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Miami Herald
Miami Herald
Michelle Kaufman

Michelle Kaufman: NIL is 'the next arms race' in college sports, UM athletes need more than John Ruiz

Remember back in 2021, when Name, Image and Likeness were borderline dirty words that college coaches and administrators tiptoed around because (Heaven forbid!) they would be accused of endorsing the idea of paying “amateur” athletes?

Remember the horror and indignation that spread across the college sports landscape on Apr. 25, 2022, when University of Miami booster John Ruiz announced on Twitter that his Life Wallet company had inked a two-year, $800,000 sponsorship with basketball player Nijel Pack, who left Kansas State to play for the Hurricanes?

My, my, how times have changed.

Not only have most college athletic departments learned to accept that NIL is here to stay; they are readily admitting that it is a crucial element in the ever-escalating recruiting wars for high school prospects and transfers.

And rather than leave NIL wheeling and dealing to individual business owners, whose scruples and financial backing are difficult to ensure (more on that later), schools are jumping in with both feet and forming their own streamlined NIL collectives.

A state law passed in February gives Florida schools a leg up on some other states, as it allows universities to work directly with booster-run collectives that previously operated on their own.

“This is the next arms race, this is the next big thing you have to have in order to be competitive from a recruiting standpoint,” said University of Florida football coach Billy Napier, who Monday night appeared on a 45-minute Zoom call with Athletic Director Scott Stricklin to promote Florida Victorious, the school’s new exclusive NIL collective.

It is a membership-based fundraising effort targeting UF’s 450,000 alumni and ranging from $15 to $250 per month. Members receive exclusive content and events and merchandise.

Florida Victorious will be community service driven, and will pay athletes to work with charities such as the Ronald McDonald House of North Central Florida, Habitat for Humanity of Alachua County and the Bread of the Mighty Food Bank.

“It is a much more thoughtful, elegant approach to doing something that can engage all of Gator Nation and gives back in a positive way,” Stricklin said.

Napier added: “If we’re going to do NIL at the University of Florida, let’s do it with class, and let’s do it in a way that has checks and balances, that’s NCAA approved, that’s state-law approved, with people with great integrity and a good heart.”

College-backed collectives have popped up all over the country from Auburn’s “On to Victory” to Clemson’s “Tiger Impact” to FAU’s “Owl Collective” to Indiana’s “Hoosiers for Good” to Nebraska’s “Big Red Collective.” Notre Dame, Texas and Ohio State recently announced collectives.

The Florida Victorious founder is Miami native Jose Costa, owner of Costa Farms ornamental plant company and real estate firm Fourshore Capital. The advisory board is a Who’s Who of UF alumni, including ESPN studio host Laura Rutledge, former UF quarterback Anthony Richardson, former basketball standout Patric Young, NFL player Trey Burton, and Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel.

Florida Victorious took over as the school’s NIL last week and will absorb Gator Collective, a previous booster-led NIL, three months after the Gators lost five-star quarterback recruit Jaden Rashada to Arizona State after his promised NIL deal, estimated at $13.8 million, fell through.

The Rashada mess should serve as a cautionary tale for UM, where a vast majority of the high-profile athletes are in NIL deals with a single donor, Ruiz, a diehard Hurricanes supporter who has thrown around big money to Hurricane athletes over the past year.

What happens if Ruiz decides to scale back on his NIL deals? What if his business model isn’t working? According to reports in recent days in the Miami New Times and, Ruiz’s company has fallen short of revenue projections, missed deadlines to file its annual financial report and investors have been told previous statements were inaccurate due to accounting errors.

Maybe Ruiz will right the ship and continue to bankroll UM NIL deals, but if he can’t, for whatever reason, where will Hurricane athletes turn?

The school seems to have a plan in place.

Last week, on Apr. 12, UM athletic director Dan Radakovich posted this note on Twitter: “The University of Miami has always been a destination for the best and brightest. Now we have an opportunity to elevate our athletic department to even greater heights in this new era of NIL.” The post includes a video and link to a website titled “NIL Opportunities at Miami”, which invites fans to join “Canes Connection”, with membership donations ranging from the $10 “U Circle” to the $500 “Founders Circle” to “Canes Club” for donations of more than $12,000.

Assuming there are enough Hurricanes faithful willing to donate, this seems like a more secure way to ensure that athletes will be compensated for their appearances and marketing work. It’s worth a try, anyway.

It is hard to believe that 22 months ago, college athletes were not allowed to accept free dinners or jeans from a booster. Now, they are negotiating million-dollar sponsorship deals and those deals are driving high school recruiting and the transfer portal.

Where this all leads, nobody really knows. But one thing is for sure. This is, as Napier said, “the next arms race” in college athletics and the schools with massive fan-funded collectives will be in the driver’s seat. Buckle your seatbelts.

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