Why college sports are in the middle of a transformative two-week stretch

Between a Supreme Court ruling, College Football Playoff expansion and name, image and likeness legislation, the NCAA is in a transformative period.
The NCAA has had an eventful week, from a Supreme Court ruling to the final preparations before name, image and likeness legislation takes effect.
The NCAA has had an eventful week, from a Supreme Court ruling to the final preparations before name, image and likeness legislation takes effect. [ MICHAEL CONROY | AP ]
Published June 26, 2021

One of the most significant stretches in college athletics history began Monday at the Supreme Court with a unanimous ruling expanding players’ benefits.

It continued Tuesday at a four-star hotel near Dallas as the College Football Playoff took another step toward expansion. And it will culminate this coming Thursday when athletes in Florida (and at least a handful of other states) can begin making money through advertisements and autographs.

Three transformative issues. Three significant steps. All in an 11-day span.

“A lot of things that are all important in their own right …” USF athletic director Michael Kelly said, “they all kind of come together.”

Related: How would College Football Playoff expansion affect the coaching carousel?

That collision, in what is normally an uneventful time on the college sports calendar, will take years for Kelly and the rest of the industry to unpack. But it’s not a stretch to say this two-week span will have a multi-billion-dollar impact and cut to the heart of the NCAA’s mission.

The NCAA is in the middle of a transformative two-week period.
The NCAA is in the middle of a transformative two-week period. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Why NCAA v. Alston does (and doesn’t) matter

Monday’s Supreme Court ruling in NCAA v. Alston was more important for its long-term consequences rather than its immediate future.

The 9-0 decision against the NCAA removes caps on education-related benefits for athletes. Schools won’t be allowed to pay recruits or give player bonuses for big games anytime soon; the decision itself was narrow.

But its effects will be wide, once schools and conferences start learning what benefits can be related to education. Laptops are logical. What about a scooter to get to class across a sprawling campus? If a scooter is okay, what about a car?

“The big conferences with money are going to get as many benefits to the student-athletes as possible, because that’ll give them a competitive edge,” said former UCF general counsel Scott Cole, now the chair of the higher education practice at the Florida law firm GrayRobinson. “That means the bigger conferences will become bigger and more powerful, and the smaller conferences will continue to fall behind because they just don’t have the resources to keep up.”

That issue could get even worse if this NCAA legal defeat leads to more of them. In a brutal concurring opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh said the NCAA faces “serious” antitrust questions by not paying players.

Related: Florida’s early 2021 college football viewing guide

Kavanaugh didn’t speak for the whole court, but Cole expects the justice’s words to invite more legal challenges that could further change, if not eliminate, the longstanding role of amateurism in college sports.

College Football Playoff expansion took a big step forward

The College Football Playoff is exploring expansion from the four-team event that was in Tampa in January 2017.
The College Football Playoff is exploring expansion from the four-team event that was in Tampa in January 2017. [ CHRIS URSO | Tampa Bay Times ]
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The most interesting development for fans — playoff expansion — is, for now, the least important.

The school presidents and chancellors who oversee the playoff didn’t overhaul the system when they met Tuesday. They merely took a procedural step to keep exploring the legalities and logistics of going from four teams to 12. A formal decision could come as soon as September.

But if (when) the playoff expands — the 2023-24 season, at the earliest — it will reshape the entire sport. Playoff revenue could triple to more than $2 billion a year, according to one preliminary estimate from the data-driven consulting firm Navigate.

Related: College Football Playoff expansion would be ‘great news’ for USF, Bulls AD says

On the field, the Gators, Seminoles, Hurricanes, Bulls and Knights would all have easier paths to the playoff. More games will mean more for more teams.

And, because of the last monumental issue, more profitable for players.

State NIL plans take shape

The NCAA still hasn’t enacted policies to allow players to be paid by third parties for their name, image and likeness. It remains unclear what national changes (if any) will happen in the coming days.

“There’s still, unfortunately, a lot more uncertainty than I wished there was,” Kelly said.

But some answers are starting to crystallize before Thursday, when Florida law allows athletes to be paid for things like commercials and sponsored social media posts.

The Gators released their policy Thursday, giving details on restrictions (no working with companies involved with gambling or performance-enhancing drugs) and a four-day timeline for players to disclose deals to the school. USF had a day-long information session planned for Friday to educate players and staff on the latest guidelines.

Related: USF athletic director pleads for more fan support after successful spring

It’s unclear how big the market will be because it has never before existed. NCAA rules outlawed it. But the NCAA won’t overrule state law and won’t stop Florida’s athletes from signing deals that could be worth anything from a free meal to thousands of dollars.

That means vendors like Orlando-based Dreamfield — which helps athletes connect with companies for things such as autograph sessions and meet-and-greets — are pushing to prepare for Thursday.

“We’re definitely busy,” said Luis A. Pardillo, Dreamfield’s co-founder and CEO.

Just like the rest of college athletics during one of the biggest stretches in recent history.

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