ALBANY – Doug Edert never could have predicted it, but the endorsements kept pouring in.
Following St. Peter’s stunning upset of Kentucky at last year’s NCAA tournament, Edert signed a Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) deal with Buffalo Wild Wings. BW3s, the popular restaurant chain, offered fans six free chicken wings if they checked into an eatery within 30 minutes of a March Madness overtime contest. With his signature bushy moustache, Edert held a wing aloft and posed in front of a table with a smorgasbord of flavors to celebrate the deal.
Shortly after, another followed, where Edert made money through video messages posted on Cameo. In the new landscape of college athletics created by the NIL, endorsements are a byproduct of success in March Madness.
“Everybody just wants to move on, all they’re focused on is the team,” Iona coach Rick Pitino said Thursday, when asked about the implications of the landmark new policy.
In many ways, St. Peter’s unlikely run underscores the commercial opportunities available to mid-majors when a Cinderella captivates the nation. But in Albany, one of eight hosts for the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament, top players have placed more emphasis on the team’s goals than potential NIL deals.
“I feel like the whole team, the focus is on winning games,” Miami guard Nijel Pack said ahead of the Canes’ first-round matchup against Drake. “I feel like guys aren’t really worried about the NIL – the NIL comes with winning games, being successful and winning championships.”
The Canes sidestepped the controversy last spring when Pack received an offer of up to $800,000 from LifeWallet CEO John Ruiz. Pack, a transfer from Kansas State, received $400,000 for this season, with an additional $400,000 that will kick in if he stays in 2023-2024. The deal reportedly angered backcourt mate Isaiah Wong, who threatened to leave the program if he didn’t receive additional compensation. Ruiz, a billionaire owner of a medical records technology firm, vowed to find other deals for Wong, the team’s leading scorer.
While Miami avoided an upset in Friday’s first round, many others did not. In total, five double-digit seeds advanced to the Round of 32, including East No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson and Princeton, the 15th seed in the South. It marked the first time in NCAA Tournament history that a 15-seed and a 16-seed earned victories in the same tournament.
Top players from the mid-majors could be in line for a deal comparable to Edert’s before the Sweet 16 begins on Thursday. Fairleigh Dickinson, a 63-58 winner over Purdue on Friday, will earn a trip to the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history with a win over Florida Atlantic on Sunday night. Several NIL agreements with Knights players are under consideration, a source close to the program said on Saturday.
Despite the amount of upsets, a number of marquee players still have their sights set on the Final Four. When Indiana forward Trayce Jackson-Davis led the Hoosiers over Kent State in the first round, he became the first player since 1986 to record 20+ points, 5+ assists and 5+ blocks in a tournament game. Since the beginning of the month, Jackson-Davis’ deals with Dunkin, LG Electronics, Bose and NextGenCamps have materialized, according to On3.com, a website that tracks NIL activity. As of Sunday, Jackson-Davis ranked fourth among college basketball players with an annual NIL value of $887,000.
After spending a decade as an NBA head coach, Indiana coach Mike Woodson is returning to his alma mater in 2021. Although Woodson admitted Thursday that the new rules have made his job more challenging, he is asking his players to focus on schoolwork instead for commercial agreements.
“These players understand how I feel about NIL,” he said. “You’re going to come play for Mike Woodson, you’ve got to come to school and get an education and play basketball, and the NIL will take care of itself.”
Similar to Jackson-Davis, UConn’s Andre Jackson Jr. established a presence on Instagram, where he has approximately 60,200 followers. Earlier this season, Jackson hosted a NIL event at a restaurant near Storrs’ campus, one that received the approval of the school’s compliance team. Jackson had 10 points and dished out seven assists in Friday’s win over Iona, racing at the rim with several thunderous dunks.
At the next level, he appeals to NBA teams with a “Swiss Army Knife-like” presence in Draymond Green mode. As with Green, Jackson can affect almost every aspect of the game without scoring.
“He doesn’t care if he takes a shot, he doesn’t care about the NIL value,” UConn coach Danny Hurley said in a press conference Thursday. “He’s just a throwback, man, who only cares about UConn basketball.”
The opening weekend of March Madness has been held against a changing backdrop of NIL collaboration. Later this month, a congressional committee will hold a hearing on the impact of the rule changes on college athletics. While the NCAA has rules that make it illegal to use the NIL as a recruiting inducement, in many cases the rules are loosely enforced, according to Darren Heitner, an attorney with Heitner Legal.
Asked whether Congress will succeed in establishing a uniform, national standard for NIL, Heitner replied, “if there was a support game, I’d bet against it.”
“I don’t think there’s anything positive that can come out of the hearing other than a greater recognition that amateurism is a myth,” said Heitner, who teaches NIL law at the University of Miami and is one of the nation’s leading experts on the subject. “The NCAA continues to throw money and other resources at lobbying Congress to do its dirty work, believing that disclosure laws should probably remain outside the purview of the federal government, and with the states.”
Meanwhile, rumors are swirling that Pitino may leave Iona to accept the vacant head coaching position at St. John’s, a move that would allow the New York City native to return to the Big East.
Pitino, 70, told reporters last week that he hopes he can coach 12 more years, but that he wants to take “another six or seven.” Pitino remains in the sport, although other legends such as Mike Krzyzewski, Jay Wright and Jim Boeheim have retired as coaches in the past 12 months.
Wholesale changes in the sport, namely the introduction of the transfer portal, has precipitated the departure of a handful of coaches, Pitino noted. He does not envisage the extinction of NIL anytime soon.
“It’s here to stay,” Pitino emphasized. “I certainly don’t know what to do with it, and the NCAA doesn’t know what to do with it, because now everyone is a professional athlete. There are no more amateurs.”
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