Nick Saban, Greg Sankey and a host of other dignitaries from the Southeastern Conference are in Washington, D.C., this week to convince legislators to address what is undeniably one of the most pressing crises in our country right now: NIL collectives.
It’s not that commissioners, athletic directors and coaches are against athletes finally earning money for their name, image and likeness. It’s that in many cases they’re being paid too much money, and that sometimes the money is not being used as it was intended, and it’s not being regulated, so man, do we have ourselves some problems.
Arkansas AD Hunter Yurachek, a member of the aforementioned D.C. convoy, explained one of those problems at a Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce event this week.
“Young men and women are making decisions not to go to Major League Baseball or the WNBA or the NBA because they can make more money in college,” Yurachek said, according to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. “Does that make any sense, that you can make more money by staying in college than you can by going and being a professional athlete? That’s where we have some issues in college athletics.”
Upon reading this, you may be asking yourself: Wait, isn’t it a good thing for college athletics if the star athletes want to stay in college longer?
Of course it is.
Well, then why would the athletic director of a major Power 5 athletic program say something so … well, for lack of a better word, asinine?
Yurachek is no dummy. In fact, he’s a highly regarded athletic director. It’s just that he, like most of his colleagues, has been working inside the college athletics industrial complex for decades. So he, like most of his colleagues, would have you believe something that most rational people outside that sphere would find fairly ludicrous:
The notion that revenue-generating college sports are not a professional sport.
Maybe you could have made that argument in some earlier era when the coaches were making $25,000 a year and the players were doing it solely for the love of the game. (Though there have been famous scandals dating back as far as the late 1800s about college players receiving payments in violation of amateurism principles.)
But Yurachek works in a conference that earned $721.8 million in revenue in 2021-22 and starting next year will earn another $300 million a year from ESPN for the rights to one (1) football game a week (the current “SEC on CBS” package). Last year, his athletic department paid head football coach Sam Pittman $6 million a year, and even that ranked in the lower half of his own conference.
Meanwhile, just last week at a resort near Destin, Fla., Yurachek and his counterparts opted to remain at eight conference games instead of nine next season despite the league expanding to 16 schools with Oklahoma and Texas. The main reason? Because they want ESPN to throw even more money their way in exchange for improving the quality of a TV property for which the network already holds the rights.
This. Is. Professional. Sports.
And once you accept that premise, then it absolutely does make sense that some athletes might realize more NIL value in college than they would in the NFL. Not Caleb Williams, the USC quarterback who could sign a contract in excess of $40 million guaranteed next year if he indeed becomes a No. 1 draft pick, or Arkansas’ own point guard Anthony Black, a projected top-10 pick in this month’s draft. The 10th pick in the NBA Draft gets more than $8 million over his first two seasons.
But what if you’re current Razorback quarterback K.J. Jefferson? In January, shortly after the underclassman NFL Draft deadline passed, the collective ONEArkansas announced on Twitter it had “re-signed” the fifth-year senior. The terms of NIL deals are rarely made public, but it’s no stretch to suggest the star quarterback for an SEC program could fetch seven figures in NIL money. Which, yes, is more than he would have made if he had turned pro after last season and gone in the fourth round or lower.
Yurachek is apparently under the impression that the economics here don’t make sense, but they absolutely do. Surely he’d agree that Jefferson brings considerable value to the Arkansas football program, helping drive ticket sales and donations as well as potential exposure if the Razorbacks knock off Alabama or reach a major bowl in 2023.
Whereas Jefferson’s monetary value to, say, the New England Patriots, were he to spend this season wearing a baseball cap on the sideline, would be … non-existent.
It’s also rich that Yurachek brings up the WNBA, where the rookie salary for the No. 1 pick is a whopping $74,305. Iowa’s Caitlin Clark may make more than that figure just to conduct a dozen autograph signings. LSU’s Angel Reese may make more than that selling merchandise on her own website. Both might make even more once they reach the WNBA, likely in 2024, and add salaries on top of their endorsement deals, but their ability to capitalize on their contribution to the popularity of women’s college hoops is the absolute opposite of a crisis.
That’s not to say there aren’t legitimate issues in the college NIL space. There has been no shortage of stories about bad actors taking advantage of athletes, in particular recruits, whose families aren’t necessarily savvy about collectives and marketing contracts. Coaches like Saban are more offended that collectives are using NIL money as a tool to lure recruits. One might argue that’s actually a more efficient recruiting tool than raising hundreds of millions to build a lavish football facility that exists for the sole purpose of impressing 17-year-olds on a visit — but that’s at least up for debate.
But it’s hard to argue that this statement Wednesday by former coach and current Senator Tommy Tuberville is anything other than ludicrous:
“Today we are meeting with coaches, athletic directors and administrators from several different conferences here in Washington, D.C., talking about the disastrous new NIL rules. And they are a disaster.”
Despite years of fear-mongering by the powers that be in college sports, these supposed “disastrous” consequences have yet to show their face. College football’s television ratings last season were excellent. Women’s athletes with big social media followings are thriving.
And yes, star football players like Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. and Oregon’s Bo Nix along with Kansas basketball star Hunter Dickinson are returning to entertain college fans for another year. Makes sense.
(Photo of Hunter Yurachek: Wesley Hitt / Getty Images)