In the joint message that announced UCLA will join the Big Ten Conference in 2024, Chancellor Gene Block and Director of Athletics Martin Jarmond said the change in conference affiliation will improve the Bruins’ NIL opportunities.
“As the oldest NCAA Division I athletic conference in the United States, and with a footprint that will now extend from the Pacific to the Atlantic, Big Ten membership offers Bruins exciting new competitive opportunities and a broader national media platform for our student-athletes to compete and showcase their talents,” their message said. “Specifically, this move will enhance Name, Image and Likeness opportunities through greater exposure for our student-athletes and offer new partnerships with entities across the country.”
On3 reached out to several individuals, including a UCLA football player, the president of a sports and talent agency, and the CEO of a sports marketing agency, to try to quantify whether the change in conference membership will actually improve the Bruins’ NIL opportunities.
If so, who will benefit? How so, and to what degree?
‘We’ve actually seen slightly more athletes being selected … from the Pac-12’
Bill Jula, the founder and CEO of the NIL sports marketing agency Postgame, says it has more than 60,000 college athletes on its platform, including a number of athletes from the Pac-12 and the Big Ten.
“With all the brand deals we’ve done, we’ve actually seen slightly more athletes being selected by our brand partners from the Pac-12 than we have from the Big Ten,” Jula said. “Already. So, I thought that was interesting.”
While some NIL marketplaces, marketing agencies or technology providers have contracts with specific schools or conferences, Postgame is an open network. Even in a NIL landscape without centralized data from across the entire industry, this data point from Postgame is a potentially notable one.
“We’re as open a universe as imaginable,” he said. “So, for a large percentage to be Pac-12 already, in this open market, is interesting.”
Jula wondered aloud what has given Pac-12 athletes an edge, based on Postgame’s data. Have they done a better job branding or marketing themselves? Were they more proactive? Was the quality of their content superior?
Or was it something else?
UCLA athletes had success in the first 12 months of the NCAA’s NIL era. Quarterback Chase Griffin was named Male Athlete of the Year at the inaugural NIL Summit. Gymnast Jordan Chiles earned Breakthrough Athlete of the Year honors.
In one of the first high-profile studies that projected the future NIL earning potential of college athletes based upon their social media followings, AthleticDirectorU and Navigate Research listed “a sampling of athletes that are top in their respective sports.” Four of the top 11 athletes in terms of earning potential were from UCLA – three gymnasts and a women’s basketball player.
“Fortunately for UCLA we attract many athletes across all sports that have transcendent personas and will appeal to this new pool of national brands and fan communities in the Big Ten,” Griffin, the UCLA quarterback, wrote in response to an email from On3.
While Jula said, “Generally, I think that is going to be the case” that UCLA and USC joining the Big Ten will help their athletes from a NIL perspective, “but as of right now, from our perspective, there are more deals happening with our Pac-12 athletes.”
“We haven’t had a brand once say, ‘We only want to work with Big Ten teams'”
In late June, Sprouts Farmers Market, the official grocer of the Big 12 and Pac-12, announced NIL deals with 50 female athletes from the two conferences. On Tuesday, the Horizon League announced a partnership with Opendorse that made it the first conference to have a conference-wide NIL marketplace.
So while there are a couple of examples of conference affiliation having a direct impact on potential NIL opportunities, it’s not necessarily common.
“We have not dealt with many national brands that have thought in terms of being conference-focused in any way,” Jula said. “So let’s start there. We haven’t had a brand once say, ‘We only want to work with Big Ten teams,’ or ‘We only want to work with SEC teams,’ players from those teams.
“What they do say is they are interested in working with athletes from a regional perspective, be it where the athlete is playing and/or where the athlete is from. Because a lot of the followers could be from where their hometown is or where they played. They’re obviously living legends in those towns. There’s more of a regional focus per the athlete as opposed to anything related to the conference.”
“For the long tail of athletes, broader exposure is still a win because they will have access to a larger pool of media outlets who can help them tell their stories – especially athletes who come to UCLA from some of the Big Ten markets,” he said. “I can envision a lot of ‘homecoming stories’ at away games.”
‘Big Ten Network is very easily accessible’
There’s no denying Block and Jarmond’s assertion that UCLA athletes will receive greater exposure after the Bruins and Trojans join the Big Ten.
Based on an analysis of the available TV ratings that were collected by Sports Media Watch founder Dr. Jon Lewis from the 2021 college football season, games involving a Big Ten program received an average rating of 1.91 compared to 0.82 for the Pac-12. Games involving at least one Big Ten program averaged 2.38 million viewers compared to 1.36 million viewers for games involving at least one Pac-12 program.
Sports Media Watch’s database includes data from games that aired on ABC, BTN, CBS, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, FOX, FS1 and NBC. Ratings and viewership data aren’t available for every game. Games between a Big Ten school and a Pac-12 school were ignored for the purposes of this analysis.
When asked to contextualize the gap between the Big Ten and Pac-12’s conference networks, Lewis said, “It’s fairly simple to me – availability. You can just look at the difference in the availability of their respective conference channels. Big Ten Network is very easily accessible whether you’re in a Big Ten market or not.
“The Pac-12 is borderline impossible to access.”
If you analyze only the Pac-12 games involving the non-L.A. schools, which removes matchups such as UCLA vs. LSU (3.2 million viewers), USC vs. Notre Dame (2.9 million) and UCLA vs. USC (1.8 million), the conference’s average TV rating and viewership numbers marginally decline.
“When you have a circumstance where you can’t compete in the media, then that does affect your ability to compete on the field because people are not watching your programs,” Lewis said. “They’re not getting that popularity. So, you see what you see now, which is UCLA and USC realizing that if the media situation is as it is, they are at a disadvantage.”
In conference-only games, the Big Ten’s advantage over the Pac-12 is even starker with an average TV rating of 2.05 compared to 0.80. The Big Ten’s average viewership for a conference game was 2.66 million compared to 1.36 million in the Pac-12.
“The real question is which student-athletes will benefit the most?” Griffin wrote. “There are about 176,000 Division I athletes and the reality is most All-Americans in their sports will never get a meaningful national brand NIL deal because your persona and story has to transcend your sport to really stand out.”
‘The biggest stars are probably going to get even bigger’
Michael Raymond is the founder and president of the sport and talent agency Raymond Representation. He represents athletes, including Florida men’s basketball player Colin Castleton and gymnast Trinity Thomas, Clemson men’s basketball player Brevin Galloway and Duke runner Emily Cole, to name several.
Raymond points to social media as the hopeful, if not likely, point of conversion from increased TV exposure to UCLA and USC athletes’ commercial opportunities. He said it can feel like social media has been the source of 90% of NIL deals.
“I think for the players to have more of an opportunity on a bigger stage, it could help them grow their brand and their social media presence because more people are going to be watching the games,” Raymond said. “So you’re going to know more players. That can help them get a lot more exposure and make a lot more money in the NIL space.”
While a rising tide could lift all boats, to use a cliche, there’s a feeling like the most established athletes, whether that’s in terms of their athletic or personal branding prowess, will be the athletes who truly benefit from conference realignment.
“I think it’s going to elevate everybody’s social media at some level,” Jula said. “However, I don’t think that increase in elevation for the, say, women’s tennis player, the softball player, the men’s track and field athlete, I don’t think that in and of itself is going to have a dramatic effect on how many of them are going to suddenly get more deals. You may see a couple of them start to get a few more deals because of that.
“I think running backs, quarterbacks, starting point guards, yes, they are all definitely going to benefit from this deal with the Big Ten. I think the rich are going to get richer from that standpoint.”
“The biggest stars are probably going to get even bigger,” Raymond added.
The Pac-12 is known as the “Conference of Champions,” a refrain you’ll hear at least a half-dozen times during any men’s basketball game Bill Walton is broadcasting. UCLA and USC rank second and third all-time in NCAA championships, respectively, behind Stanford.
If the Big Ten’s incoming members can continue competing at a championship level (or once again do so, depending on the sport), UCLA and USC athletes could command more marketing power during deep postseason runs.
“One of the things that I noticed was during big games,” Raymond said, “let’s say they’re going for the playoffs or whatever it may be, a lot more companies are involved and want to get sponsorship opportunities during those times. So, that’s something that I’d be looking at. I mean, if I had a player that was on a big team and I know that they’re going to be a championship-caliber team, I’m trying to reach out to every single company and especially the ones that are involved in the football scene and especially in the Big Ten.”
In 2019, the Pac-12 said others have more resources
In transaction data from NIL activities facilitated by or disclosed through NIL technology provider Opendorse from July 1, 2021, through June 20, 2022, the Big Ten ranked first in both total compensation and total activities. The Pac-12 ranked fourth and fifth nationally, respectively.
Prior to California Gov. Gavin Newsom signing the “Fair Pay to Play Act” in 2019, Pac-12 officials coordinated with government affairs staff from Cal, Stanford, UCLA and USC to develop the conference’s messaging regarding the bill. One of the conference’s four key messages said, “California universities won’t be able to compete.”
A bullet point below states, “Other parts of the country have more resources and parties interested in paying student-athletes, and we would be severely disadvantaged in an open market for student-athletes.”
If UCLA and USC’s impending moves to the Big Ten can improve the engagement of the schools’ fan bases or their enrollment of high school students from the Midwest who love college sports, then perhaps the Bruins and Trojans can benefit from the region’s financial commitment to college athletics.
‘I do foresee a new NIL collective arms race in the revenue sports’
At last count, there are eight NIL collectives, marketing agencies or membership-based communities that have been publicly announced to support one of the Pac-12’s current members. There are 21 for the Big Ten’s 14 current members.
The ratio of roughly one collective for every two Pac-12 schools could someday be closer to the inverse when applied to the Big Ten: almost two collectives for every school.
“We’ve already seen Ohio State say it’s going to take [almost] $15 million a year to do this,” Jula said. “OK, there’s your new bar, UCLA. Either you’re going to live middle-of-the-pack … or you now need to up your game and you’ve got to get more alumni and more boosters involved in raising more money.”
“I do foresee a new NIL collective arms race in the revenue sports and my reading of history says that arms races always end the same way,” Griffin wrote. “Folks overspend until most of the competitors are deep in debt or bankrupt.”
“I generally do think that all boats will rise,” Jula added. “But again, I only think it’s going to really impact those big names. On the collective side, that’s a whole other story but those price tags just went way up the second they join.”
UCLA has put it in writing that moving to the Big Ten will help its athletes’ NIL pursuits. Without the university offering receipts or showing its math, we’ll have to wait until 2024 to see.
“Again,” Raymond said, “I think we have to kind of just [say], like, ‘Put your money where your mouth is,’ and see what happens.”