College football has its first $8 million NIL deal. Your move, Nick Saban | Goodbread
That crash you just heard was the impact of name, image and likeness rights blasting through the roof of college athletics in search of yet another new ceiling. And this time, we're talking pro-athlete-level money for a kid who hasn't even been to senior prom.
If you slept through the latest NIL lightning strike, brace for this one: Last week, a high school junior signed an NIL deal that could be worth up to $8 million, according to a contract reviewed by The Athletic that was supplied by the attorney who drafted it.
Remember the audible-gasp reaction when Alabama football coach Nick Saban told a convention of Texas high school coaches that Crimson Tide quarterback Bryce Young's NIL windfall was approaching seven figures? That was light years ago in NIL terms – a whole eight months ago – and now we have a deal that's not too far from eight figures.
For a kid with another year left to go in high school.
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It's taken the NIL era less than a year of existence to make a complete farce of the notion that NIL revenue for college athletes would be commensurate with the promotional value they actually bring to the brands they'll represent. That's no criticism of the athletes, who are rightly taking full advantage of a new reality; the value of anything is what someone will pay for it.
But let's call it what it is: a new era in the recruiting game, not the branding game.
According to the report, the language in the contract cleverly sidesteps NCAA rules against pay for play by making no mention of a specific school. An NIL collective – a third-party pooling of booster funds that doesn't represent a university in any formal way – is behind the deal. But make no mistake: NIL collectives come draped in team colors; and athletes, like anyone else would, will go where the money is.
Meanwhile, like the tortoise reacting to the starting gun as the hare crosses the finish line, the NCAA has commissioned a report, due next month, on whether NIL has impacted recruiting. Here's a sneak peek at that report: it has, and in a big way. There was never any doubt from the onset of NIL that it would infiltrate the recruiting landscape, but as rabbit holes go, this one so far has no bottom.
Saban has lamented the trend.
"When we start using name, image and likeness for a kid to come to our school, that's where I draw the line," Saban said at a Reese’s Senior Bowl event last month. "Because that's not why we did this."
Therein lies the rub: even if every coach in the country drew the same line as Saban, it wouldn't matter, because NIL collectives can draw their own lines just about anywhere they want. Indeed, there's every possibility that the school that lands the $8 million man, and its coach, don't want NIL money driving the recruiting bus any more than Saban does. But universities and their coaches can't do much of anything to control these NIL collectives, particularly if they're operating within the bounds of NCAA rules and state laws that govern NIL revenue.
This much is certain: if money in the millions is going to be available to more and more high school athletes like the one The Athletic learned of, the usual selling points in recruiting – opportunity to play, education, career development, etc. – will trend toward being afterthoughts for recruits. And unless NIL opportunities at Alabama are on par with the competition, Saban's ability to produce top-shelf signing classes year after year will be increasingly harder to maintain.
The identity of the latest jackpot winner is a mystery. In exchange for a peek at the contract, The Athletic agreed to withhold the athlete's name, which is kind of funny, since name is presumably a key to name, image and likeness. Call it the IL deal – eight million for image and likeness alone.
And really, who cares?
Whoever the teenager is, the dollar figure on the generational wealth he just came into is his business and nobody else's. In time, his name will certainly be splashed across all manner of branding platforms when he finally enrolls in college in 2023, if not sooner. But he might never be identified as the $8 million man.
To steal a slogan from former Alabama basketball coach Avery Johnson: Buckle up.
Wherever NIL is taking college sports, it's a high-speed ride with no stops anytime soon.
Reach Chase Goodbread at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @chasegoodbread.