coach at UMBC, said the advent of NIL rights won’t change his recruiting approach. But he feels high school players will lean toward going to a school where they can market themselves for more money, rather than making a decision based solely on a program’s on-court success.

“Kids and families will look at that,” said Ferry, who was the interim coach at Penn State last season. “If a kid can go to a school and they already have a car dealership or a Realtor that’s already helping out with NIL, then they’re going to be able to promote that to kids, or at least certainly, they’re going to see it.”

In the near future, it should be no surprise to see an athlete at one of Maryland’s institutions sell merchandise, have a paid speaking engagement — or maybe even appear on a television screen to promote a company’s product.

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Darren Heitner, a sports lawyer who helped craft the NIL law in Florida, estimates that some athletes will make $1,000 to $2,000 per year and some of the more notable names at Power Five programs could enter deals worth close to seven figures.

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The Big Ten Network on Wednesday released a list of active athletes with the largest followings on Instagram; Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa ranked fourth with 124,000 followers.

In many cases, mid-tier influencers outside college athletics — those with 50,000 to 500,000 followers — charge around $10 to $25 for every 1,000 followers they have for a sponsored post on their page. So, it’s conceivable that Tagovailoa and athletes with similar followings could net a few thousand dollars from a single sponsored post.

There’s also expected to be a lucrative market for some athletes outside men’s basketball and football, particularly for women’s athletes who have built large social media followings.

During the NCAA men’s and women’s college basketball tournaments, Axios reported that eight of the 10 players in the Elite Eight with the most followers were women.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if you look at the entire population of male athletes and compare them to the entire population of female athletes and that a year from now, we’ll see that the population of female athletes actually made more money in total than the male athletes,” Heitner said. “I think there are female athletes out there who are extremely marketable, who have done a tremendous job in branding themselves and putting together strong social media platforms, who relate very well to fans of the specific colleges. I do think the best male quarterback, receivers and basketball players in the country will probably be the top earners. But as a whole, I do think that female athletes will do quite well.”

While the beginning of July marks a seminal point in college athletics, there are many questions yet to be answered and issues that could appear, such as ramifications surrounding the role of team boosters. According to the NCAA interim policy, boosters will be eligible to enter deals with student-athletes so long as they do not constitute an impermissible inducement or pay-for-play.

Towson football coach Rob Ambrose pointed to the NCAA’s one-time transfer waiver rule as an example of a policy change with lasting implications. Hundreds, if not thousands, of students entered the transfer portal only to remain there because of a limited scholarship count.

“That was an unintended consequence of a good idea,” he said.

Coaches and athletic directors emphasized the need for athlete education, from the aspects of compliance to those of finances, such as making athletes aware they’ll have to file and pay taxes for income from deals.

One thing is for certain: Nobody yet understands the scope of this new era of athlete empowerment.

“I hope we have big eyes and try to see as far down the road as we can to see what’s in the best interest for these kids and what’s in the best interest for the sport for the long term and make sure that those two things meet,” Ambrose said. “Because without the kids there is no sport. And without the sport, the kids don’t have any name, image and likeness. So, there’s got to be a way to meld the two of them without hurting the game or the kids.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Ryan McFadden contributed to this article.

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