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'I have lost track of seven-figure offers:' Transfer Portal, NIL collision course arrives

Nakos updated headshotby:Pete Nakos12/02/23


Speaking to reporters earlier this week in Lincoln, Nebraska, Matt Rhule finally put it out there.

While On3 has spent the last 29 months extensively reporting on the ins and outs of financial NIL packages in high school recruiting and the transfer portal, a sitting Power 5 head coach was blunt about the cost of landing an elite quarterback in college football’s free agency.

“Make no mistake: a good quarterback in the portal costs $1 million to $1.5 million to $2 million right now,” the Nebraska coach said Wednesday. “So just so we’re on the same page, right? Let’s make sure we all understand what’s happening. There are some teams that have $6-7 million players playing for them.”

These numbers shouldn’t be jaw-dropping anymore. That is the market value in the 2024 transfer portal. Quarterbacks have been shopped around the last few weeks; this week just provided a glimpse of the talent that’s expected to enter the portal. More than 50 FBS scholarship quarterbacks have either entered the portal or announced their intentions to enter on Monday, when the 30-day window opens for all underclassmen.

As On3 reported this past May, high school bidding wars underwent a market reset. The portal is now seeing that. The dollars haven’t stopped flowing. It’s just become more clear what talent at a certain position will cost. As one quarterback agent emphasized to On3 earlier this week, college football is becoming more and more business-like.

“More and more people are starting to take their emotion out of the NIL side,” the agent said. “Top talent is being paid. Production and experience matters. Guys aren’t afraid to enter the portal just to figure out their worth.”

Washington State quarterback Cam Ward officially entered the portal Friday as a grad transfer. By far the most highly-sought name at the position thus far, multiple sources have described the recruitment as a “bidding war.”

“I have lost track of seven-figure offers,” another quarterback agent told On3 this week.

Survey: NIL will weigh in portal decisions

The transfer portal has reshaped how rosters are built in college football. First-year head coaches can turnaround programs significantly faster by adding one-time transfers.

Recently released data from SportSource Analytics only proves that. In the 2019 season, just 6.4% of FBS rosters consisted of transfers. That number has shot up to 20.5% of rosters in 2023. High school recruiting is still a vital pipeline of talent. But more and more teams are relying on the portal.

Athletes are also depending on the portal for a second chance at their college careers. In a survey conducted for On3 by Bill Carter of Student-Athlete Insights, 62% of 377 FBS players who participated said NIL would play a factor in their decision to enter the portal.

Carter, who also lectures about NIL at the University of Vermont, is an expert on sports entrepreneurship. His NIL Research Poll is one of the most robust in the industry with a panel of around 5,000 student-athletes.

NIL still lags behind lack of playing time and desire to play for a different coach, Carter said. Of the 377 respondents, 11% said they planned to enter the transfer portal. While the 11% appears low, it’s important to put into context how many NIL collectives are emphasizing talent retention.

Just this week, leading up to the portal window opening Sunday night/Monday morning, well over a dozen booster-funded collectives announced matched campaigns or called for donors to contribute. Of the 377 FBS players surveyed, 69% answered they’ve signed with their school’s collective. That’s a significant portion, as a majority of collectives only execute deals with scholarship athletes.

“What I feel like, it’s kind of been a shift from – at first it was the recruiting front because the incoming guys caught the first wave,” an SEC player personnel staffer involved in NIL recently On3. “They were the ones to be able to capitalize on the era when everyone was trying to figure out what was going on. It seems to me there’s been a shift from the early stage to the retain portion. More people are seeing it’s about maintaining your roster and keeping your guys another year, rather than the young fellas who aren’t a proven commodity.”

NIL collectives focusing on retention

According to Carter’s survey, 78% of the field said they believed their collective is paying them at a fair rate. And 97% of the athletes are receiving NIL compensation from a collective over multiple months. NCAA rules and various state laws prohibit NIL deals from being used as a recruiting inducement or a pay-for-play agreement. That doesn’t mean contracts aren’t structured with them. Area code clause can at least allow a collective to terminate a contract if an athlete transfers.

Some collectives opt to sign year-long contracts, others opt for 30-day retainers. NCAA president Charlie Baker has called for a standardized NIL contract in recent months, putting it on his wishlist for Congressional legislation.

The transfer portal window opening is nearly here. The talent expected to enter this year is more attractive than a year ago.

But don’t forget the role cash payments will play.

“There’s been a silent market for weeks,” an agent repping multiple athletes told On3.