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College Football Players Association organizing boycott of 2024 EA Sports video game

Nakos updated headshotby:Pete Nakos06/07/23

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Justin Falcinelli helped build one of the top college football programs of the 2010s. Clemson‘s starting center for two years left with two national titles.

But securing the program’s success had him wanting a piece of the revenue he generated. Meanwhile, head coach Dabo Swinney benefited – he signed a $115 million contract over 10 seasons in 2022.

The NCAA installing its interim NIL policy in 2021 was viewed by many as a victory. For the first time in college sports history, athletes were turning a profit. Last month, EA Sports announced players would be paid for their NIL to be used in the college football video game, which is slated to return in 2024.

EA has contracted OneTeam Partners to facilitate college athletes’ likeness. A source told On3 the cash pool for athletes was in the $5 million neighborhood, which would pay out to $500 per player. Sportico has also reported there are no royalties.

For Falcinelli, who is the vice president of the College Football Players Association, that does not fly. The organization tried to establish its first chapter at Penn State last summer. And the CFBPA is now urging athletes to boycott the game, with the hope EA will reconsider its payout to athletes.

“All current players should boycott this deal. It is an opt-in deal, and they should not opt into it. It is just a ridiculously low amount of money,” Falcinelli told On3. “Given the context and the hype that surrounds this game. When we first heard the number, we’re like, ‘Alright, that sounds low. Let’s go figure out if it is low.’ And started talking to guys, talked to some of my friends, some guys who are still playing in the NFL. ‘So, what are NFL players getting paid for Madden?’ And the numbers we were given were from 2019, it was disclosed that they got, I think, about $17,000. And then a current NFL player told us that he got a check for $28,000 this year for Madden.

“You should not participate in this. It is a simple cash grab to just try to get you for the lowest amount possible. And it’s OneTeam Partners and all these organizations that don’t really represent the players’ best interest.”

CFBPA circling video game as priority

The College Football Players Association (CFBPA) has openly jockeyed for independent medical care and post-football health protections for athletes in the last year. The organization would also like to be at the table representing players if revenue sharing is ever a possibility. It has the view it should negotiate group licensing deals, too, with the best interest of athletes in mind.

But for the time being, some of the focus on athlete rights has switched to the EA Sports College Football video game. Falcinelli and CFBPA founder Jason Stahl told On3 they have already been in touch with athletes about not handing over their NIL rights to EA in exchange for the payout. The players could instead lead an effort to boycott the game.

Falcinelli and Stahl are urging players to join the association, with the belief an organized effort could create some change. Neither disclosed what an ideal number would be. When the Ed O’Bannon case was settled in 2016, about 29,000 players who appeared in the college football and basketball video games were paid out an average of $1,200.

“We really think this can be a unifying effort because it’s such a clear target and clearly a bad deal,” said Falcinelli, who is now a data insight analyst based out of Baltimore.

For the top athletes, it’s expected they will be able to sign one-off marketing deals to promote the video game. Those endorsement deals could make up for any dollars lost from the $500 payout to opt-in to the game. Some of the major players could also have the leverage to quietly approach OneTeam Partners and strike a one-off deal with the help of their agent.

“For 99.9 percent of the players, opting in to the deal makes sense,” On3 founder CEO Shannon Terry said of the EA Sports game. “For so long, players were not able to receive a dollar for having their image and likeness used. The $500 can go a long way and is a bonus — because the real value is being in the game for generations. For some athletes like Drake Maye and Caleb Williams, holding out could add up because their value to the game is obviously greater than $500.

“That is up for them to decide what is most important to them.”

The last time the EA Sports video game hit the shelves in 2013, roughly 1.5 million copies were sold. Since then, the gaming industry has seen significant growth and interest. Esports leagues have been started. Twitch has become an extremely popular live streaming service thanks to video games.

The Madden franchise is estimated to generate $600 million in annual revenue, Jefferies analyst Alex Giaimo told Barron’s in 2020.

On3’s Andy Wittry spoke with multiple FBS players last weekend at the NIL Summit. One of the most interesting takeaways was that athletes are already having internal locker room conversations about the video game and possible holdouts. There’s almost a consensus that $500 is too little for the game’s top stars.

“Yes, I can definitely see that,” Kansas‘s All-Big 12 second-team quarterback Jalon Daniels said. “I could definitely see it, especially with the highest college football players that are in the nation right now. If they’re getting paid as somebody who a lot of people really don’t know of, and they’re the most known person in college football, I can definitely see their agent saying, ‘Alright, what’s going on here?’”

EA Sports is ‘exploiting the players’

During his time at Clemson, Falcinelli jokes he was viewed by many as a gamer. He made a magazine list or two for his prowess, and he still plays video games to this day.

It’s one of the reasons, along with his playing experience, why he’s passionate about how the cash is dispersed from this upcoming video game. He knows that while EA may only offer $500, the company will continue to profit from microtransactions after the frenzy to purchase the game.

OneTeam Partners will not give the athletes an opportunity to negotiate a more fair wage. Falcinelli views these payouts as just the latest exploitation of athletes.

“I am excited for a new college football game. I know how much people love it and how much hype there has been,” he said. “It’s exciting that we’re now at the point to where you can create group licensing deals for college football players to create this game. I think that is a huge milestone.

“But as soon as you get below the surface, it’s a bad deal. It’s another one of those things that seem to be the pattern in college football. Like, ‘Oh, there’s one thing that’s happening that sounds great.’ But then you dig into it, and you’re like, ‘Alright, maybe a step in the right direction, but it’s still just exploiting the players.'”