Virginia is behind in the NIL arms race: A look inside what’s being done to catch up

Virginia is behind in the NIL arms race: A look inside what’s being done to catch up

(© Scott Maxwell –

Lo Davis’s phone blew up last month after four-star point London Johnson backed off from an expected commitment to play at Virginia.

The basic question: why wasn’t Cavalier Futures, a non-profit NIL collective, throwing money at Johnson to get him to sign?

The answer from Davis, the executive director of Cavalier Futures: “We don’t pay recruits. We don’t buy recruiting classes.”

Davis was tapped to head up Cavalier Futures earlier this year. A 1991 University of Virginia alum, Davis had served for 12 years as an associate director of the Virginia Athletics Foundation, after stints as a Charlottesville-based small-business owner and as vice president of Catch84, the marketing arm for former UVA All-American football player Herman Moore.

Cavalier Futures operates independently from the university and from Virginia Athletics, but its advisory board includes some UVA heavy hitters, including hoops legends Ralph Sampson and Kyle Guy, football alum Matt Schaub and law professor Brian Socolow.

Another independent entity, Hook Sports Marketing, headed up by UVA alums Chip Royer and Todd Goodale, has focused its efforts in the NIL space on building representation agreements with UVA student-athletes, with a roster that currently includes basketball stars Reece Beekman, Kihei Clark, Armaan Franklin and Jayden Gardner, football stars Brennan Armstrong and Nick Jackson, and lacrosse standout Jeff Conner.

Virginia Athletics itself had NIL news this week, with AD Carla Williams announcing a partnership with The Brandr Group establishing a group licensing agreement for student-athletes covering all 27 UVA teams that creates new opportunities for the student-athletes to profit off their Name, Image and Likeness using the school’s official trademarks and logos.

“We are excited to partner with The Brandr Group to expand the opportunities for student-athletes to maximize their NIL,” Williams said. “The program will provide our fans with new ways to support our student-athletes through the purchase of officially licensed co-branded merchandise.”

The plan there is to introduce merchandise as it becomes available including team jerseys with the name and number of their favorite Cavalier student-athletes who have joined the respective group licensing program once TBG enters into agreements with applicable school trademark licensees.

“We are excited about the opportunities for the University of Virginia in the NIL space given their academic and athletic reputation,” said Wesley Haynes, the CEO at The Brandr Group, which manages group rights programs for the NFL, NBA and MLB players associations in the college space.. “We are absolutely thrilled to add them to our family of schools, working closely with their team to craft co-branded opportunities through our group licensing program. This will give Cavalier student-athletes the chance to capitalize on their NIL through a vast merchandising portfolio, while also uncovering new player engagement opportunities for their devoted fans.”

With all this going on, it has to be noted that a lot is still unsettled with NIL, with the NCAA, just last week, announcing new rules relative to NIL prohibiting boosters and collectives from having contact with prospective student-athletes, their family members or their representatives, trying to head off at the pass the rumor and innuendo surrounding the impact that money is having on recruiting.

The rumor and innuendo are at a fever pitch this week with Alabama football coach Nick Saban telling a group of Birmingham business leaders on Wednesday that SEC rival Texas A&M had bought its top-ranked 2022 prep recruiting class through NIL deals.

“I mean, we were second in recruiting last year. A&M was first,” Saban said. “A&M bought every player on their team – made a deal for name, image, likeness. We didn’t buy one player, all right? But I don’t know if we’re gonna be able to sustain that in the future because more and more people are doing it. It’s tough.”

This is from the same guy who last summer caused the first stir with respect to NIL when he said that his quarterback, Bryce Young, who hadn’t yet started a game at ‘Bama, was set to make “almost seven figures” from NIL opportunities.

Saban, on Wednesday, said Alabama players made a total of $3 million last season from NIL, which really doesn’t sound like all that much when you consider that, we’re talking about Alabama here, and $3 million, going to 25 student-athletes, according to Saban, is a drop in the bucket compared to even the NFL rookie minimum base salary, which is currently at $705,000.

The efforts around NIL at Virginia are nowhere near where Texas A&M and Alabama are.

Given the unsettled nature of where things are with NIL, this isn’t a bad thing.

“We’ve really just scratched the surface at this stage,” said Davis, at Cavalier Futures. “I know that there are some out there who feel that Virginia is lagging behind in NIL. But you have to consider, July 1 is the first anniversary of NIL being in place. We’re not behind. Our focus is on developing at a pace that we feel can be sustainable.”

Story by Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the founder and editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination, a memoir published in 2019, and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to his YouTube page, or subscribe to his Street Knowledge podcast. Email Chris at [email protected].