One of the biggest brands in college sports scored another recruiting advantage this week, this one on the NIL front.
Ohio State has relaxed its NIL policy to create what it calls an “Edge Team,” an internal advisory group that will empower staff members to assist its athletes with access and resources to pursue monetizing their brands. The team also will work with companies and brands to help coordinate and facilitate NIL activities.
Since the NIL era began July 1, Ohio State has shown that it is in the vanguard of innovative thinking in the NIL space, and the creation of the Edge Team underscores that. The athletic department has a keen sense of which way industry winds are blowing, and others would be wise to follow its lead.
“Ohio State has now established itself as one of the most forward-thinking institutions with respect to NIL,” Kansas City-based sports attorney Mit Winter told On3 in an email Tuesday. “It’s the first institution I’m aware of to provide every [or nearly every] varsity team with a university employee that can help facilitate deals. This shows they are serious about providing their athletes with as many resources as possible to help obtain NIL deals. I think other schools will begin to follow their lead and make their NIL policies less restrictive.”
In recent weeks, prominent boosters and alumni at several schools (Texas, SMU and West Virginia, among others) have united to launch collectives, which can use considerable muscle and connections to help facilitate deals for athletes. Ohio State senior associate athletic director Carey Hoyt, the school’s primary administrator of Ohio State’s NIL programs, recognized the emergence of donor-led collectives, examined the school’s NIL policy with staff and deemed it too “restrictive.”
With a better understanding of the ever-changing NIL landscape comes a realization that Ohio State can do more to connect athletes with interested brands. The Edge Team will essentially assume one of the roles of collectives but do it in-house, within the parameters of the school and with school employees.
“It will make the market more efficient and, in some cases, protect athletes from bad actors,” Winter said. “There is still a lot of uncertainty among brands and businesses about how to reach out to athletes they want to do deals with. Being able to bring deals to the school will make that process easier.”
Some state laws currently prohibit schools from facilitating deals or from “causing compensation to be directed” to athletes. Some school policies include those restrictions because their state law requires it. Other schools, such as Ohio State, had included the restriction even though it’s required by state law. Winter believes the schools that fall into this category — opting to prohibit facilitation without state law requiring it — either crafted their policies before July 1, when it was assumed that the perceived detailed NCAA NIL bylaws were going to govern deals, or because schools want to steer clear of any potential Title IX and liability issues. Current NCAA NIL bylaws don’t prohibit facilitation.
A recruiting advantage for Ohio State
With Ohio State moving to change its own policy so it now can assist athletes with NIL deals, other like-minded schools will have little choice but to follow suit or else surrender a recruiting advantage to the folks in Columbus. Where state laws and university policies currently restrict schools from assisting athletes on this front, expect a push for change. And in states that now are moving forward with passing an NIL law, look for less restrictive parameters. In Virginia, for instance, a bill has been introduced that doesn’t prevent facilitating deals.
“Schools that allow facilitation,” Winter said, “will likely have an advantage over those that don’t.”
Two important notes: One role of a collective is to serve as a quasi-agency to help athletes find NIL deals, offering businesses a point of contact. Many collectives also provide other services, such as pooling donor funds in efforts to sign their own deals with athletes. Schools still aren’t permitted to do that. And as more schools look to handle facilitation duties in-house, Winter said, the onus will increasingly be on universities to obtain additional legal counsel to assist with matters, especially if a school employee is helping an athlete negotiate a deal with a business that also is a university sponsor.
Ohio State is designating operations directors — not coaches — from almost all of the school’s 36 varsity sports to be tasked as NIL point-of-contacts for their sports. The operations directors will assist with facilitating a connection for an NIL activity while also educating outside entities on NIL best practices.
From an overall athlete compensation and engagement standpoint, no school has been better in the NIL space. Over the past six-plus months, 220 Ohio State athletes have engaged in 608 NIL deals, equating to a total compensation of $2.98 million. All three figures rank first nationally among schools, Opendorse figures show. Opendorse provides technology to the athlete endorsement industry.
According to Nielsen, Ohio State’s football program in particular offers extremely strong marketing value to its athletes. The Nielsen Impact Score, a quantitative measurement of NIL potential that schools deliver athletes, ranks programs nationwide in three categories: national exposure, local market impact and social media engagement. For the three previous seasons — not including 2021-22 — Ohio State ranked among the top five in each category; the Buckeyes are the only program in the nation to finish in the top five of each category in each of the past three seasons.
The Ohio State athletic department, which brought in a school-record $233.9 million during the 2019-20 fiscal year, has more resources to devote to its NIL strategy than almost any school nationwide. It’s smart business to take advantage of every legal recruiting advantage available. So as industry trends shift, so is Ohio State, showing that it is both proactive and nimble enough to change amid a fluid landscape. Others will follow, as state laws allow or get repealed, or risk getting left behind.
“We have watched national trends and we are learning from the emerging NIL collectives,” Hoyt said. “Every state and every institution has its own set of NIL rules or guidelines. Updating our NIL guidelines at this time is what we needed to do to stay competitive in this ultra-competitive landscape.”