Who will be the big winners in college football's NIL era? My prediction| Hurt

Cecil Hurt

Rather than the immediate banquet of cake twice a day that some predicted, the Name Image Likeness era is something more closely akin to camp stew.

One spoonful might be loaded with tasty ingredients, but the next is going to contain something, maybe a rutabaga or a squirrel shank, that you will look and say, “I’m not sure if that’s going to be delicious or not and I liked the way Grandma served up her college football."

That is especially true because the chef decided to season the pot with free transfer rules, then boil it around a 12-team football playoff. All of that will affect the way college sports looks and is administered 10 years in the future. 

Alabama offensive lineman Jedrick Wills Jr. (74) silences the crowd after an Alabama touchdown during the first half at Kyle Field Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019 in College Station, Texas. [Staff Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.]

Here is a prediction, not too far out on the limb: The teams that will thrive in NIL are the ones that understand the key to its value: exposure. And the way you get exposure without expanding the season to unmanageable lengths is to play more meaningful games all season long. The Southeastern Conference and the Atlantic Coast Conference need to go ahead and expand to nine league games, something Alabama coach Nick Saban has preached for years. They also need to continue the trend of meaningful league games. Does that affect the bottom line of smaller schools? Yes, welcome to capitalism.

We aren’t talking, for the most part, about kids who would have otherwise picked Alabama or Ohio State but chose Nebraska so they could endorse Walter’s House of Corn in Kearney. We are talking about the big, six-figure deals like the one Kayvon Thibodeaux of Oregon signed with Nike. Certainly it doesn’t hurt the Ducks to have a connection with Nike CEO Phil Knight, but Thibodeaux, a former No. 2 recruit in the nation, is a lock to be a first-rounder in the 2022 NFL Draft. That means Nike is simply getting a one-year head start on a business relationship. It’s what shoe companies have tried to do with basketball players for 40 years. It’s just that now it doesn’t run afoul of NCAA rules because there are no NCAA rules and may not be for at least a year or two.

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That’s not saying we won’t hear stories about how Bro’s Used Cars bought a prospect out from under State U this December. But the really big deals, the ones that could push into the high six figures or more, are going to involve mega-corporate entities with shareholders to satisfy. That doesn’t mean Phil Knight or Jeff Bezos can’t swing deals like that. It does mean that they didn’t get to be billionaires by not expecting return on investment. The immediate return will be achieved by playing on television in the games that attract the most attention and that is not, whether it is fair or unfair, going to be Vanderbilt against Mercer. 

Even if their spokesperson, a DeVonta Smith or a Montana Fouts, can’t adorn their uniform with logos like a NASCAR driver, they can appear in tie-in advertising. Personally, I think it would be great to see Malachi Moore or Bo Nix with a big Milo’s Tea logo on the jersey, although most Alabama and Auburn fans wouldn’t. Alabama still controls its uniforms, part of the brand. One does have to give credit to Alabama softball infielder Jenna Johnson, who is changing her number to 88 and looking for Dale Earnhardt Jr.-related deals. Perhaps coveted prospect Arch Manning will make a Big Gulp deal and play for the school that lets him wear No. 7-11.

The key, though, will be eyeballs on advertising, just as it has always been. The way to do that is to schedule more big games, with less risk (if the CFP expands) that those games will cost your team a playoff spot if you are at the highest level. 

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt