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Hoyas Fans May See a Glimmer of a Georgetown NIL Strategy

GU has been quiet about NIL, but an “NIL photo day” post hints there is a plan

Butler v Georgetown Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

A cryptic tweet about “NIL photo day” has again sparked discussion with Hoyas fans about Georgetown’s strategies regarding opportunities for student-athletes to be legally compensated for use of their Name, Image, and/or Likeness (NIL). The main focus of the Hoya faithful on social media and in message boards is how programs competing for Georgetown recruits may be pushing the limits with regard to involvement in setting up deals and situations that smell like pay-for-play. How are the Hoyas expected to compete?

Despite all appearances of the NCAA being the “Wild, Wild West,” the chief tenants appear to be (i) no use of NIL deals as inducement and (ii) no pay for play. The NCAA’s statement says, “While opening name, image and likeness opportunities to student-athletes, the policy in all three divisions preserves the commitment to avoid pay-for-play and improper inducements tied to choosing to attend a particular school.” The NCAA’s FAQ identifies prohibited actions like “NIL compensation contingent upon enrollment at a particular school” and “compensation for athletic participation or achievement.”

The question of a university or program’s direct involvement ultimately comes down to state laws and how much the involvement encroaches upon the “pay-for-play” territory. One law blog post indicates that “As a general rule of thumb, the greater the level of institutional involvement in the NIL activity, the greater the likelihood such activity could be considered pay-for-play or improper inducement.”

The exact limits of a school’s direct involvement appear to be very nebulous for now. The NCAA doesn’t seem to want a bright-line rule, perhaps because of the potential for challenge by hundreds of student athletes and dozens of states. There is room to move against schools using NIL for inducement or pay-to-play, but investigations have been slow moving and non-public. NCAA president Mark Emmert recently reiterated a desire for Congress to pass federal NIL legislation.

Michael McCann of Sportico reports:

The NCAA’s interim NIL policy is uncharacteristically permissive. While “pay for play” remains prohibited, schools are only required to follow a state NIL law or, if no such law exists, adopt reasonable NIL restrictions. Alabama, one of the early movers on NIL, recently repealed its NIL statute as a way of removing restrictions.

The line between pay for play and NIL has become increasingly hazy, and schools, coaches, and other NIL beneficiaries have taken advantage. Some colleges, for instance, have assisted athletes in landing NIL contracts, helped to negotiate group deals and seen alumni (boosters) launch NIL nonprofits. Coaches, meanwhile, have casually mentioned NIL deals signed by their players—mentions that, in the past, might have been deemed impermissible recruiting inducements. The NCAA has probed schools for possibly mischaracterizing pay-for-play as NIL but has not yet taken any action.

Knowing Congress as the only organization slower than Georgetown University, the NCAA shouldn’t hold their breaths. The NCAA needs to make rules and enforce them. Is there really any difference between a six-figure promise during recruiting and cash in a McDonald’s bag? It’s inducement.

Until then, under this current “Wild, Wild West” approach, who might be the first program to trigger a formal investigation or enforcement action for inducement or pay-for-play? Not the Hoyas. Georgetown, by nature, is not likely to push the limits—especially, with GU President John DeGioia named Chair of the NCAA Board of Governors.

Still, rumored promises by recruiting rivals of six-figure paydays must have a seemingly desperate program trying to push to compete. Are former L$U players expecting NIL sponsorship deals—that would violate NCAA inducement and pay-for-play rules—of an alleged $200k? Georgetown is not likely to bid. Some schools may have boosters waiting in the wings to cut a “sponsorship” check to induce, but it’s unclear whether other P5 schools are ready to play this game.

Recently, there was some discussion about a Georgetown Athletics-led talk with AD Reed and Paul Tagliabue at Georgetown Alumni Association’s John Carroll Weekend in Nashville. While this humble blog contributor is hesitant to react to an informal discussion, one can’t help but notice that it was the first time Georgetown Athletics broke their silence since announcing the hiring of Assistant Coach Nickelberry or noting the support of Patrick Ewing for the near future.

Sports like Soccer, Lacrosse, Swimming and Baseball seem to be trending upwards on the Hilltop. It would be great to help student-athletes capitalize on the momentum, especially with the published success of female athletes using NIL. As usual, Georgetown might be hard at work on NIL, but fans and supporters just aren’t privy to anything behind the scenes.

Which brings us back to “NIL Picture Day” and questioning what steps might be in the works for Georgetown.

Well, we learned about “The Blueprint,” in October, a program to help student-athletes build their brands and prepare for NIL opportunities that uses tools like INFLCR for branding and Athliance for compliance. Might photographs be for a new layer of INFLCR or another partner that, e.g., allows for a marketplace? Using a third-party marketplace might provide a desired plausible deniability for institutions trying to avoid looking like directly inducing matriculation through monetary means.

St. John’s made news the other week with a partnership with Kevin Durant’s Boardroom which will “provide key editorial collaboration around select NIL announcements, provide resources for storytelling and content development, and deliver unique access to and experiences with the company’s executives.” This sounds more like promoting and reporting on NIL for St. John’s student-athletes—which could definitely help—rather than directly marketing athletes or generating NIL opportunities.

There was indeed a bowling meet-and-greet event for Georgetown Basketball in November, via a player-partnership with G3 College and ProCamps U, that reportedly earned a dozen members of the men’s basketball team a decent payday. Could Photo Day be a new partnership with another player-events management partner?

Maybe it’s group licensing. Like UNC, the University of Arkansas Athletics and The Brandr Group (TBG) recently established a group licensing agreement for University of Arkansas student-athletes covering all the Razorbacks 19 teams. Under the agreement, TBG will facilitate group licensing discussions and chances on behalf of the student-athletes for the collective use of student-athletes’ NIL in licensing and marketing programs, co-branded with the Arkansas logos and marks. Brandr appears to have about 20 schools as affiliates, including UNC, Villanova, Syracuse, Marquette, and Xavier, among other. The degree of success for each schools group licensing—be it number of athletes or number of licensing brands—is not apparent but UNC reportedly has 10 licensees including HanesBrands/Champion, Recur, Outerstuff, Wincraft, Honey Stinger, Nike, FOCO, Gametime Sidekicks, Rock Em Socks and Wildcat Retro.

Or maybe Nike (or Jordan Brand) is asking for photographs? Adidas announced, in late March, an “initiative that could turn thousands of college athletes into paid brand ambassadors within the next two years” with an NIL network that “will be available to eligible athletes across 23 sports at the 109 NCAA Division I schools affiliated with Adidas.” Generally, eligible athletes could opt into the Adidas program and earn a commission on sales they drive to Adidas’ website and mobile app, e.g., via a promo code or link.

At some schools, boosters have been setting up nonprofits to pay players. Is this legal? Maybe. For instance, a seemingly charitable group called THE Foundation is raising money to be given to Ohio State State football and men’s basketball players as they make a specified number of public appearances at events held by charitable organizations.

Another group is Hoosiers For Good Inc., who says it will “raise funds for Indiana nonprofits by engaging student-athletes from Indiana University who want to use their names, image, and likenesses to shine a spotlight on philanthropic work being done in Hoosier communities.” Both seem to be pushing the limits of NIL and the word “charity,” but maybe some good can come from these unabashed boosters. Outside of lunch documentation, this blog contributor has not heard much about alumni wanting to help with NIL support—despite inviting it regularly.

The bottom line is that some programs and their pseudo-organized supporters are finding ways to pay student-athletes in a way that may help recruiting efforts. Questions of inducement, pay-for-play, and paying athletes real “market value” could cause NCAA investigator heads to turn. Direct engagement by school personnel and sponsors is ostensibly breaking the rules, but alluding to NIL opportunity seems to be fair game. Georgetown may be desperate, but hey are not going to risk compromising their integrity while the NCAA (or Congress) figures out the rules and how to enforce them.

In a perfect world, NIL would be a reward for being a good athlete or marketable personality, separate from where the student-athlete went to school. Instead, NIL is being misused as a recruiting inducement and quasi-legal substitute for “strong ass offers.” Unfortunately, picking a school will be a factor for NIL earning potential and presentation of available opportunities will be part of a recruiting pitch.

Rather than joining the gold rush and hoping to get lucky by luring a 5-star with a cash payday, a mid-to-long-term plan should aim to cultivate a pool of willing sponsors and demonstrate the viability of hiring a Georgetown athlete to sponsor a brand.

With brilliant business, marketing, and legal minds at their disposal, that seems like something Georgetown might be willing to do. I hope.

Here are some ideas that would probably be rejected by Georgetown:

  1. Coaches directly soliciting sponsorships by local businesses to induce recruits to come
  2. Creating a pool of booster money to pay players, e.g., nonprofit charity appearances
  3. Partnering with a “branding” company just for the sake of making an announcement
  4. Focusing on men’s basketball and leaving other sports behind
  5. Relying on administration or alumni volunteers to be directly involved in deal making

Here are some ideas for Georgetown that may have a chance:

  1. Set up a marketplace with a third party they may be comfortable with (INFLCR)
  2. Group licensing like other BIG EAST schools (e.g., Brandr)
  3. More meet-and-greets and paid autographs sessions (set up by partners, e.g., bowling)
  4. Sponsorship of top individual athletes via direct messaging
  5. Cull a list of agents, marketers, and attorneys willing to help student-athletes for a discount or pro bono
  6. Investing in social media and marketing to promote the dynamic student athletes on Georgetown’s campus and their teams