Analysis

Follow the money: Will NIL laws sway NFL draft early entry decisions?

scooby-wright
Former Cardinals LB Scooby Wright says he would have handled his draft entry decision differently had there been NIL laws on the books when he was a college athlete. (Rick Scuteri/AP)

Seven years ago, as Scooby Wright's name was exploding across the college football landscape, the former Arizona linebacker wandered into a Tucson gyro sandwich shop near the UA campus and received his first hard lesson in the value of his name, image and likeness. On the menu was a sandwich dubbed "The Scooby Snack."

"I was like, 'If I order it, is it free?' But really, I should've been able to sue their ass," Wright said in a recent interview. "Was that my name and likeness? They could say they named it off of Scooby-Doo, but c'mon. [The sandwich] was named after me while I was there."

In a matter of days, NFL prospects, unlike Wright before them, will have something more to consider in deciding whether to file for early draft eligibility -- the money that can now be made as a college athlete. Beginning July 1, new laws or executive orders will go into effect in at least eight states -- Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, New Mexico, Ohio and Texas -- permitting college athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness (NIL). Another 13 states have passed NIL laws that are merely awaiting a later effective date, including those home to powerhouse football programs such as Clemson, Michigan and USC. Bills in five more states need only a governor's signature as of this writing and all but 10 states have at least introduced an NIL bill.

All forms of advertising and endorsement opportunities will be open to college athletes, from national brands to local TV commercials; from autograph sessions to paid promotions in social media posts. In time, group licensing could get players a piece of jersey and video game sales. And for a certain profile of prospect -- those who achieve college stardom but are nevertheless projected as Day 3 draft selections -- some agents believe NIL income could be a significant factor in the decision of whether to stay in school or turn pro. That profile points first toward the back end of the draft, where prospects with late-round scouting grades already have some incentive to return to school to pursue higher draft status.

"I think guys that might stay back in school are (popular) skill-position players that aren't top-100 picks, who can make more money staying in school than going into the draft for a $250,000 signing bonus and maybe make a roster, when they can go back to their school, be the superstar, and maybe make 500 grand to a million," said Dallas-based agent Ron Slavin, who has built a pipeline over the last two decades into Boise State, signing almost all of the Broncos' draftable players, including Dallas Cowboys LB Leighton Vander Esch. "But (only) at big schools. I don't think FCS schools or MAC schools are going to be (as lucrative)."

Wright was one of the most recognizable players in college football when he first came across the Scooby Snack. Between his reckless passion on the field, a catchy name and an incredible sophomore season in 2014 (164 tackles, 15 sacks and five forced fumbles), his popularity was sweeping. More than a Wildcats fan favorite, he was an ESPN highlights mainstay, and finished in the top 10 in the Heisman Trophy voting with the sort of marketing appeal that would certainly interest brand-name companies. But as a draft prospect, he was a relative afterthought. His junior year, a left meniscus tear and a right foot injury wrecked his season and damaged his stock. The Cleveland Browns selected Wright in the seventh round of the 2016 draft, just three picks north of Mr. Irrelevant. His signing bonus: $60,700. Many agents believe that's a level of income that can be available via NIL.

"(In 2014,) I could've made Scooby Wright $60,000 by the end of this phone conversation," said agent Sam Leaf Ireifej, who recruited but ultimately did not represent the former UA linebacker.

Wright is no anomaly.

Think Jake Fromm, the star quarterback at Georgia who led the Bulldogs to the brink of a national title as a freshman in 2017. Or former Oklahoma State star running back Chuba Hubbard, with his added marketing appeal as a world-class track athlete. Or former Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya, or former Kentucky running back Benny Snell. All were legitimate college stars who could have been sought-after product endorsers, and all left college early only to be selected on the last day of the draft.

"It's always been the same conversation every December between college players and their coaches, who say, 'You're not ready, you're not ready.' And the player says, 'Yeah, but coach, I'm trying to get paid,' " said Ireifej. "Well, that conversation will never be the same again."

Agents view the impact of college NIL income on early entry draft decisions as something of a sliding scale. At the top end, highly regarded prospects sign NFL contracts that are too lucrative for college NIL money to even be a consideration. Alabama coach Nick Saban, whose program sends underclassmen into the draft in droves, agrees.

"First-round guys, or second-round guys who can't improve their draft status, those are the kind of guys that come out, for the most part, for us," Saban said earlier this month at his Nick's Kids Foundation charity golf tournament in Vestavia Hills, Alabama. "I don't think there's going to be enough significance to name, image and likeness that the millions of dollars they could make going out for the draft would impact that or affect it."

But at what point will that sliding scale begin to tilt?

Soon enough, the market will answer that question, along with any litigation that could arise from restrictions in state laws or the NCAA's forthcoming revised legislation. Among the NCAA's concerns about the NIL era is that wealthy college boosters could entice players with the promise of massive NIL payments. While recruiting advantages are the NCAA's focus for reasons of competitive integrity, boosters could instead inflate the NIL value of underclassmen weighing a draft decision, giving them greater incentive to stay in school for another season. In essence, they could use NIL rights as a vehicle to pay players to not enter the draft. Swaying an underclassman to play another season with NIL money could prove a more effective way for a booster to help the program than spending those dollars on highly touted but unproven younger players.

"It is a similar effect, but three years later," said Casey Schwab, a founding partner of Altius Sports Partners, a platform which will contract with schools for NIL-related services that need third-party administration. "I think it will happen in some cases, but we don't yet know the dollars that will be there."

Schwab grasps marketing value in athletes from a unique perspective, having helped procure major marketing deals for NFL players -- via the Madden video game, Panini America and more -- in his role at NFL Players Inc., the for-profit branch of the NFLPA. One potential drag on college NIL earnings, Schwab worries, is the bureaucracy of filtering payments through regulatory bodies, including the NCAA, schools, state law and potentially federal law. But he also believes the NIL era will instill a more positive view of the college experience for athletes, also weighing on early entry decisions.

"This narrative over the last decade of the NCAA taking advantage of athletes, [NIL] is shifting that a little; it's changing," Schwab said. "That philosophical mindset could impact guys' decisions. 'Maybe I'll stay because I feel supported and I can go out and monetize my NIL.' I do think that's going to play a factor."

Be it for incoming freshmen or draft prospects, policing NIL payments will prove difficult at best. The state laws being passed have provisions intended to keep NIL income aligned with true value, but even proponents of the bills recognize that the worth of a player endorsement is highly subjective. Darren Heitner, a sports and entertainment attorney who helped draft Florida's NIL law, acknowledged that legislative provisions intended to keep NIL payments within reason could be tested. Heitner believes "98 to 99 percent" of players' marketing deals won't be met with formal legal challenges, but that doesn't mean the envelope won't be pushed.

"To the extent that a state law contains that type of provision, it is somewhat vague and open to interpretation," Heitner said. "Technically, the athlete should only be compensated commensurate to that individual's value within the marketplace."

Indeed, state NIL laws not only open the door for inflated payments, according to NCAA president Mark Emmert, but they might well be inviting them. In a Senate commerce committee hearing on June 9 on the need for a federal NIL law, Emmert spoke of recruiting advantages being a pending problem. Asked if he had concern that state legislators might craft recruiting advantages for their schools into their NIL bills, Emmert replied: "We're already seeing that playing out in reality."

New laws will also allow for multiyear contracts between players and companies but will require that the deal expire upon the player's exit from college, according to Heitner. As such, a draft prospect who doesn't become a college star but nevertheless procures significant, multiyear NIL income based on recruiting notoriety or a successful freshman season, would have the same incentive to return to college. If a company wants to bet on a player's NIL value before it's truly been established on the field, it can roll the dice.

"That's the risk the brand takes," Heitner said.

The NCAA, which is crafting its own policy to allow NIL revenue, has called for Congress to establish federal law that would supersede and simplify state-to-state variations. The NCAA could file for injunctive relief from state laws in hopes that Congress will act. It's more likely, however, that the NCAA's Division I Board of Directors will approve an interim policy this week that would allow NIL income for athletes across the country. What form that interim policy will take, however, is being debated among NCAA leadership -- a more restrictive policy that could be vulnerable to litigation, or a more lax one.

Initially, eyes will be on the giants of the athlete endorsement space -- shoe and apparel companies like Nike, Adidas and Under Armour, or other athlete-centric brands like Gatorade -- to see if they dive in with both feet or just dip a toe in the water. Ireifej foresees national brands of that size being interested in no more than a few athletes. Perhaps the face of the game -- the Trevor Lawrence of a given year -- and a few others, but a very short list.

"Nobody in Los Angeles cares if a product is being endorsed by an LSU linebacker," Ireifej said. "Or in Chicago. Or in New York."

Suspensions like the one former Georgia RB Todd Gurley served in 2014 -- after accepting payment for signing autographs -- will soon be a thing of the past thanks to NIL laws. (John Bazemore/Associated Press)
Suspensions like the one former Georgia RB Todd Gurley served in 2014 -- after accepting payment for signing autographs -- will soon be a thing of the past thanks to NIL laws. (John Bazemore/Associated Press)

A second tier of brands at the regional, state and local levels, however, could be all in. And product endorsements are just one of many potential NIL revenue streams. Autographed memorabilia sales, which resulted in Todd Gurley receiving a four-game suspension in his final season at Georgia in 2014, are now on the table. Players will be allowed to charge for private training instruction. Want to send your friend or loved one a personalized birthday message from his or her favorite college athlete? PlayBooked, one of dozens of online NIL platforms that will connect athletes with brands and creative revenue streams, will offer video shout-outs from players to paying fans. And not to be forgotten, endorsements via social media posts could be monetized as well.

"A rule of thumb is, every thousand followers you have on Instagram is going to translate into about $6 to $10 per post," said Keith Mitchell, a former Michigan tight end who co-founded PlayBooked. "That's the language that's being thrown around."

While NIL income represents an exciting new opportunity for players, it will also come with perils. Among them: The possibility that agents could promise more NIL money than they can deliver. The aforementioned multiyear NIL deal could be detrimental to a player earning his true value as easily as it could prove to be player-friendly. According to Heitner, it's also questionable whether the NCAA's interim policy will prohibit agents from paying players an advance on their marketing value. It remains to be seen how or whether athletes would be held accountable for entering into NIL agreements that don't comply with state law or NCAA policy. Schools are contracting with third-party NIL platforms that will provide education and guidance for athletes in the NIL space. Still, players need not worry about getting locked into the wrong agent for their NFL careers. NCAA rules preventing athletes from signing with an agent for contract representation until their eligibility expires remain unchanged.

Any reduction in early draft entries would be welcome to NFL executives, who consistently caution against underclassmen entering the draft prematurely. The numbers have spiked in recent years, with the highest seven totals of underclassmen in any given draft having come over the last eight years, including a record 106 in 2018. It also could provide the Reese's Senior Bowl with a boost by creating a stronger selection pool for Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy.

"Those middle-to-late Day 3 picks, it could make some difference for them. It puts more emphasis on getting these guys credible information about where they stand," Nagy said. "They really need to know, now that there's going to be a financial benefit to staying in school as opposed to just jumping into the draft and rolling the dice, there's now more for these kids to think about."

The NIL era is also viewed as a forthcoming eruption in the agent game, turning the business -- as agents currently know it -- into a slightly different species. That's because agents themselves will be permitted to broker agreements between players and brands as soon as they enter college. That means relationship-building with athletes will start years sooner for agents, and formal marketing agreements could be struck as quickly as top high school recruits sign a letter of intent to play with their chosen school. If agents procure a strong NIL deal for a player, that will ultimately help them later secure that player for his NFL contract representation.

"We might have kids signing deals as freshmen, depending on who the kid is," said Houston-based NFL agent Murphy McGuire of Octagon. "That, I do believe, is going to happen in some way, shape or form. It might take a few years, it might not. But it's going to completely change our landscape."

It might've changed Scooby Wright's, too.

Wright was a practice-squad player as a Browns rookie in 2016, only to be signed by the Arizona Cardinals, for whom he bounced between the active roster and the practice squad for another year. Now living in Pacifica, California, he's slimmed down to 205 pounds -- he played at nearly 250 -- while pursuing an MMA career. He also just qualified for Pacifica's firefighting academy. His biggest football regret: Chasing the wrong money at the wrong time robbed him of developing his football career to its full potential.

He says NIL income might've helped take him there. Arizona would've had one more year with a dynamic college talent, and the NFL might've seen him as more than just a seventh-round player had he played another season with the Wildcats before entering the draft.

"One hundred percent, I would've reconsidered coming out. I played in the wrong era," Wright said. "It would've made sense to come back. I wouldn't have felt like, I've got to go get the bag. I've got to go get the money. I would've already gotten paid."

Follow Chase Goodbread on Twitter.

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