Everything changes in August.
No, Cal is not suddenly going to become a threat for the College Football Playoff, nor will the Berkeley student body take a sudden lurch to the right. But a long-overdue NCAA reform, called the NIL, will radically alter the landscape of college athletics – and will likely leave the Golden Bears even further behind in the big-boy sports of the Pac-12.
To start with, “NIL” stands for “Name, Image, Likeness,” and after years of basically not paying its workers, the NCAA, under pressure, will allow any college athlete to sell his or her name, image or likeness for use by companies or individuals. At first glance, that doesn’t seem like such a big deal, as how many college athletes will State Farm hire to be in commercials with Chris Paul? Maybe a star quarterback or two, and the latest sensation in college basketball, but the impact of corporate endorsements can’t be that important, right?
No, corporate endorsements aren’t going to mean much in the grand scheme of things, nor will the occasional social influencer with millions of followers. No, the important people here are completely unknown, and almost always behind the scenes: The boosters who live and die for their alma mater’s teams.
Think about it. There are 85 players on football scholarships at FBS schools – what if 85 Alabama boosters agree to each pay each one of those scholarship players $50,000 a year to “endorse” their business? (Well, of course, the star quarterback is going to get a lot more than that, and running back like Antioch’s Najee Harris would likely command six figures – high six figures.) In the Pac-12, U$C, as it’s known by Bear backers, will probably be able to put together packages for each scholarship athlete in football and men’s basketball (where the prestige is), and it will then be up to the rest of the Pac-12 to pony up as well.
And unlike pro sports, there’s no salary cap here. There’s no mechanism that will prevent a dedicated booster from paying a star quarterback $1 million to say nice things about his law firm. There’s no control over a group of boosters who decide to allocate $10 million to the men’s basketball team in exchange for, well, almost nothing.
And a school like Cal, with a smaller booster base than most of the schools in the Pac-12, will have to find a way to make up for lost ground. Academic excellence? All well and good, but UCLA just offered a second-string offensive tackle $75,000, and the booster will hire his mom as office manager.
Now of course Alabama and Ohio State and Texas have always spent more money than Cal or Washington State, and a lot of that money was under the table – but now that everything’s legal, the disparity will only grow greater.
Then again, the market will also favor opportunity, and a quarterback who might get lost in the shuffle at Clemson might opt for a slightly smaller paycheck at Cal in order to get playing time and maybe develop into an NFL prospect. The same will be true in basketball, and with relaxed transfer rules, expect players to soon realize playing time now could translate into more money in the NBA or overseas later.
Still, the outlook is not good for Cal. Not only are its facilities below the standard set by the elite programs, now it’s not going to be able match the financial muscle of the powerhouse schools either. The playing field, which was never really close to level, has now tilted close to vertical, with talent flowing downhill to bigger paychecks and gaudier weight rooms.
There is, however, a glimmer of hope for Cal and other outliers, though that advantage will be visible only far from the spotlight. For example, say five alumnae of the women’s tennis team decide they want a national champion in Berkeley. While other schools spend their money on football and basketball, the Cal women’s tennis team will have an annual budget of $2 million, say, which will be more than enough to purchase plenty of elite talent.
Similar investments could occur in other “Olympic” sports, as they’re known (“minor sports” cut a little too close to the bone), and unlikely powers could emerge in unlikely places. My alma mater, UC Santa Barbara, could go all-in on women’s water polo, say, or Ultimate Frisbee, with a relatively minor outlay, and reap some headlines and free marketing as a result.
But Cal is literally playing a different league than that, and success will be measured in football and men’s basketball – and that success will now depend almost entirely on the willingness of Golden Bear boosters to outbid boosters from other schools for the services of young athletes. It is of course long overdue that the athletes earn their fair share of the money that flows into college sports, but at the same time, when the NIL rules kick in on Aug. 1, it’s going to be a brave new world for Cal and its Old Blues.
And it may not be a world they enjoy all that much.