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Louisville's Jeff Walz: NIL is 'about's not just give'

On3 imageby:Andy Wittry07/10/23


LOUISVILLE – When Louisville women’s basketball coach Jeff Walz discussed modern recruiting, he described a mutual feeling-out process regarding potential NIL opportunities.

“You can’t sit there and tell a kid, ‘I can get you X amount of money’ and that’s what I think a lot of parents and a lot of recruits think,” Walz said last week at an event the NIL collective 502Circle hosted at a new Topgolf location in town. “That it’s like a negotiation. ‘I’m going to call school A, then school B, then school C,’ and that does take place at times and then I’m not interested. I’m not interested in a student-athlete that really all they care about is ‘What am I going to get for it?'”

Walz said he always likes to tell recruits and their parents that Louisville has almost 9,000 women’s basketball season ticket holders.

“You’ve got to be able to go out in this community and then perform on the floor and then NIL takes care of itself,” he said.

Walz made the active-versus-passive distinction between earn and get when it comes to NIL deals.

“You do try to educate them on here is what our current student-athletes are able to earn,” Walz said. “You know, it’s not what do they get? It’s what do they earn? Because name, image and likeness is about earning, being able to earn money off of your likeness. It’s not just give.”

Walz noted that some of Louisville’s players who have been most active through NIL partnerships have been role players.

“We have some players that have done extremely well here,” Walz said. “And it’s not always the leading scorer. We have some players that average six, seven points a game. But they’re so good in the community, our fans love them, the businesses love their image, what they stand for, that they do exceptional.

“So, all because you scored 30 points a night doesn’t mean you’re going to bring in the most amount of money. I think that’s our job as coaches and as departments to make sure these kids are educated and understand the process.”

Landscape in women’s basketball ‘all over the place’

Two seasons into the NIL Era, what does the landscape look like nationally for women’s basketball programs?

“I think it’s all over the place,” Walz said. “I think there’s high. There’s low. You’ve got some that are millions. And then you got some that are just trying to figure out how can we get $5,000 here or $10,000 there?

“I think that’s the struggle and I think that’s the potential landmine that you’re coming into is this going to be something where we go back 25 years ago where the programs that invested in women’s basketball, those are the ones that won. And the ones that weren’t there yet, they didn’t. But now the universities have invested. Now it’s, OK, can you find a booster club, boosters, that are willing to give to your collective at that type of return?

“Is it worth someone to say ‘Here’s $500,000 to a player’? And that’s where I’m not sure where it’s going to be. I’m not sure where it is across the landscape in women’s basketball yet.”

Walz said he doesn’t believe there’s necessarily uniform positional value regarding player compensation nationally in women’s basketball as there might be in other sports, especially football.

“I just think it’s players. It’s not necessarily a position,” Walz said. “It’s not a point guard, a shooting guard. It is who’s the best player. How good are you? How can you perform on the basketball floor?”

Value of NIL partnerships in college baseball

Louisville baseball coach Dan McDonnell noted that in college baseball, programs like Coastal Carolina and Fresno State can win the national championship.

“Some schools just spend more money, have more facilities, have more fans, have more support but baseball is such an equalizer,” McDonnell said. “Because between the lines, anybody can beat anybody. Seems to be a little bit harder in football and basketball. So, I think in baseball, like I always said to administrations and fan bases, if you want to be good at baseball, you can be good. It just takes a commitment.

“You don’t have to be at the top but you don’t want to be at the bottom. You might not be the Yankees or the Dodgers but man, you don’t want to be those lower-market teams.”

What level of financial commitment from a fan base and business community might it take to be a program with an inside track to the College World Series?

“I think you have your upper-tier level where kids are making money,” McDonnell said. “So, they’re getting paid. It could be $25,000, $50,000, $100,000. You’re hearing of six-figure deals for players and I’d love to be there. But I don’t know if you necessarily have to be there.”

Players in high-value positions could be more likely to receive higher compensation.

“You know, football is the quarterback, right? Basketball, heck, could be the point guard or the center,” McDonnell said. “Baseball, it’s the weekend starter. You’ve got to be great on the mound.”

Look at Gerrit Cole, now a six-time All-Star, signing with the New York Yankees in 2019, McDonnell said.

In some ways, college baseball already operates that way with how coaches allocate scholarships.

“But yes, can you have a great leadoff hitter or great three-hole hitter?” he asked. “Very similar to how scholarships have worked. Just watch free agency and watch what athletes get paid the most money, and that’s kind of trickled down to college baseball.”

Benefit of NIL deals in equivalency sports

McDonnell said Louisville is one of three schools with a former player in both the MLB All-Star Game and the MLB All-Star Futures Game this season.

“I think as a fan base, we’ve always had a little bit of a chip on our shoulder and I think the 502Circle is an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, we could be as good as anybody,’ and I think you see it in the fan support and the donations,” McDonnell said.

When McDonnell discusses NIL deals in the context of college baseball, he thinks of the compensation for some players in terms of covering the cost of tuition, rent or food.

Competing in an equivalency sport, Division I baseball programs can divide 11.7 scholarships among up to 27 players.

“Where I think you need to be is let’s address the issue of ‘Hey, we only have 11.7 scholarships so how about we first help these kids get more scholarship money?'” McDonnell said. “So, any money that you give to let’s say the 502Circle, specifically baseball, that’s going to help pay the difference in their tuition. Might help pay for their dorm. Might help pay for a meal card. It’s baby steps, right?

“Let’s first get to that level where we’re helping our student-athletes pay their bills and then from there, alright, if we’re going to compete with the big boys, yeah, we might have to throw in some zeroes and a crooked number and try to compete with schools that are maybe giving more to their student-athletes.”

Fundraisers for collectives part of offseason

Standing on the third floor of at the Topgolf facility, McDonnell surveyed a crowd of 130 attendees at the 502Circle’s event. Attendance at fundraisers isn’t new for college coaches. But in college athletics’ modern era, NIL collectives have joined athletic foundations and booster clubs in hosting them.

“You say the cause is a little different but the approach is the same,” McDonnell said. “At the end of the day, great athletic programs have great fan bases. You’re buying season tickets. You’re paying for a suite, and you’re joining different dugout clubs. And so now you’re joining the 502Circle and you’re giving to a collective.

“I think as long as the fans know it’s going to help your student-athletes and help you be the best program you can be, it’s very similar. It just has a different title. Yeah, the money’s going a little more to the student-athlete, where in the past it was going to the student-athlete, but it was in more facilities and more resources.”

Walz, McDonnell and first-year football coach Jeff Brohm were in attendance at the 502Circle event. Athletic director Josh Heird was there. Quarterbacks Jack Plummer and Pierce Clarkson, cornerback Quincy Riley and safety Josh Minkins Jr. were, too

“You don’t get to always meet somebody or hang out with them off the field,” Clarkson said. “You see them and they’re in the stands and they’re cheering. It’s not really much interaction you can have with them personally one-on-one so in an environment like this. It’s just really cool and I took it all in.”

NIL fundraising events include education

Offseason events like the one 502Circle hosted can be one part education and marketing, and one part fundraising.

“There’s really not a blueprint yet of exactly what NIL is, how to become involved with it, what your student-athletes have to do,” Walz said. “So, events like this are great. Because we’re able to now get in front of people, explain to them what NIL is.”

There were nine companies that sponsored Topgolf bays.

The monitors in a private event space alternated between slides that thanked 502Circle’s sponsors and one that read in all-caps font, “DONATE TO 502CIRCLE.” It was paired with a QR code that linked to the collective’s donation platform powered by the company Basepath.

Plus, there was a raffle where winners won prizes that were provided to 502Circle as in-kind donations, such as tickets to sporting events and apparel. Clarkson, Riley and Minkins read the names of the raffle winners.

“We’ve been through some tough storms with all the turnover and everything and I think our fans are ready. I think the 502Circle is the perfect group,” McDonnell said. “Just one mission. One goal. Everybody on the same page, whether they’re giving to the general fund and you know it’s going to student-athletes or they’re giving to women’s basketball or men’s baseball.

“For me, it’s exciting because I love connecting with the fans. I love thanking them for their support.”