In his first book, Study Hall: College Football, Its Stats and Its Stories, Bill Connelly describes college football as an ungovernable mess. In other words, for all its passion and pageantry, there are equal parts corruption and chaos. For decades, pundits and casual fans alike have debated a myriad of issues as they relate to college sports and, more specifically, student-athletes. One of the most debated topics is player compensation, both permitted and illicit.
For simplicity, one side of the aisle says student-athletes already receive free room and board, books, meals, a stipend, and education while the other says the exponentially widening gap between revenue (TV contracts, revenue-sharing conference agreements, CFP bonuses) and compensation for players needs to be compressed. To paint a small picture, Nick Saban was the highest paid college football coach in 2004 with a contract guaranteeing $2.3 million a year. Today, that wouldn’t even put him in the Top 50. If you go even further back, the late Bobby Bowden was the highest paid coach in 1995 with an annual salary of $975,000. Today, Nick Saban (still the highest paid coach... shocker) earns a salary of $9.3 million a year. So, in a span of 25 years, coaches’ salaries have increased 10x while NCAA football players still receive room & board, books, meals, a stipend, and an education.
I’m not going to spend time arguing one way or the other. You can find umpteen articles out there on either side by simply searching “student-athlete compensation”. I just wanted to lay a foundation, however thin, for where we currently stand. In July of this year, the NCAA announced that student-athletes would no longer risk eligibility for seeking compensation based on their own name, image, and likeness (NIL for short). A part of this new rule protects institutions from punitive measures, as well. Almost immediately, deals started rolling in. My first reaction was, “When are we getting NCAA Football back?” The ‘06 version remains one of my favorite video games of all time (Desmond Howard cover, Calvin Johnson running go routes all day long). But the implementation of this rule has already reached further than initially imagined, and it’s only the beginning.
As an institution, Georgia Tech has a tradition of trailblazing, and it is making a name for itself in regards to the NIL revolution. For those unaware, Georgia Tech recently signed a full team sponsorship deal with TiVo. Every student-athlete on the football team was offered a contract, including walk-ons. The benefits include $404 on a prepaid card, a TiVo Stream 4K device, and access to a brand new media lounge on campus. While some may look at $404 and scoff in comparison to the larger single-player deals, let’s consider a) that $404 is a decent amount for anyone, let alone a college student and b) this deal opens up a lot of doors for future opportunities. For example, student-athletes still have the opportunity to seek further endorsement. Just look at Jordan Yates. And other benefits of the deal are impossible to quantify. This TiVo deal has given college students exposure to the process of signing a contract, fulfilling that contract, and learning about the business side of sports.
I had the opportunity to sit with Simit Shah, Georgia Tech’s Assistant AD for Special Projects, to discuss how the new NIL landscape has already changed college athletics. He likened it to the “wild, wild, west”.
Here are some highlights from the conversation:
“I think the great thing about the TiVo deal is that’s a good example of something that’s maybe non-traditional, something that we would have never dealt with in my previous ten years here … We had an alum who worked on our football video staff who now works for an agency and they work with TiVo … They basically came to us and said, ‘What is NIL? What are the possibilities? What can you do?’ Ultimately, the role of a school, any school, and our role at Georgia Tech - we can’t solicit any deals … We can field anything incoming, but we can’t go out there and actually solicit anything.”
“It went from being a conversation strictly about NIL to ‘What is the relationship they can have with Georgia Tech?’”
“The student-athletes got what we would consider to be a really good deal, and if you see some statistics around some of the average deals around NIL, compared to that it was a really good deal. As Tre [Swilling] mentioned, it was offered to the entire team. To our knowledge, that was the first time [a deal] was offered to an entire football team, not just scholarship athletes.”
“NIL in general is a great learning experience for student-athletes. Learning what it means to sign a contract, fulfill that contract, and meet your obligations.”
“I think that deal in particular was unique because it involved an NIL piece, it involved a piece where TiVo came and said we want to donate things to Georgia Tech and develop a relationship, and it also involves a sponsorship piece.”
The Georgia Tech athletic department is taking a very hands-on approach in terms of educating student-athletes, preparing them for what NIL deals can offer, and guiding them through the process. Currently, there are no known plans to expand similar deals to other teams and programs within the Tech athletic department, but it stands to reason this TiVo deal won’t be the last.
The media lounge that was included in the deal will begin renovation and construction at the conclusion of the 2021 football season.
As a fan of the college game, and as someone who questions how NIL will affect team dynamics, it was good to hear from the players, as well. Remember, this TiVo deal was offered to everyone on the team. To quote Tech DE Jordan Domineck, “If my team is eating, then we’re all eating.” I asked him how he manages to balance the demands of practice, class, and now developing a personal brand. “I understand that school comes first, football comes second, and then NIL comes third,” said Domineck. When I asked how he thinks NIL will change the Georgia Tech program, Yellow Jacket CB Tre Swilling said, “You have to win. People love winners... There’s not going to be many opportunities for guys that lose a lot of games.”
I certainly enjoyed hearing that, and it seems players within the Tech program understand their priorities in relation to NIL. Take care of your academics, work hard, and when it comes to football - WIN.
In 1987, the SMU football program received the death penalty for a long list of compensation-related violations and a demonstrated attitude of rebellion and disregard for previous NCAA punishments. Reggie Bush had his Heisman Trophy stripped for allegedly accepting up to $300,000 to help his family during his tenure at USC. A little closer to home, and way more head-scratching, Demaryius Thomas took $312 worth of clothing in 2009 resulting in the official removal of Georgia Tech’s 2009 ACC Championship (we all know who won...). Read that again if you have to. All current Georgia Tech student-athletes included in the TiVo deal are receiving more money than one (1) did in 2009.
The new NIL rules do not permit “pay-for-play” arrangements with boosters or academic institutions. You can’t pay recruits (legally). You can’t set up a payroll system for current players. So, while a number of the things SMU and Reggie Bush did are still not allowed, all of those examples now fall very much into a newly created grey area. To many, the change seems like common sense and is a step in the right direction towards compressing the compensation gap mentioned earlier. For some, this new rule eliminates the need to further discuss the topic, but one thing is for certain - Pandora’s box has been opened.
Full player commentary is below: