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IOWA CITY — Gary Barta has seen a lot in almost 15 years as Iowa’s athletics director, but he has a new challenge on his hands: preparing for Iowa athletes who soon could profit off their name, image and likeness.
“If it were simple, it would have been figured out a long time ago,” Barta said.
NCAA President Mark Emmert told the New York Times he wants rules in place for athletes to profit off name, image and likeness, or NIL, “before, or as close to, July 1,” when six states’ NIL laws take effect.
Just as schools have competed for recruits with modern athletic facilities, many experts anticipate schools using NIL as another key tool to swoon athletes.
“It almost becomes a necessary part of the recruiting pitch for an athletic program to say, ‘We will help you, to whatever desire you have, be able to tell your story and build your own personal brand as an athlete,’” said Joshua Gordon, a senior instructor of sports business at the University of Oregon.
“Now you’re not just selling the dream of championships, these wonderful travel experiences or a great facility to get to train in, but we are also going to help you tell your story and become a superstar on social.”
Barta agrees NIL will have a recruiting impact, but not as big of an impact as others are saying.
“I think it’s still going to be just one of many things that a recruit is interested in,” Barta said. “What’s my coach going to be like? What kind of support will I get medically? What do the facilities look like?”
Search for a ’permanent partner’
Many athletics departments already have hired, or in Iowa’s case, plan to hire outside companies to maximize their NIL offerings.
As a result, a flurry of new companies — some estimates say more than 100 — have been vying for the hundreds of new business opportunities in Division I athletics. Gordon compared it to the dismantling of the Soviet Union.
"In some ways, the NCAA model is going to be dismantled," Gordon said. "And now who is going to lay claim to the various assets that are out there?"
Barta said Iowa will partner with an outside company but has not decided which one.
INFLCR already has a foot in the Carver-Hawkeye Arena doors with a partnership with Iowa on use of athletes’ images.
Iowa athletes have used INFLCR to access photos taken by the athletics department’s photographers. It automatically recognized which athletes were in the photos.
“Those athletes then received text alerts letting them know they had content in their INFLCR app, which they could then easily download/share to their personal social-media channels,“ INFLCR explained on its website.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the Hawkeyes will continue with the Florida-based company for broader NIL support, though.
“We certainly are in great conversations with INFLCR because they’re interested,” Barta said. “We’re also in conversations with a few other companies who are preparing to be involved in this.”
A decision on a “permanent partner,” Barta said, will come “probably in the next month or two.”
At the same time, Iowa plans to provide some of what companies like INFLCR offer internally with help from its compliance department and the UI’s College of Law and Tippie College of Business.
“We might be able to do education with our own staff,” Barta said. “We might be able to do some of the compliance with our own staff.”
Some companies, like Athliance, specialize in the compliance and education aspect of NIL. Athliance’s platform streamlines information-sharing between an athlete and the school’s compliance department.
“Compliance is not something you can mess around on,” said Peter Schoenthal, the chief executive officer of Athliance. “I don’t believe it’s something that can be an add-on. I believe compliance is its own beast.”
Athliance already has partnerships in place with Arizona, Boston College, Kansas, Georgetown and Pittsburgh, Schoenthal told The Gazette.
Other companies, like Opendorse or INFLCR, seek to provide as many NIL services as possible.
Opendorse, which two former Nebraska football players founded, touts its background already providing NIL services to professional athletes through deals with the NFL Players Association, MLB Players Association, NHL, PGA Tour and other leagues or unions.
“We’ve been doing what we’ve been doing for nearly a decade, so we’ve been in the NIL space on the professional side,” said Adi Kunalic, president and co-founder of Opendorse. “Now we can apply it to the college space.”
Opendorse already has NIL-specific partnerships with more than 20 schools and other partnerships with more than 100 schools, Kunalic said.
Kunalic anticipates the hundreds of NIL companies to eventually shrink to a handful of reputable companies.
“You can’t just launch something six months ago and have this expectation that the technology is going to be served and everyone’s going to trust and use it,” Kunalic said.
He attributed some of the volume of companies to the ease of entering the market.
“Let’s say we have a good idea,” Kunalic said. “It doesn’t take a lot of work to go, build a pop-up site, buy a domain, start a Twitter channel and then do mock-ups that you put on there and you’re good to go. And by tonight, we have another company.”
Beyond revenue sports
When the NIL era begins July 1, those in the industry expect this to affect more than just athletes in revenue sports.
“Another common misconception is that schools are going to focus on their top players and whatnot,” Kunalic said.
Gordon said instead of talent determining someone’s NIL value, it can go down to “things that we probably wouldn’t want to be the revenue drivers” — social media presence, attractiveness and other factors.
“It feels a lot less equitable than talent in your sport or hard work or perseverance,” Gordon said.
He used the University of Oregon softball team as an example.
“Their best player is not the most marketable,” Gordon said. “The most marketable is the person who’s got this ridiculous following on Twitch, who happens to be a very attractive athlete.”
Athliance’s Schoenthal said the NIL deals with major companies like Coca-Cola will be only 1 percent of athletes’ opportunities.
He expects 99 percent of NIL opportunities to be “micro-deals” worth $500 or less with “mom-and-pop shops” and other small businesses.
“Those companies don’t have the legal forces and the legal teams behind (them) to know what you can and can’t do all the time,” Schoenthal said, “so those micro-deals are going to put those athletes at the most risk.”
Athletics departments like Iowa and businesses like Athliance or Opendorse are making these decisions with plenty of uncertainty remaining around NIL.
“I am not an expert (in NIL) because there’s no such thing,” Schoenthal said. “You can’t be an expert in something that doesn’t exist yet.”
Kunalic said he sees NIL evolving but not being “vastly different” a couple years from now.
“You’re talking, say, 500,000 student-athletes who now have the opportunity” to profit off NIL, Kunalic said. “We’re going to learn a lot.”
In the near future, if Emmert’s wish for standardized NIL rules across the country doesn’t come true, different states could have different NIL standards.
“Now your recruiting pitch in California or Florida is you can make money, but you can’t if you go to Iowa,” Gordon said.
The Iowa Legislature reintroduced an NIL bill in February, but it did not survive one of the legislature’s funnel deadlines.
Iowa men’s basketball guard Jordan Bohannon initially tied whether he’d return to Carver-Hawkeye for his extra year of eligibility to the passage of the NIL bill. He later said he will return to the Hawkeyes even though the bill died.
Kunalic said states that were previously reluctant to enact NIL legislation may have a change of heart if that scenario happens.
“But I have a feeling that we may not get to that point,” Kunalic said.
The outcome of the Alston v. NCAA Supreme Court case, which determines whether the NCAA’s restrictions on athlete compensation violate federal antitrust laws, also is looming.
Gordon said the ruling could result in a “groundbreaking” to the NCAA model.
Uncertainty aside, Barta said there’s still enough information to plan for whatever July 1 will bring, though.
“We’ve had enough information to get a pretty good sense of what we’re going to need to be doing once this is passed,” Barta said. “Now the last step is actually seeing what the system is going to look like so we can put specifics in place.”
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