How Sponsorship Deals Are Transforming College Sports

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Even more than the endorsement deals, collectives have altered the landscape of college sports. Until the N.C.A.A. abolished the prohibition on paying players, most boosters gave their money to their favorite school’s athletic department. Those contributions helped pay coaches’ salaries, fund recruiting trips, charter team planes, upgrade facilities — whatever the department needed. Now some of those checks go to collectives. Like Political Action Committees and the campaigns they help fund, the collectives must have no official affiliation with athletic departments. Rather, they distribute money as they choose. What they actually do is give it directly to athletes.

In December 2021, for instance, a collective at the University of Texas announced that it would guarantee deals worth at least $50,000 annually to each of the offensive linemen who were currently on scholarship with the program. It was seen as a pre-emptive strike against other programs trying to get Longhorns to transfer, but the subtext was that high school linemen considering Texas could expect the same munificence. That set a rough value for what a lineman could expect to earn. Not surprisingly, the value of a quarterback is much higher.

The collectives are a hack in the system — entities that can legally pay players for the use of their names, images or likenesses, even though making those payments is their sole reason for existing. In fact, the payments they make aren’t much different from the under-the-table benefits that were sometimes distributed to players in violation of the old regulations. It can happen out in the open now, so long as the players who receive it do something in return — charity work, in many cases, or an appearance on behalf of the collective itself.

In the summer of 2021, Dwight Stone, a Greensboro businessman and a frequent contributor to North Carolina athletics, helped found a collective, Heels4Life, to subsidize the school’s football players. Stone is a tennis enthusiast; his son and daughter played at Chapel Hill. But as a former chairman of North Carolina’s board, he understood that the financial health of a major state university was often determined, in part, by its football success. A competitive team could inspire wealthy alumni to give — to athletics, but also to the school’s general fund, and to capital campaigns that help build dorms and renovate classrooms. In 135 seasons playing football, North Carolina has never won a national title. Since 1953, when the A.C.C. was founded with North Carolina as a charter member, it has won just five conference championships. A robust collective, Stone realized, might be an opportunity to alter the Tar Heels’ standing in the sport.

“When NIL was put into motion, there was good intent,” Stone says. “What it has turned into is basically a pay-to-play, to some degree, and a recruiting mechanism for those who are smart enough and wealthy enough to put together a collective for their schools.” Mack Brown, the North Carolina football coach, has been critical of the impact that barely regulated payment to players has had on recruiting. But his personal view on the topic, like that of every other coach, is irrelevant. “To have a competitive team on the field to support Mack and his coaches, we need NIL,” says Graham Boone, the Heels4Life executive director. “That’s just a reality.” Before the 2022 season, Brown stressed to the newly hired Boone that Heels4Life needed to do everything it could to get deals for his players, right up to the edge of the rules. “If the speed limit is 45,” Brown told him, “we’d better be going 45.”

Brown, now 71, coached at North Carolina from 1988 to 1997. Then he went to Texas, won a national championship and eventually retired. He was working as a TV commentator in 2018 when Cunningham invited him to return to Chapel Hill. One Monday evening in August, I went to a local sports bar to watch him do his weekly radio show. The conversation he had with Jones Angell, the host of the show, could have come straight out of his first tenure at North Carolina, or any coaches’ show over the past three decades. Brown talked in his Tennessee drawl about establishing the running game, and how he hoped that some of his banged-up defensive players would be back by the weekend.

But at the table where I was sitting with fund-raisers and athletic-department officials, the chatter was unique to 2022. Not long before, I learned, a collective at the University of Oklahoma paid the school to become a sponsor, in effect buying the same status that Bojangles had at schools around the southeast. That meant it could show players in uniforms on its website and market itself as an officially sanctioned partner, among other benefits. Whether buying those rights was a worthwhile way for the collectives to spend boosters’ money, nobody at the table seemed to know. Later, I realized that, for the university, selling a sponsorship to Heels4Life would be just as remunerative for North Carolina athletics as selling it to any other company.

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