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Georgia Tech, NIL, and the Future

NCAA Football: Boston College at Georgia Tech Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve taken time off from following the landscape of college athletics, I don’t blame you. There has been little for Tech fans to be excited about. Since the college football season ended with rather... unfortunate results, we’ve seen USC poach a head coach from a perennial CFP contender for an absurd sum of money, TV contracts further bloat to insane levels, and Texas A&M change the course of college football forever by using a first-of-its-kind NIL collective to buy the #1 recruiting class in the county for a reported $30 million. All of this follows a trend that has been building for years: a trend of increasing commercialization in which programs fiercely search for revenue in a desperate attempt to not be left behind, a trend that will only continue as more money flows into the system from those seeking either victory or profit. As the college football landscape is washed away by these waves, it’s easy to wonder if Georgia Tech has a place in what’s to come. It does, but only if it adapts.

Adapt or Die

This piece will not debate the merits of the current NIL system or bemoan its effects on the sport. While the current rendition of NIL feels lawless, it is here to stay. When the Supreme Court decided Alston v. NCAA, Justice Brett Kavanaugh all but begged future plaintiffs to bring further cases challenging NCAA rules and bylaws. Any attempt to further regulate NIL has a high likelihood of being challenged and struck down at great cost to the NCAA. Regulation will be limited. Teams will either take advantage or be left behind.

The Flow of Money

While college football is increasingly becoming more money-driven, its financial processes are complex compared to professional leagues due to NCAA rules and regulations as they currently stand. Starting this offseason, there will now be 3 entities that allocate resources within the Georgia Tech Athletics sphere. Each has its own restrictions on sources of revenue and its expenditures. There are: The Georgia Tech Athletic Association itself, The Alexander-Tharpe Fund, and the new NIL collective Swarm The ATL (as well as a few more targeted NIL endeavors). In visual form, it looks like this:

Money flows from the sources at the top to the resource allocation areas at the bottom. Investing each of the resource allocation areas can confer competitive advantage, but determining optimal distribution among these areas is the critical task of GTAA leadership. The resources available are very finite and likely will not grow substantially compared to Tech’s peers. I do believe the monthly subscription nature of the NIL Collective caters more effectively to the Tech fanbase. I’ve always felt that the Tech fanbase has a large number of solidly upper middle class alumni but lacks a large number of super donors. I have long called for something like IPTAY at Clemson to bring in more small donations. Notice how Boosters are a source for all 3 entities. Boosters are going to become even more important and powerful in this new paradigm. Alignment with GTAA leadership is essential.


(NSFW Warning: Language in the below clip)

“If we play like the Yankees in here, we will lose to the Yankees out there” - Billy Beane, Moneyball (2011)

Feel free to replace the “Yankees” with whichever rich Tech rival you hate the most. The situation is now no different for Tech than it was for the 2002 Oakland A’s. Throw in a major power taking Tech’s best and most exciting player, and the similarities continue. Unlike those 2002 A’s, Tech won’t be able to tackle this problem in a year. There are simply too many things to do.

For those not familiar with the Moneyball story, it’s the story of the 2002 Oakland A’s, a low payroll team gutted in free agency by its peers. In order to stay competitive, Oakland GM Billy Beane set out to find ways in which the market for baseball talent was inefficient. He sought to exploit those inefficiencies and succeeded. The GTAA must have this mindset, across all sports, in order to succeed in the new age of college sports.

The New Front Office

Tech’s leadership structure must change to bring about necessary change. The New Front Office should look a lot more like the ones set up across the Major League Baseball landscape in the wake of Billy Beane’s success. These front offices combined traditional scouting methods with statistical analysis to find competitive advantage wherever they could. Coaching hires, talent identification, on-field tactics. In all these things, find what your adversary is undervaluing and pursue it.

When executing a coaching search, look at the impact the coach had on programs in the past. Not just wins and losses, but play and drive based data. No more feel good stories about “selling Atlanta” and “recruiting.” Show concrete evidence that you can coach. No more focusing on “Tech Men” either. Expand the pool. Future Tech coaches should also buy in to the front office method and have a well-defined vision for the type of athlete that can succeed under their tutelage.

Talent identification is the crux of this piece, and it is the most critical function of the New Front Office. Working with the Head Coach and Recruiting Analysts, find talent and understand the value of certain types of on-field production. By doing so, analysts can properly value personnel for that production via NIL. Find the production that meshes well with your program and that is undervalued by the landscape of the individual sport. For baseball, this should be easy, as the pros are already doing it. For football and other sports where individual statistics are more difficult to define, it will take some work. Those who are the first on the path in these sports will have the competitive advantage. The Front Office absolutely must have alignment with Boosters so that limited capital is expended in the most efficient way possible to attract the most talent to the flats as is possible.

MLB front offices today are involved in on-field tactics as well. Defensive shifts are a simple and easy way to see this play out in games. This will be a change for many college coaches, which is a major reason why buy-in is critical. Coaches must be comfortable checking their egos at the door in order to adjust their tactics if there is overwhelming evidence that doing so will lead to competitive advantage. In football, analysts have already discovered outdated tactical best practices that do not stand up to analytical scrutiny. As an example, running on 2nd and long to set up a manageable 3rd down. It makes sense on paper, but our own Robert Binion has repeatedly shown it to be a foolhardy stratagem. “Run-pass balance” is another tactical talking point that has long poisoned the minds of fans and coaches alike. Play-callers don’t need to have balance between the run and pass to “keep the defense honest.” Call what the team excels at running, and what the opponent is poor at defending. It doesn’t matter what it is.

Cleaning House

Todd Stansbury and Coach Collins will likely be fired at the end of this football season. Neither has shown what it takes to run a successful Athletic Association or football program of the future. It will be up to the AD search team to find someone who will lead Tech down this path. I wish I had a name in mind, but unfortunately I don’t. I hope Tech’s administration, the boosters, and whatever search firm they hire focus on what will bring success in the future instead of what brought success in the past.

Use What You’ve Got

Georgia Tech is a special place filled with special talent. It’s perhaps the most obvious competitive advantage Tech has. Impressive feats of research are performed by professors, graduate students, and undergraduates alike. Tech students study a wide range of practical fields that can support the Athletic association. Biomedical Engineering can support athlete health and help them to avoid injury. The College of Computing can develop applications that support GTAA Analysts. Tech has the #1 Industrial Engineering school in the country, but the GTAA does not properly use it. It’s a field of study that uses models and statistics to explain what is and what could be with process improvements (I am not an Industrial Engineer, and I look forward to one showing up in the comments to point out the flaws in this description).

At Tech, many senior design projects must be performed with a corporate sponsor to solve a real-world problem. The GTAA should be utilizing this resource to the fullest. Not only will it provide new capabilities to the AA, but it will foster student engagement, leading to more lifelong Tech fans. Even if most of the projects don’t provide a useful output, they cost (almost) nothing.

If the problem requires a higher level of expertise, Tech also has a wealth of research labs on campus. The lack of concrete engagement between the GTAA and its readily available research base for years has been almost criminally negligent.

Never Sleep

Within a few years of that transformative 2002 Oakland A’s season, the sport had changed. Other teams adopted the methods and principles used in Oakland into their own front offices. These teams found success in doing so even though they weren’t pioneers of these practices. It didn’t matter. Opponents will catch up. If Tech is to remain competitive in the years to come, it cannot simply implement what has been outlined in this piece. It must strive for continuous improvement. Always seek the next piece of competitive advantage waiting to be found. This isn’t easy, and there will be trials and errors along the way. But if Tech is to be relevant moving forward, it must always lead.