Coming soon to a McDonald’s near you: the Zion burger?
How about a Tua taco?
A new California law, already being copied by Illinois and other states, would allow college athletes to profit from their name or likeness while they’re still in school.
While megastars like former Duke sensation Zion Williamson and Alabama Heisman hopeful Tua Tagovailoa would be obvious choices for lucrative endorsement deals, how would the law affect their more earthly teammates, or athletes in other sports?
What about top players at schools outside the Top 25, like Illinois? Could we see an Ayo pizza or a Giorgi gyro?
“It would benefit almost every sport,” argues ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas, a staunch proponent of giving college athletes the chance to profit from their talents.
Not every athlete will sign a deal with Nike or Under Armour, Bilas said. It’s been awhile since Illinois has had a national marketing draw the likes of Dee Brown.
But Illinois has “a bunch of players, especially in that market, that have value,” Bilas said. “You go into any bar or restaurant in the greater Champaign-Urbana area, and what do they have on the walls? They’ve got Illinois stuff. They’ve got pictures of players and autographs. Of course there are opportunities there.”
And it’s not limited to big-revenue sports, he said.
“With the explosion of social media and the digital front, there are all kinds of platforms on which money can be earned,” he said. “You can have softball players, soccer players, you name it, especially in the local markets.”
A top tennis or golf player could give lessons on the side, or run a summer camp, he said. Popular players could give paid speeches or sell autographs.
“They could make themselves available for birthday parties. There are all kinds of things,” he said.
‘How big are Illinois football and basketball players in Champaign?’
Sports business reporter Darren Rovell said only a “very few” elite players would have national endorsement opportunities, but the two best players on any top 25 program likely would be able to market themselves in a big way in their local or regional communities.
“The question then becomes: How big are Illinois football and basketball players in Champaign? And what’s the market value for that?” he said.
Rovell doesn’t see Illinois players winning endorsement deals in the larger Chicago market “under the current state of the programs. They have to almost win first. The best player on Illinois when the team is 4-8 might not be worth anything.”
Melinda Zanoni, CEO of Charlotte-based Legacy Talent and Entertainment, agreed that Illinois athletes wouldn’t get big endorsement deals from Bose headphones or Nike.
“But it would allow them to monetize” through YouTube sales, Google’s AdSense, sports camps or local endorsements such as Jimmy John’s, said Zanoni, who holds two UI degrees.
The change would also help female athletes — in some ways more than men, who have greater opportunities to make money in the pros, Zanoni said.
In most women’s sports, the biggest shot at visibility comes during college because there are so few pro leagues for women, she said.
“You’ve got these famous athletes who are unbelievable in their field. They go home in the summer, and they can’t even run a camp in their sport because they would make money” in violation of current NCAA rules, Zanoni said.
“I think that’s the biggest gender inequity,” she said.
‘Like other things, (the NCAA is) going to get dragged into reality’
Bilas said top women’s athletes would have endorsement opportunities, such as Olympic champion and Stanford swimmer Katie Ledecky or UCLA gymnast Katelyn Ohashi.
“No other student is told that they can’t make money while they’re in school,” Bilas said.
All three analysts think some version of what California is doing is inevitable, though they have different opinions about the law.
“Frankly, I’m surprised it didn’t happen earlier,” Zanoni said.
Bilas said it’s part of a natural evolution in college sports.
“I think it’s a pipe dream for the NCAA to expect that they can run a multibillion-dollar business and pay everyone fair market value but the athletes get expenses only, when they’re being sold for literally billions of dollars,” he said.
“Like other things, they’re going to get dragged into reality,” Bilas said.
Rovell said the NCAA “should have done something like this a long time ago. I’ve always thought that players should get paid for their jersey sales, and we should put a name on the back of the jerseys.”
Fans don’t want a jersey that just has a number on it, he said.
But the endorsement idea “is a little bit hairy,” he said. “I’m not a free-market guy. I don’t think it should be a free-for-all.”
Much will depend on whether the laws will allow schools to induce young recruits with endorsements and jersey sales.
A bill proposed in Florida explicitly says that students would be allowed to profit from their image only after they’re enrolled, which would be “more of a genuine marketplace,” Rovell said.
The California law, which the Illinois bill is modeled on, doesn’t have any prohibitions about when offers can be made to college prospects, he said, “which turns this into free-market capitalism.”
A booster could say, “I’ll buy 5,000 jerseys, and I’ll give you an endorsement with my companies for $1 million” to land a recruit for a particular school, he said.
“We don’t know what the NCAA rules will be,” he said.
‘I’m not sure we want to blur the line between college and pro’
Zanoni shares those concerns. She sees “upsides” to the California law, including the likelihood that more athletes would finish college degrees before turning pro.
She also represents non-athletes in college who are YouTube “influencers,” and “they can monetize their channels all day long. But the athletes can’t,” Zanoni said.
College sports generate millions of dollars for schools, “but the people who are at risk, the people who put their health and safety and risk injury, are not making money, so we’re taking advantage of what are still kids,” she said.
On the other hand, she said, “They’re called amateur sports for a reason. As a viewer and a consumer, we all sort of love the purity of the game. And I’m not sure we want to blur the line between college and pro, which this absolutely does. But I’m not sure I buy into the pundits who say it’s the end of college football as we know it.”
Like other critics, Zanoni raised concerns about the “locker room effect.”
“The Zions with the lucrative endorsement deals that other players don’t get will hurt morale on the team. Right now, there’s a level playing field of all players, with NCAA rules in effect.”
She also worries that states that adopt the legislation would have an “insurmountable” recruiting advantage, making it hard for others to compete.
If legal challenges by the NCAA or others fail, similar laws will be adopted across the country as other states “play catchup,” she said. But even then, schools with the biggest endowments and wealthiest donors will still be able to recruit the best athletes because they’ll be able to secure the richest endorsement deals, she said.
‘There’s no level playing field now, nor has there ever been one’
Bilas scoffed at arguments about a level playing field in collegiate sports.
“We’re not worried about a level playing field with regard to coaches’ salaries. We’re not worried about a level playing field with regard to facilities or with regard to what an institution is willing to spend in support of a player. And we act like that doesn’t matter. Of course it matters. There’s no level playing field now, nor has there ever been one in college sports,” he said.
Zanoni said there’s a difference between a school having better coaches or facilities and actually putting more money in players’ pockets.
Currently, she said, students might opt to stay at a university that’s closer to family, even if another school might have better facilities. But if that school offers a lucrative package directly to the student, “it’s a whole different ballgame,” she said,
“What you’re selling is, ‘You’re going to make this much money.’ These are kids. They’re 18 years old. That’s what they’re going to focus on,” she said.
Bilas said similar “doomsday” arguments were made when the NCAA approved rules allowing schools to offer unlimited food to athletes or stipends to cover the full cost of attendance.
Opponents argued that schools would have to drop sports, and there would be a “massive imbalance between the haves and the have-nots,” Bilas said. “Five years later, everything’s fine. It’s amazing how the world is still on its axis.”
“The NCAA’s trying to scare people,” he said. “They use catchphrases like ‘the law of unintended consequences.’ There is no such law,” he said.
“They talk about a slippery slope. That slope exists only for athletes. The other slopes that the NCAA walks upon, there’s no slip at all. It’s only the athletes that can slip on this slope,” Bilas said.
He also took issue with the notion that players might resent teammates who earn more money in endorsements.
“It’s funny how they don’t say that players should all play the same amount of minutes so everything is fair. That’s where the meritocracy comes in. Or that walk-ons get as many minutes or interviews as star players, or everybody starts the same amount of games,” he said.
“They don’t demand that all assistants be paid the same or all head coaches be paid the same, or everybody on the same staff is paid the same because they’re worried about how they’ll all get along in the office. Given what the Alabama coaching staff is making, there must be fights daily in the athletic office.”
He doesn’t see the new rules having a huge impact on a program like Illinois, other than giving them better access to talented athletes who might only be the fourth-best player at a top-tier school.
‘I don’t think there’s any stopping this train at this point’
One thing the analysts do agree on: It’s all about the money.
The NCAA and member institutions are worried about losing control of income from multimillion-dollar merchandising contracts, Bilas said.
“Right now, in order to use the players as unpaid billboards, you have to pay the school. You won’t have to use the schools anymore. That’s what they’re afraid of,” Bilas said.
“If a player can make money from Nike and Under Armour, why should companies pay the schools so much to get their shoes on the players? They can go directly to who they want. And that could limit how much schools make,” Bilas said.
“If McDonald’s wants to be the official hamburger for the Duke basketball team, maybe it would be better off being the hamburger of Zion,” he said.
Zanoni agreed: “I think the schools lose under this one. They are making a lot of money from the Nikes of the world because they get billions from endorsement deals.”
She thinks universities might figure out how to “bundle” athletes and packages, just as pro teams do, but that will depend on how the rules shake out. The bill proposed in Illinois does bar athletes from getting endorsements from a direct competitor to a company partnering with their university.
“I don’t think there’s any stopping this train at this point. And I think the NCAA knows it,” Zanoni said.
The legal arguments against it are “weak at best,” she said, and public sentiment is behind it.
The federal government is likely to get involved, too, Bilas said.
“It’s over,” he said. “And the only thing they can do is get in front of this and set a reasonably smart policy going forward.”