Back on Dec. 30, the University of Oklahoma routed the toothless Florida Gators 55-20 in the Cotton Bowl Classic. UF played the game without a trio of projected first-round picks, all of whom chose to turn their immediate attention to the 2021 NFL Draft. Star players opting out of bowl games isn’t a new phenomenon; the trend began in earnest in 2016 when LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey sat out of their respective teams’ games (both went on to become top 10 selections in the 2017 NFL Draft). But with the decision to opt out (which takes the air out of some of the most highly anticipated games) seemingly becoming more prevalent every year, it’s reasonable to wonder what—if anything—could be done to entice NFL hopefuls to participate.
Conversations with Bowl Season executive director Nick Carparelli and rEvolution partner Larry Mann indicated that bowl game stakeholders may not have to change a thing: They believe eventual passage of new NCAA name, image and likeness (NIL) rules can solve much of the problem for them. “[Compensation from] NIL will definitely help keep kids in school [and playing in bowl games],” Mann said. “The question is, will we be able to keep them all [playing] or just a percentage of them?”
Just when, exactly, that will happen became unclear over the weekend. The NCAA had been expected to pass new rules this week allowing players to take advantage of NIL in some form beginning this summer. But on Saturday, NCAA president Mark Emmert recommended his organization delay that decision, citing antitrust concerns raised by the U.S. Department of Justice. The pressure remains on the NCAA to do something about the issue before next fall, however. This summer, a Florida law will take effect allowing college athletes to capitalize on NIL, and the NCAA has said it wants to have its own rules in place to avoid confusion among its members across the country.
Our Take: Right now, there isn’t much that can currently be done to entice college football’s best players to play in bowl games. NCAA bylaws prevent the bowls from gifting players more than $550’s worth of swag. While there’s no doubt an increase in the value threshold would be welcomed change by those participating, it seems unlikely additional gift cards and apparel are going to be enough to entice a pro prospect to play. “Is an extra few hundred dollars going to [motivate] a guy to not leave early? I don’t think there is a cause and effect there,” Carparelli said.
UNC head coach Mack Brown recently suggested playoff expansion would help to end the growing opt-out trend. He noted teams participating in the College Football Playoff are not suffering personnel losses (both Alabama and Ohio State will be—COVID willing—at full strength when the National Championship Game kicks off this evening). But even if expansion takes place, it’s unclear how that would solve the problem. The CFP would only be adding, at most, four teams. It is not as if a large portion of potential opt-outs would be impacted.
Whenever the NCAA amends its rules, college athletes will be able to take compensation in exchange for the use of their name, image and likeness. Both Carparelli and Mann suggested any corporate marketing pacts signed are almost certain to include bowl game contingencies—even if the sponsorship is not in any way directly tied to the postseason. “I would expect there to be bowl game clauses in most of the deals these kids do,” Carparelli said. That’s because “bowl games—at any level—are among the more high-profile games on a team’s schedule,” he added. Mann agreed: “If [a brand is] going to do a deal with a college football player, it should definitely have a bowl game clause [requiring the player to play if their team qualifies]. Conference championships and bowl games are the whole reason to do [a marketing deal with a college football player].”
To be clear, Mann doubts there will be enough money available to convince surefire first-round picks they should play an extra game. That’s because, the sports marketer said, college athletes “are not going to be a central part of brand campaigns” (at least not until brands begin to see how much access they’ll have to these athletes and how valuable they can be to their marketing efforts), and any NIL-related compensation they receive will pale in comparison to a pro contract. Even the final player taken in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft (Clyde Edwards-Helaire) signed a rookie deal with a practical guarantee north of $8 million. The risk of getting hurt or seeing one’s draft stock slide simply outweighs a five- or six-figure reward for some guys. While one has to believe most college kids will have a hard time turning down money tied to the use of their name, image and likeness, Mann said he could envision players with promising pro futures passing on marketing deals if they include a bowl clause.
Players that ultimately sign marketing partnerships may be committed to playing in the postseason, but Carparelli suggested the passage of NIL legislation may also lead to bowl sponsors doing what they can to entice participation: “If players can start making money, who is to say some bowl sponsors won’t offer cash awards to the game’s MVP?” While even a six-figure award would unlikely be enough to sway a guy destined for millions, it “could be an incentive to get some of these players [who aren’t expected to be guaranteed an NFL roster spot] to play,” Mann added.
If entitlement sponsors can’t motivate guys to play, perhaps wealthy boosters will be able to. North Carolina stars Javonte Williams, Michael Carter, Dyami Brown and Chazz Surratt all opted out of the Orange Bowl—the school’s first appearance in a big-four bowl (Rose, Cotton, Sugar, Orange) since 1950. With none of the four players expected to be a day-one selection, it seems reasonable to suggest a motivated booster—if permitted by NIL bylaws—might try to entice the team’s offensive weapons to suit up for the team’s biggest game in 70 years. Mann said he certainly could foresee a scenario where “a big booster, who happens to open the local Chevy dealership, puts [a player’s] name on a marketing campaign and acts like it was a deal.”