Well folks, we made it.
We have finally reached the NIL era, and boy is it sweet. As of July 1st, college athletes have the green light to make money off of activities relating to their names, images, and likenesses and, much to the NCAA’s surprise, the sky remains blue and above our heads. While the decision affects all college sports across all three divisions, only one sport receives this news with the backdrop of a season marked by traditional powers failing to make the postseason and losing Mount Rushmore-level coaches. That’s right y’all – it’s July and we’re talking college hoops.
The basketball season as a whole was already expected to look different this past year given COVID-19 protocols. What few people expected, though, was the collective fall of teams that are accustomed to dominating and rise of new contenders. For the first time since 1976, neither of basketball’s perennial powerhouses and essential one-and-done factories – Duke and Kentucky – participated in the NCAA tournament. Two other blue-blood programs at least made the March Madness field but suffered disappointing exits. North Carolina was on the wrong side of a blowout in the first round and Kansas betrayed their Final Four aspirations in a second-round loss to USC. For Hall of Fame coaches Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski, this season served as a swan song (Williams retired this year, Coach K will after next season). This, paired with the rise of programs like Villanova, Gonzaga, and Baylor in recent years, could be evidence that parity in basketball is approaching an all-time high.
Just a few short months after the historic 2020-2021 season ended with Baylor’s dominant win over Gonzaga in the national championship game, the United States Supreme Court’s opinion in the Alston case sent shock waves through the sports world and helped usher in the NIL era. But did it also save the big-name programs from a potential recruiting purgatory?
The effect of new NIL rules remains an unknown, but that leaves plenty of room for speculation. Consider this: it’s a Friday night during conference season and you check the headliners for an ESPN double-header. Is there any chance that at least one of the matchups doesn’t feature a traditional power? Not likely. The brand names tend to get those primetime spots and, for the networks carrying the games, they almost always deliver. According to sportsmediawatch.com, this year’s Duke-UNC game posted the event’s lowest TV rating in 14 years. Even so, it was the fourth most watched game of the regular season. Despite the fact that these teams are suffering, their brands draw eyes to the television. As athletes look to financially capitalize on their names via sponsorships and merchandise, the promise of additional TV-time can be another valuable advantage for the brand names to hold over the little guys when recruiting and, with many of these programs reeling from disappointing seasons and recruiting cycles, it comes at just the right time.
Look also for a resolution in House, another NIL case out of California still in its early stages. The case involves a class of current and former college athletes, led by Arizona State swimmer Grant House and Oregon hooper Sedona Prince, requesting rights to a cut of the TV revenue generated by their games and meets. They claim that, had the NIL rules been applied back then and going forward, the athletes would be getting some of that TV money. If the decision in House looks anything like the one in Alston it could expand athletes’ potential NIL earnings to include a share of the money earned by their televised performances. For reference, the NCAA Tournament alone fetched almost $2 billion in TV revenue in 2019. Getting a crack at that pot o’ gold is a dream for players and could lead to basketball’s brightest stars flocking back to the teams that see the most TV time.
Even if the athletes don’t get their hands on that money, though, the exposure alone may be enough. Although nothing is certain, keep your eyes peeled. Those familiar teams that are down on their luck are in prime position for a huge rebound.
Coach K photo from Slate.com