College athletics is a business, and like any business, its engine runs on money. The question with the new world of NIL is and will be for a while: how much money is still out there for college athletics to be able to tap into?
“I said this one on my last day of work, I said, I’m not out donor hunting, but also, don’t hold me at fault, because there are going to be some that self-identify,” said Lo Davis, the executive director of Cavalier Futures, a nonprofit working to create NIL opportunities for student-athletes at the University of Virginia.
Virginia Athletics gets about a quarter of its annual revenues – a reported $27.1 million in 2018-2019 – from donor contributions, according to analysis from USA Today.
You’d have to assume at least some overlap between those who are current and historical donors to Virginia Athletics, which foots the bill for coach and staff salaries and scholarships for student-athletes, among other things, and those who might be interested in participating in NIL opportunities.
You’d also want to assume that there could be some who would redirect money from their annual contributions to Virginia Athletics to go toward NIL, since NIL money goes directly into the pockets of student-athletes.
“There are individuals who just want to help, and for the first time, legally, there are people who can do something to give back to student-athletes directly,” said Davis, a 1991 UVA alum who worked at the Virginia Athletics Foundation for 12 years, raising millions of dollars for the university’s athletics programs in his time there.
“I use this story, and it is a very true story, people don’t realize that we have certain student-athletes, that the clothes that they wear are the team-issue gear that they’re given. We have student-athletes who get their Pell Grant money, that money goes back home to mom and dad. So, when you talk about the ability to have, if nothing else, some money in your pocket, to go buy your own Nike sweatshirt, or to go to a movie or to have dinner, that means a lot,” said Davis, who played baseball for two years while a student at UVA.
“I think sometimes we have people who are critical of student-athletes getting paid because they say, oh, they’re getting their scholarship, so they should just be quiet,” Davis said. “Well, I love my UVA degree, but if I’m laying in bed, and I’m hungry, or I can’t go out with my friends who might not be athletes to dinner, how do you think emotionally that’s going to hit me that, you know, people will applaud me, thousands of people applaud me, maybe millions, but I don’t have the money to go and do the things that I really want to do. “
Cavalier Futures is working on building NIL partnership agreements to benefit Virginia student-athletes, counting two partnerships to date – with a local McDonald’s franchisee and with Locker Room Access, a sports website co-founded by UVA basketball alums Justin Anderson and Ty Jerome.
That’s really not a lot nearly a year into the NIL era, and a growing segment of fans and alums have been critical of the apparently low-key approach to NIL taken by Virginia Athletics, with the stories out there about Alabama football players earning a collective $3 million last year from NIL opportunities, and Texas A&M boosters putting serious money behind the effort to land the nation’s top-ranked football recruiting class in the 2022 cycle.
Davis defended the approach, citing the fluidity of the situation with NIL from an NCAA and legal standpoint.
“Our goal is and our hope is that, again, when the dust settles, and there is true governance over this thing, whether it’s from a federal legislation or from the NCAA, that we will be standing on solid ground and then, you know, the university and the athletic department can embrace what we do,” Davis said. “I told somebody earlier today in a meeting that I’ve said to Carla (Williams, the athletics director at Virginia), I said it to Tony Elliot and Tony Bennett, that our goal here at Cavalier Futures is that we want you to rest well at night, and we want you to rest well knowing that our engagement with the student-athletes is going to be by the law. We’re going to make sure that they’re a student first and worry about the NIL piece. We have some great individuals here, but I said your NIL is not worth anything if you don’t handle your business on the court and in the classroom.”
Story by Chris Graham