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How do college football teams keep players out of the transfer portal in the NIL age?

Former Washington State quarterback Cam Ward starred during the University of Miami’s spring football game last month.  (Tribune News Service)
The Athletic

The Athletic

Recruiting from the transfer portal is only part of the job for college football programs in this new era of unrestricted player movement. Coaches also have to recruit their own rosters to prevent transfer portal attrition.

So how much is player retention prioritized? What kind of resources are name, image and likeness (NIL) collectives dealing with? And what do players need to do to hold up their end of NIL deals? The Athletic surveyed numerous coaches, NIL collective officials, agents, personnel staffers and players who have transferred on a variety of portal-related topics. All survey participants were granted anonymity in exchange for their candor and to preserve relationships.

Keeping a roster together

NIL collective CEO 1: We’ve had a seven-figure deal. It wasn’t a portal kid, it was retention.

NIL collective CEO 2: Retention is priority No. 1 and where the overwhelming majority of funds are allocated.

NIL collective CEO 3: Retention is legitimately 90-plus%.

NIL collective CEO 4: It’s definitely a lot cheaper to retain than it is to recruit, so we start there. And then we build off our budget and start in like December and try to keep our kids, and then whatever is left, we use to go get portal kids. It’s not that the budget is allocated a certain way, we’re just retention first and then we kind of see where we are.

NIL collective CEO 1: Two years ago, we spent more in the portal. This past year, it was closer to 50/50 between retention and portal because we had a bunch of really good players returning. We still spent a lot of money in the portal this year, but we didn’t spend quite as much, because we had a bunch of really good players returning.

NIL collective CEO 3: It’s probably 50/50. In the past, it’s more heavily weighted toward retention. Anytime you have a coaching change, it’s probably more toward the recruiting/transfer side.

NIL collective CEO 5: It depends upon the year. This year it’s going to be 95% current players and 5% transfers. Last year it was 75/25.

NIL collective CEO 6: Maybe 60/40 for football – 60 to incoming and 40 to retention. But it could be closer to an even split.

NIL collective CEO 7: We’re going to evaluate the roster and our needs on a year-to-year basis, so that’s hard to say. I’d have to look at the numbers exactly, but the majority of it is going to be on returning players.

General manager 1: Even in July, you might be talking to a high school coach and find out that a player isn’t happy where he’s at. He’ll make it through the season, but be ready, he might be going into the portal. So he’s someone you have on your list to keep an eye on. Our (recruiting) reporters usually do a good job of letting us know if our guys are talking to other schools. We had a couple of guys on our roster who were looking around at the end of August last season.

Agent 1: We had an offer for $350,000 the kid turned down to play for zero. Wasn’t in the portal, didn’t do it.

General manager 2: Most kids don’t want to leave their teammates, don’t want to be a quitter, so there is some loyalty. Then there are cases where some player with a sixth-round draft grade will come and claim they are being offered a million bucks to go somewhere – well, you should take it. If you’re getting offered that, you should take it. You have to know the kid you’re dealing with.

Personnel staffer 1: There are kids who will come to us and tell us schools are reaching out, and they might not be asking to get that same amount because they want to be here, but can we get closer? We have those conversations. If you have good players, you need to keep them in the building. But it doesn’t happen a lot.

NIL collective CEO 4: You may have a running back that makes A and a kid he went to high school with is making B. Well yeah, you may have more yards than him and more receptions, but that kid is 6-2 and is going to be a second-round pick and went to this place or that place. It’s all relative to the value of the schools you’re at and it can be hard for a 20-year-old to grasp why he had more touchdowns than another kid but isn’t making as much as him. Well, that kid is bigger, faster, stronger and has better players around him.

General manager 3: Sometimes you’re fighting more against a player deciding whether to go to the NFL. We did pay a bunch of guys to stay, but part of that was us saying, this is what you should be getting. And that helps the culture of the team a little bit. And some of the guys who might have tried to press us, we phased them out before they even could.

NIL collective CEO 4: We have some kids making a ton of money, but most don’t. They’re making money but not killing it. I’ve never had a kid ask for more money on our team that we couldn’t retain. Not for football, at least. It happened a couple times in baseball and basketball. There are some choices we made on whether a kid was worth it, but nothing like that.

How much money do collectives have?

NIL collective CEO 1: We’ve got 6,000 members that pay a subscription fee to our collective, and that’s as little as $10 a month. That’s your recurring revenue bucket. Then you’ve got your corporate sponsors, which are local and regional businesses that give to the collective to activate with the athletes. And then your major gift givers, people that are giving $50,000 and up. That’s obviously a smaller group, but a very influential group. I would say, in total, probably 7,000-8,000 people, from people who give us $10 a month to people that give us half a million dollars a year.

NIL collective CEO 4: Between recruiting and giveaways and one-off donations, we have a database of about 3,000 to 4,000 people that have donated, but you’re looking at about 500-600 that are true, consistent givers with monthly or annual donations. We’re somewhere between $6 and $8 million total. Of that, I’d say about 60% of it goes to football.

NIL collective CEO 5: About 2,900. This year we intend to raise/pay out nearly $5 million.

NIL collective CEO 3: Like 150 people. For football, it’s a little over $1 million. Next year we hope it’s closer to 2.

NIL collective CEO 2: We have had 6,000 individuals donate directly and thousands more through branded product sales. Our fundraising year ends June 30, but anticipating a budget of $5-6 million for the 2024-25 athletic season.

NIL collective CEO 7: We’re at $12-13 million.

NIL collective CEO 6: Probably 300-plus. We’re at $3.5 million a year for football and between $3.5 and $4 million for men’s basketball.

NIL collective CEO 8: About 3,000 fans. But the few dozen large donors probably carries 80-plus% of the money that comes in. It’s about $9 million total, with about $5 million for football and $2.5 million for men’s basketball.

NIL collective CEO 9: We’re right about $600,000 for football and the same for men’s basketball. I’d say 95% is football and basketball.

NIL collective CEO 1: We’ve got close to 300 athletes under contract across all our sports, and we’ll spend around $14.5 million. Football is probably 80% of that.

What do players do in return for NIL

NIL collective CEO 3: For the traditional nonprofit, we have a deal where you get paid a certain amount a month and you have to make a charitable appearance for the work that month. It’s one appearance for a payment. If there are bonuses, he does more for that. We work out with local charities where five players will come to you this week. Some guys will help coach flag football games for local fatherless boys who want to see the players. That’s an appearance. It’s typically two to four hours in exchange for a payment from the nonprofit.

NIL collective CEO 4: They have to do a social media post once a month. They have to do an appearance once a semester. We have the right to get them to sign some stuff, but we usually don’t use that. We can use their pictures for events and that stuff.

We send the social media post for them. We try to lump them in as much as we can, or ask guys who might not have the real market value to do a school reading instead that would be beneficial to the community. Only like 20-30% of them have a market value where they can help us, where people will buy tickets to come to an event they’re at.

NIL collective CEO 9: We have partnerships with nonprofits in the community like Boys & Girls Club. There’s an amount per hour we designate. A guy making $100,00 is doing twice as many hours as a guy being paid $50,000. It comes out to about $500 an hour, which is exorbitant, but it’s within the bylaws to remain a 501(c)3 nonprofit. We also have a for-profit arm that is business appearances, autographs and things like that.

NIL collective CEO 2: We have athletes participate in up to 10 community engagement activities as part of their obligation to the collective.

NIL collective CEO 7: Social media posts, in-person appearances, virtual appearances.

NIL collective CEO 5: Live near campus, not get arrested, must show up and perform the charitable service. They also have to take a photo of themselves at the venue and upload it to our portal for proof.

NIL collective CEO 6: It depends on the amount. They have to do charitable appearances for things like a nonprofit food pantry or free clothing distributor, one or two times a month. We have regular social media postings, autographing of items, promotional appearances on commercials or podcasts, things like that.

Player 1: I did a few posts on Twitter and Instagram, but the majority of things was showing up for signings, whether it was after practice or after the spring game or at basketball games or for events around the community.

NIL collective CEO 8: Our players have to do a certain amount of charity work. We have a group that coordinates all that for us, coordinates the events, makes sure the players can get there, documented, pictures taken. We haven’t had any issues with compliance on that side, or with the players. They actually enjoy it, I think. It’s been a real positive in the community in terms of engagement and connection.

Player 2: We do two hours of charitable work once or twice per month and you’re required to do social media posts about it to promote the collective that supports the team. It definitely isn’t a ton of work. I think they do a good job of making it charitable and working with the community to help better the community whereas other schools based on how they’d explained things to me, it didn’t really seem that was to me as much.

Agent 1: Collective-wise, never had any issues. I do remember one early where a brand said we’d own your rights in perpetuity and it was a T-shirt company. Do not sign that.

Agent 2: Lots of brands are jumping in for product-only deals and asking for licensing rights in perpetuity. They’re completely blown away when I push back and say we can’t do that. You’re trying to give them a $50 duffle bag and use his picture forever?

Agent 3: Spending a birthday with the donor – the athlete is to spend a booster’s birthday with him. That’s kind of weird to me. Creepy. But it’s really similar nowadays. It’s going to say 12 appearances over 12 months, or this many tweets, or this many this, or this many that.

Agent 4: Residence stuff, like he doesn’t want to live with anybody else. Nothing too crazy, but it is stuff you would think would be in a coach’s contract.

Player 3: At my first school, I had a marketing deal where contractually I had to post an ad after one of our losses. Like contractually, I had to. I said, can we wait one more week? They were like, yeah. But then we lost again, and they said we can’t wait any longer. You already pushed it back a week. So I had to post it after a loss. I felt so guilty afterward. I felt bad posting after a loss like that.

Reminiscing on it now, if I don’t play well, I don’t feel like I deserve to get paid. That was a reason why I felt like I didn’t really care about the money the next time I went into the portal. In the NFL, they pay to have you on the team. They know what they’re looking at. That was a big learning experience for me. The comments after that post were pretty ruthless and I usually don’t care about the comments. But I was like, those were valid.

NIL collective CEO 8: In terms of positives of NIL, I think the players getting connected with some boosters and alumni and the community, that’s been a positive. Before this, players couldn’t talk to boosters or make any connections or network. Now they can do that, so some of us have relationships with some of those kids and can help them find jobs.

So, what if a player leaves?

NIL collective CEO 4: Every school has different contracts. Ours have the verbiage that if you’re no longer commercially beneficial for us to advertise you, and there are reasons why that might be – one of them is being outside of the market – so if a kid transfers it would trigger that clause in his contract and it doesn’t say if you go in the portal.

Who knows how legislation or laws will work out in the next 2-5 years where that may shift, but our contracts are pretty flexible on both ends where they can cancel, we can cancel for marketing benefit.

NIL collective CEO 5: They have to live within 15 miles of campus in order for it to stay valid.

NIL collective CEO 1: We have language in our agreement that the moment a player officially goes in the portal, we have the right to void, terminate or cancel his contract. Because now he’s no longer marketable to me as an ambassador of the collective. Because he’s put out a post saying I’m leaving the (program) to go pursue other opportunities, I can’t market him to our fan base anymore.

NIL collective CEO 3: Each deal lays out at the beginning a monthly structure. Each payment is contingent on the performance of that month’s work. If they’re no longer here working for the charity, it’s voided. We haven’t had an issue with guys leaving and trying to get future payments.

NIL collective CEO 9: It’s voided if you’re no longer enrolled or in good standing on an NCAA team. So we don’t say you have to play here. But the moment you enter the portal and you’re not on a roster, it’s void.

NIL collective CEO 8: The way our contracts are written, we can terminate them at any time, for any reason. If they leave, we terminate it. We don’t have to give a reason. We’ve never had any problems legally or had anyone complain. Some might try to take advantage and transfer the day after a payment gets delivered, but we just try to stay on top of that stuff.

Who to trust?

Assistant coach 1: Here’s the part that’s so frustrating with all of it: There are so many false narratives out there you don’t know what’s real. You hear these numbers and these numbers aren’t true. Again, there’s no guardrails so people are throwing outlandish numbers out, outlandish information, and half the time not any of it’s true.

NIL collective CEO 6: There is so much … out there, either from the agent misrepresenting or collectives trying to drive up the price for other collectives. It’s not like there is any obligation for anyone to be candid or honest about any of this stuff.

Player 3: This receiver I know said he was making $400,000 a year. There’s no way this guy who isn’t even their second-best receiver is making 400 grand. A lot of teams will say they’ll give you X amount of money, like we’re giving you this $100,000, but in reality it’s really a rental. It’s not yours. Or a house that’s worth $2 million, but it’s not yours. You just get to live there. A lot of these numbers are really inflated. These guys think they have a $500,000 NIL deal, but are they getting $500,000 in cash or assets? Or is the value of stuff you’re using worth $500,000? And then there are the deals you hear about and then after it’s done, you hear from that player that he only got a quarter of what he expected to get.

Assistant coach 2: I’m not aware of any players I’ve coached being offered in the millions, but well into six figures has become pretty common. I had a starter tell me that a team reached out to him. He was not in the portal, but they reached out to him and told him he could be making well over double what he makes with us. He’s going to stay and isn’t going to go in the portal, but he wanted to let me know that those guys are shady and they reached out to me.

Head coach 2: I had one player, he didn’t tell me, but the info got to me that another school was offering him $90,000 to get in the portal and transfer. So I was like, great, I’ll call them and say they can have him, and I’ll even pay the first $10,000.

Head coach 1: I’m not holier than thou, but I am a college football purist in the sense I think our integrity is important, and I think integrity in general is missing in so many ways in our games, so I am totally comfortable having real conversations with coaches. Like, “Dude, it ain’t right what you’re doing. This is who you are, awesome. It’s good to know.” And most of the time, they start backpedaling. But there is no regulation. You can say there is, but there just isn’t.

General manager 2: We’ve had coaches call other coaches directly, basically gave them a warning. But it’s a little bit of that honor-amongst-thieves mindset. Don’t throw rocks in a glass house. Everyone is bending the rules in some capacity. You don’t want to draw attention to anything you might be doing.

NIL collective CEO 2: Thankfully, we have had few, if any, players try to use the portal or other schools as a negotiation tactic.

General manager 2: If you have a good player on your team, someone is hitting them up. And the kids, they’re smart, they’ll mention vague offers from other schools, use that with our collective to get more money to stay. But it’s a lot of he said/he said, few facts, negotiating against yourself half the time. If I was a player, I’d say, “Hey, I need you to offer me this much to stay.” You’ll probably get yourself a nice pay day.

– The Athletic’s Christopher Kamrani, Justin Williams, Antonio Morales, Bruce Feldman, Scott Dochterman, Manny Navarro, Chris Vannini, Stewart Mandel and David Ubben contributed reporting to this story.