In the NIL era, business is good for returnees

Armando Bacot didn’t leave North Carolina early after a memorable run at the NCAA Championship Game to pursue a professional playing career. Neither did Gonzaga’s Drew Timme, an All-American star on one of the nation’s top programs.

No, business is already good for both male and female college basketball players able to cash in on their fame now.

The option to stay in school is more appealing than ever since the NCAA allowed college athletes to benefit from the use of their name, image and likeness in the summer of 2021.

“It’s definitely a factor, definitely something that helped,” said Timme, a two-time Associated Press second-team All-American and a preseason pick this year. “If you look across the landscape of not just college basketball, but all of college sports, that’s a big reason a lot of people are keen to come back.”

That’s especially true on the women’s side, where NIL deals and charter travel offer more appeal than rookie salaries and hotly contested commercial flights in the WNBA.

The women’s game has seen stars like Connecticut’s Paige Buckers – who is sidelined this year with a knee injury but will return in 2023-24 – and Iowa State‘s Ashley Joens opted to stay. Other big names like Louisville’s Hailey Van Lith and North Carolina’s Deja Kelly will soon be faced with choices; they become draft-eligible by turning 22 next year.

“If you’re an influencer, especially as a college student-athlete, and that’s your attraction to NIL, you’ll want to stay in college because that’s how you make your money” , Van Lith said. . “But I think in terms of people who are going to pursue a professional (playing) career, I don’t know if it will change much.”

Business came quickly from companies looking for the most marketable athletes, many of whom hired agents to handle those opportunities. Businesses in the college town have been looking for ways to partner with an athlete to leverage local awareness. National companies have done this with social media promotions or advertisements.

Athletes are given wide latitude provided they provide some type of service in return for compensation. Although the terms of the deal are not public, in some cases they are estimated to be in the six figures or higher – with some of the best-known athletes even exceeding projections of $1 million.

“The difference in college sports, and we’ve seen it time and time again, is this: do they follow individuals?” said Joe Favorito, lecturer at Columbia University, sports and entertainment marketing consultant. “Type of. But they really follow the school.

“So there are people who invest in Duke, North Carolina or Notre Dame because it’s part of the school. So if you start from St. John’s and transfer to Villanvoa, does that mean all the brand equity is going to go with you? Maybe not.”

Favorito added, “That’s the challenge of college athletics. It is much more a question of community and collective than of individuals sometimes.

Yet it also explains why it’s important to stick around to stay connected to the college brand, especially in the annual March Madness spotlight.

On the women’s side, Bueckers’ partnerships include Gatorade. Van Lith struck deals with adidas, Dick’s Sporting Goods and JCPenney, which led to a back-to-school shopping spree for Louisville-area kids over the summer. Kelly’s partnerships include Dunkin’ Donuts and Beats By Dre – even introducing her team to custom headphones from the company – and she has modeled a line of Sports Illustrated-themed swimwear for retailer Forever 21.

“It’s kind of fair to take that (NIL) into consideration as far as I really want to play professionally,” Kelly said. “But it’s just to see what’s the best option in terms of what’s going to allow me to be financially successful at that point. So I guess we’ll talk about that when the time comes.”

Joens, a preseason AP All-American, returned to Iowa State instead of entering the WNBA Draft. Although NIL money and charter flights factored into her decision, the biggest motivation was to get her to finish school this fall.

“It was a long process and I went back and forth,” she said. “I didn’t think about it much last year because you’re focused on the season. I talked to my family a bit more and they told me what is most important to you right now? I knew being able to graduate and have a degree was a big one.

The dynamic differs on the men’s side with players eligible for the NBA draft at 19. There’s also the fact that big men who were once surefire first-round picks have seen their value drop as the pro game moves toward more floor spacing and 3-point shooting.

Neither Bacot nor Timme were considered first-round prospects. Neither did Kentucky big man Oscar Tsheibwe, the AP Men’s National Player of the Year last year. All three are back in college and earning money through NIL partnerships, including Timme turning his handlebar mustache into a deal with Dollar Shave Club.

And then there is Bacot. The 6-foot-11 fourth-year center suffered a bad ankle sprain in the Final Four and limped off in the NCAA title game loss to Kansas, so he wouldn’t have been enough good health for NBA pre-draft workouts.

But NIL mattered too.

The long list of AP all-American preseason support includes local outlets such as having a burger named for him at Town Hall Burger and Beer and helping the local Me Fine organization raise funds for families with children suffering from a medical crisis.

Expanding beyond North Carolina, Bacot has partnered with Arkansas-based Bad Boy Mowers and Town & Country Farms, a Thoroughbred and horse-breeding facility based in the Kentucky, which ultimately led to him making it to that year’s Kentucky Derby.

“Because of the success we had at the end of the year and me having a pretty big name in college, it allowed me to leverage that and capitalize on those big opportunities,” Bacot said. “It was definitely something that weighed in on coming back.”

And Bacot has not finished. Over the summer, he had a role in the next season of Netflix’s “Outer Banks,” a teen adventure series set on the Carolina coast.

The only problem? His summer training schedule interfered with filming dates, prompting him to joke that Netflix was “probably mad at me” and might kick him out of the show.

If he sticks around long enough, he might even have his own IMDB page.

Not bad to stick around to play for the No. 1 ranked team in the pre-season.

“It let me know I had some security and had some money, which is better than having no money,” he joked. “It’s awesome.”


AP Basketball Writer John Marshall in Phoenix contributed to this report.


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