Last week included National Signing Day across college sports, which naturally brought with it discussions of recruiting, NIL money, and the future of the NCAA.  We thought it would be a good time to do a quick primer on NIL: how it works, common misconceptions, and its potential effects on college hockey.  

What is NIL?

In short, NIL (“name, image, likeness”) allows players to make money off of their own personal brand.  That works in a few ways. One way is simple: players can advertise products for pay, just like their coaches could do – and certainly have for years.  Similarly, players or schools can sell jerseys and shirts with a player’s name and number and the player receives a cut. Other NIL avenues are less obvious. For example, a football player at Alabama used to be prohibited from monetizing their own podcast or YouTube channel.  They can now do that without it affecting their eligibility.  The other major avenue is via groups called NIL collectives.  These collectives are groups of fans, rich boosters, and businesses to provide business opportunities to players, pure donations directly to players, or both.  These collectives are what people are really referring to when they discuss NIL as being “pay-to-play.” In some ways that description is true.  A school’s collective can “pay” a recruit or a transfer to come to that school.  For example, The Athletic reported that a Class of 2023 quarterback signed a deal with a collective to pay him $8 million across three years. 

Common Misconceptions

As you might have gleaned from above, NIL does not allow schools to directly pay players to come to their school, as many believe. That may be a distinction without a difference, as boosters with close ties to a school can fund that school’s collective. Still, it is not money coming out of the school’s coffers or otherwise being a net neutral payment where money is coming out of, say, the drama department and being funneled to the school’s next NFL-caliber wide receiver.  Similarly alluded to above is the misconception that NIL only benefits the biggest stars at the biggest schools.  While there is definitely a unique path for the big stars to getting massive payouts during their time in college, much of what NIL allows is letting college kids make money off of things that their non-athlete classmates have always been able to do.  The YouTube example above illustrates this point.  It is also easy to picture another scenario where a student-athlete comes up with a business idea and no longer has to be concerned about putting his own face on the website or in the branding for fear of violating the NCAA rules around monetizing one’s own likeness.  There is a level of freedom that NIL grants student-athletes in all sports at all levels, which is easy to forget and also easy to brush aside as irrelevant.

How will NIL impact college hockey?

To be honest, I don’t think anyone quite knows yet. This is a pretty new and underdeveloped set of rules and regulations, and various state laws also have an impact.  For example, some states are actively trying to make it easier for NIL collectives to collaborate with their respective schools while other states are trying to ban collectives altogether. 

When specifically talking about hockey, I simply don’t believe the competitive balance is at risk as a result of NIL, especially compared to major revenue sports like men’s and women’s basketball and football. Much was made last year of Minnesota’s Logan Cooley having a Chipotle sponsorship that granted him free daily burritos, but that type of “financial” benefit is not going to move the needle for a recruit to either pick a school or stay in school. Compare that to someone like Michigan running back Blake Corum, who returned to college for his senior season almost solely because he is reportedly making upwards of $1 million in NIL money from a Michigan collective this season. Still, there is currently movement on the fringes of college hockey, as some reports have suggested player commitments have flipped on the back of NIL guarantees suggesting that we are moving more into the realm of the have’s and the have not’s.

Even with that said, does that matter as much in college hockey? There is nothing new about the big brands getting the top prospects: Minnesota was getting Blake Wheeler and Kyle Okposo, North Dakota was getting T.J. Oshie and Jonathan Toews, and Michigan was getting Kyle Connor and J.T. Compher well before NIL was remotely in the picture. And yet not one of those guys won a national title. Teams with the big names have rarely won in the last fifteen years – Boston College in 2010 and 2012 stands out as the real exception. Do I think that changes? Perhaps somewhat, considering some of that is the puck luck nature of a single-elimination tournament. But I don’t expect the teams with 10-15 blue chip teenagers to rattle off a dozen straight championships.

In my eyes, the bigger risk to our sport is the current battle over employment status and antitrust surrounding the NCAA.  Those decisions from the courts are much more likely to have a direct impact on our sport.  That’s a longer discussion for another day, but as more clarity arises around all of these issues you can be sure I will be back here to discuss.

Quick Hits

Turns out, Wisconsin’s sweep of Tech early in the year said a lot more about the Badgers than the Huskies.  Even after this weekend’s sweep at the hands of Michigan State, the Badgers are one of the top teams in the nation. For a team that was not necessary expected to make the NCAA tournament, they have been the biggest surprise of the season.

Now that nonconference play is mostly over, there’s a pretty clear split between the top three and bottom three conferences in terms of level of play and in out-of-conference winning percentage.  Hockey East teams are in a great position to get four or five teams into the tournament, with at least one and perhaps two one-seeds in play.  The Big Ten is the deepest conference with all seven teams capable of making the NCAA Tournament, though they will probably only get three, maybe four.  Meanwhile, the CCHA seems to clearly be a one-bid league.  I don’t see any team getting an at-large bid.  For what it’s worth, I still think Tech is the favorite to win the conference.

It’s a bit too early to care about the Pairwise from an individual team standpoint, but I do like to look at it for trends.  One thing that sticks out is how high the Big Ten teams sit with middling records.  All but Ohio State are in the top 22, even though the entire conference has at least three losses. It remains to be seen if they will cannibalize themselves out of the NCAA tournament or if a pecking order will form as we get deeper into conference play. Meanwhile, Hockey East currently has six of the top eleven teams in the PWR, positioning themselves perfectly as we near the holidays. This is the deepest HEA has been in years, getting a boost from historic powers Maine and New Hampshire surprisingly strong first half.

My Current Top 5

  1. Denver
  2. Boston College
  3. North Dakota
  4. Quinnipiac
  5. Wisconsin

Teams to Watch

Preseason number one Boston University started the season 0-3-0, and is 8-0-1 since. They benefit from a strong Hockey East this year that will elevate their strength of schedule, and should have no problem making the NCAA tournament. Arizona State plays Denver, Colorado College, and Providence before the end of 2023 and needs a strong showing in that stretch to have a chance at the NCAA tournament. This is the exact type of year where being independent hurts them: they’d be a likely tournament team if they were in the NCHC and reaping the high floor that comes with that strength of schedule. After back-to-back Frozen Four appearances, Michigan is .500 through 14 games and is dealing with serious injury problems. Their remaining 2023 schedule is two top-15 teams in St. Cloud and Notre Dame: the Wolverines could easily enter winter break four games under .500 and well out of PWR position.