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What The College Version Of Free Agency Means For Student-Athletes — And Their Schools

May 1 may soon be a national holiday for fans of college athletics — call it The Real Signing Day. As the deadline drew near for players in fall and winter sports to notify schools of their intention to leave,1 the transfer portal — an NCAA compliance tool! — became must-click entertainment, with each new name or nugget of reportage drawing national attention and spawning a thousand thinkpieces. A 3-year-old digital portal has, in the words of Kansas men’s basketball coach Bill Self, gone “out of control.” 

What’s not up for debate is its importance to member institutions. Michigan State football coach Mel Tucker, whose program had a nine-win turnaround in 2021 largely due to talent portal acquisitions, said the Spartans have someone on staff who monitors the portal and “sits there and presses refresh every 30 minutes.” Ole Miss football coach Lane Kiffin, sayer of many things, is now the self-proclaimed “Portal King” with merch to hawk; his staff has effectively assembled a draft board of all possible transfer candidates, broken down by position.

Welcome to college sports in 2022.

The NCAA changed its transfer rules a year ago, allowing athletes in all sports to transfer to another program once without sitting out for an entire season.2 The transfer portal’s application for the NCAA’s most lucrative sports was monumental and, in tandem with the NCAA-approved marketplace for name, image and likeness (NIL) deals, created the closest facsimile of free agency in NCAA history.

That has naturally resulted in thousands of athletes swapping jerseys in the pursuit of better academic and athletic fits. “The game completely changed,” said Zack Soskin, the co-founder of athlete marketing firm Voltage Management. Some 6,475 undergraduate athletes transferred in 2021, up more than 25 percent from 2020, according to data released last month by the NCAA. More than three-quarters of those athletes transferred to Division I schools, with the majority of transfers occurring at the conclusion of the athlete’s season or the end of the academic year. 

The portal isn’t exclusively inundated by athletes lacking playing time, either. Headline standouts including multiple conference MVPs and projected first-round draft picks hit the market thanks to the new rule. 

The two sports most impacted by the transfer portal were football and basketball, according to NCAA data

More than 20 Division I football programs landed at least 10 transfers this offseason, according to 247Sports Network, a list that includes LSU, Oklahoma, Miami and USC (the four of which brought in new head coaches). One of those new coaches has already been accused of tampering: Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi reportedly called Lincoln Riley of USC to complain about the NIL-fueled recruitment of Jordan Addison, who was an All-American at Pitt in 2021 and won the Biletnikoff Award as the country’s top receiver.

Other elite football players have used the portal to find greener pastures. Quarterback Quinn Ewers had reclassified and entered college a year early after he was denied the ability to profit from his NIL. The top-rated recruit in the 2021 class according to 247Sports Network, Ewers committed to Ohio State and inked a $1.4 million deal with GT Sports Marketing before he had so much as taken a college snap in Columbus. Less than four months later, he transferred to Texas, where he had originally committed in 2020, when the program was led by coach Tom Herman. 

Another Big Ten QB, Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez — already the most marketable athlete at the university — set the school’s all-time career record for total offense in November and transferred to Kansas State the following month.

On the hardwood, Emoni Bates, a five-star recruit who was once compared to Michael Jordan and LeBron James in a Sports Illustrated cover story, signed a deal with Roc Nation Sports agency one month after his commitment to Memphis. Because of his age — Bates reclassified and attended Memphis as a 17-year-old — Bates must complete two seasons in college before entering the draft.3 After an injury-riddled freshman season, Bates announced his decision to transfer; wherever he lands, Bates will command significant coin

It shouldn’t take long to learn why a player has chosen a new campus; moments after Kansas State’s Nijel Pack transferred to Miami, the two-year, $800,000 NIL deal with LifeWallet that likely secured his commitment was made public. LifeWallet CEO John H. Ruiz announced the terms from his own Twitter account, which caused an inter-program fiasco when Isaiah Wong, a key member of the team’s recent Elite Eight run, and his agent nearly leveraged the news into a transfer. 

The impact of the transfer rule has been particularly stark in the world of women’s basketball, where an All-American and Gatorade national high school player of the year are among those hitting the portal. Maryland alone lost three all-conference players in Angel Reese, Ashley Owusu and Mimi Collins. The Athletic’s Chantel Jennings noted in mid-April that there were already 1,143 Division I players in the women’s basketball portal, nearly twice as many as who entered the portal in 2019-20.

With NIL opportunities now available to most college athletes, the financial ramifications of such a move are inextricably linked to a simple calculus: Why dominate one market if you can dominate two?

“For the most part, you’re going to lose fans in the other city, unless you’re going from a small school to a big school, then those fans will continue to ride for you,” Soskin said. “But now, a local business can say, ‘Hey, we’re interested in potentially working with you. We could give you as much as half a million dollars for a yearlong deal with us, but you’d need to be in insert-city-name for shoots frequently.’ Right? The athlete knows what that means.”

Perhaps the most seismic move was felt when the Cavinder twins transferred from Fresno State to Miami. Haley and Hanna Cavinder have already secured NIL deals estimated to be in seven figures and are among the most marketable college athletes in any sport. Now they get to maximize their platforms in a top-20 market and as a member of the ACC, a conference with far more resources at its disposal than the Mountain West.

The power shift from coaches to the athletes they oversee continues, as an unintended consequence of NIL and relaxed transfer rules has led to an overflowing transfer portal that impacts most NCAA sports. Ripple effects from the new rule can even be felt at the high school level, since coaches at power institutions are less likely to max out scholarship quotas on borderline contributors over proven talent available in the transfer portal. 

“Most people say if you sign 25 high school kids, you’re building for the future more — but are you?” Kiffin asked The Athletic. “You don’t have 25 kids for five years like you used to, because they have the one-time transfer rule now. But now that one-time transfer can’t transfer again. So your analytics of that guy staying in your program are higher than the high school guy.”

For decades, marketability and profitability have been considerations for athletes searching for a new team. The only thing that changed is that those negotiations are now happening above the table — and the athletes no longer have to wait to profit or suit up.

Footnotes

  1. Spring sport athletes must do so by July 1.

  2. Athletes must be academically eligible or not have previously transferred from a four-year institution to qualify for the new rule. The one-time exemption had been in place for years for mostly non-revenue-generating sports, but the 2021 change opened it to students in football, men’s and women’s basketball, men’s ice hockey and baseball.

  3. Or take that second year off to train for the draft.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

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