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ESPN survey reveals NIL is pushing college football to a breaking point

Bryce Young
Photo credit: Alabama Athletics

It’s only been a little more than a year, but in that time the college football landscape has seen significant changes, and many don’t see things slowing down anytime soon. According to an ESPN survey of over 200 coaches, players and administrators, many believe that with the growth of NIL, college football will continue to see consequential changes that has the potential to reconfigure the NCAA landscape as a whole.

As reported by Front Office Sports’ daily podcast, The Leadoff, 82% of respondents believe schools will pay athletes directly within the next decade. Additionally, 54% believe this can happen within the next five years.

ESPN reported that half of respondents say that due to the rise of NIL, the federal government should step in to create uniform policy on NIL, even though Congress has been reluctant to take the wheel on the issue. A third believe the NCAA needs to create policy, meanwhile 70% said they think the organization has trepidation over litigation following NCAA v Alson, the Supreme Court case that opened the door for NIL.

Although the NCAA has a rule against utilizing NIL as a recruitment tactic, nearly 80% say it’s a facade, with NIL representing a “black-market-pay-for-play system” to secure both new recruits and transfers, as ESPN writer David Hale puts it. The survey also found that coaches and administrators think the transfer portal has become more like free agency than ever before.

Of course, that’s just how those who aren’t on the field view things in regard to NIL. Among athletes, nearly half said their schools do not provide adequate infrastructure for them to maximize opportunities, possibly prompting players to hit the transfer market.

But while the poll surveyed players between February and June, new opportunities have come about, including the introduction of the first open-facing marketplace for athletes via Opendorse, as well as Altius Sports Group’s GM program, both of which are making it accessible for athletes to be noticed, and in the case of Altius, develop in house resources to better athletes’ opportunities to maximize their name, image and likeness.

The survey also noted that nearly 75% of respondents think that with the massive growth of NIL, the NCAA will see schools and conferences develop a pay-for-play model, with schools forming conferences based on their willingness to pay players. And speaking of realignment, 98% of respondents think more realignment is in store — sooner rather than later.

Aside from realignment, 60% of respondents believe that college football should break away from the NCAA entirely and form their own system of oversight.

“It is important for all of us in business to recognize that we’re in a time of change,” Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren told ESPN. “I think there’s two types of people in the world, that they look at change as a problem or they look at change as an opportunity. I’m one of those individuals that, when change occurs, I get excited about it. It’s really an opportunity for us to do a lot of things that people have thought about but maybe [were] a little bit reticent to do.”

Michigan is set to reap benefits more than just about anyone, with former PAC-12 schools USC and UCLA set to join the already loaded Big 10. In the SEC, Oklahoma and Texas are also leaving the Big 12 in favor of the biggest stage in the sport.

The NIL era of college football is only in its infancy, but it has already created a minefield of debate among every stakeholder in the sport. It’s to be seen where things will go, but if there is one commonality from the survey, it’s this: NIL is a three lane highway.

The NCAA, whether the government steps in or not, will need to develop policy to maintain competitive balance and prevent tampering.

The same goes for coaches and boosters, who at all costs should avoid tampering and keep the playing field fair for all.

Then there is the athlete. In this space, athletes have become more professional than ever, having the ability to select their school based on criteria they choose: sponsorship opportunities, playing time, education, school status, etc. As much as it’s on the shoulders of those at the top to keep the field level, it’s on the players to not simply chase the money.