A donor approached Florida Gators athletic director Scott Stricklin recently with a hypothetical question percolating around big-time college sports.
If I had $100 in my pocket, should I give it to the Gator Boosters or a name, image and likeness (NIL) fund?
“Well, with all due respect,” Stricklin replied, “I’d love for you to find another $100 and do both.”
Until July 2021, a direct contribution to the school or booster organization was the only (legal) option. Programs used the money to build mammoth weight rooms, gaudy locker rooms, mini-golf courses, barber shops and waterfalls.
That was before name, image and likeness deals became legal.
Now, the same boosters and donors who supported projects like Florida’s $85 million Heavener Football Training Center are also being asked to support name, image and likeness entities like Florida Victorious. Instead of funding a building to wow prospects, they can funnel the money directly to a promising point guard or left tackle.
Some fans can afford to do both; perhaps they keep a $100 bill in both pockets. But, as hard as it is to believe, the pool of money around college sports will eventually dry up. Even at Alabama.
Fifteen months ago, its board of trustees approved plans for a new, $183 million basketball arena. It’s still on the Crimson Tide’s to-do list, but progress has slowed, in part because inflation has caused its cost to spike by $100 million. Shifting priorities and greater competition for donor dollars don’t help.
“In the world that we’re in now, your infrastructure’s important,” Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne said. “But making sure you have all the things including NIL is just as important.”
The right balance depends on the school and sport.
At Mississippi State, everything is “leaning towards NIL,” athletic director Zac Selmon said. That’s because the Bulldogs have enough buildings and only need to modernize or renovate them.
“It used to be you’d look and if your facilities are pretty good, that wasn’t good enough,” South Carolina men’s basketball coach Lamont Paris said. “I think we’re at a point now, because resources are not always replenishable, that once your facilities get to a certain point … you have to make a commitment to NIL.”
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But what about schools that haven’t yet reached that threshold, like USF?
Because the Bulls are a relatively young football program with a smaller budget, they don’t have the physical infrastructure other programs do. USF is addressing that with a proposed $340 million on-campus football stadium that’s expected to include an operations center for the team’s day-to-day functions. Those needs are why first-year football coach Alex Golesh tells supporters of USF’s Fowler Ave Collective to keep giving to the Bulls Club, too.
“I think you have to do both,” Golesh said. “But you can build whatever stadium you want. If there’s no players in it, it doesn’t matter.”
And the reality is that name, image and likeness has quickly become a significant factor in recruiting, even though NIL deals are not supposed to be used as inducements.
“NIL’s what kids choose,” Mississippi football coach Lane Kiffin said. “They don’t choose the size of the weight room, how many bench presses or whether they have a personalized computer in their locker.”
As Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman put it: “If you’ve got enough money, they’d be happy living in a tent.”
Don’t expect to start seeing tents replacing Taj Mahals, because schools aren’t abandoning their facilities upgrades. Though name, image and likeness deals get top prospects on campus, the buildings help them develop into stars after they arrive.
“I’m looking forward to the additions that we’re doing, kind of renovating and kind of cleaning up our practice facility,” UF men’s basketball coach Todd Golden said. “But NIL is something that’s going to be paramount over the next couple of years.”