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The rapidly changing financial game in college sports takes more twists

Ranya Senhaji on the attack against Detroit Mercy during an exhibition match in East Lansing, Mich. on Aug. 6, 2023.
Matthew Mitchell
Ranya Senhaji on the attack against Detroit Mercy during an exhibition match in East Lansing, Mich. on Aug. 6, 2023.

NIL rules, and which athletes are finding sponsorship success, radically varies by school, sport, and gender. Michigan State athletes are still trying to figure things out.

Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that college athletes are essentially employees three years ago in NCAA v. Alston, top universities have entered into an arms race to land highly touted recruits.

They've also been tapping into the transfer portal, the unofficial name for the national transfer database athletes may use once during their undergraduate career to switch schools without having to sit out a year from competition. But there has been speculation that schools with the most favorable Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) rules are using them to lure top prospective athletes coming out of high school or the transfer portal.

“In the past athletes would primarily choose their school based on where they were likely to win,” said David Berri, a professor of economics at Southern Utah University and an expert on unpaid athletes in the NCAA. "That's not always the case now.”

Football and men’s basketball players are at the front of the pack when it comes to NIL deals. After those sports, there’s a steep dropoff in regards to the number of athletes making money and the size of their contracts, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

“I think NIL is a great opportunity for a lot of athletes to benefit,” said Lexy Alston, a senior on the Michigan State track and field team who has a partnership with the Army National Guard. “Most student athletes don’t have time for a job to make extra money so this has definitely helped along those lines.”

Before Alston was running for Michigan State, she actually played soccer at Eastern Michigan University. Her team’s struggles to find the right chemistry for success began to take a mental toll and she knew she needed a change. Once her sophomore season came to a close, she informed her coach that she was entering her name into the transfer portal.

Lexy Alston prepares for a race at the Mt. SAC Invitational in Walnut, Calif. on April 12, 2023.
Jack Moreland
Lexy Alston prepares for a race at the Mt. SAC Invitational in Walnut, Calif. on April 12, 2023.

“I think the transition to college during COVID was hard on a lot of people and I think it affected my initial experience going into college immensely,” she said.

More and more college athletes who aren’t getting consistent minutes are turning to the transfer portal. Critics speculate it’s because there’s a correlation between playing time and NIL earnings, and they're not necessarily wrong, but there’s usually a multitude of factors going into the decision.

Ranya Senhaji wrapped up her senior campaign on the women’s soccer team at Michigan State last fall. Like Alston, she was a transfer athlete, coming to East Lansing after her first two years of college at the University of South Carolina.

“I was getting playing time at South Carolina and played in most of the games but it wasn’t as much as I had hoped,” said Senhaji, who was recently called up to compete overseas with the Moroccan U23 women's national team. “I wasn’t the biggest fan of the style of play either. It wasn’t that we were bad, but I’m just better in direct attack offenses.”

Senhaji saw increased minutes last season for the Spartans, playing in 21 of their 22 games. She has had an NIL deal over the past two years with This is Sparta!, a collective run by the nonprofit Charitable Gift America which provides athletes with the opportunity to give back to communities. Last year she supported the High Atlas Foundation in their mission to help those directly affected by the 2023 Morocco earthquake.

When it comes to who’s paying the bill, Berri doesn’t think collectives and boosters will have control over college athletes’ NIL deals for much longer.

“I would expect that eventually the universities are going to take over the paying of the athletes,” Berri said. He thinks the issue with boosters paying players is that they are going to start wanting to have a hand at picking the athletes, which would almost certainly raise concerns with most college coaches.

As far as public opinion goes, Alston believes there’s a lot of misconceptions and hate revolving around the transfer portal and NIL in the sphere of college sports today.

“I can see the argument from both sides but until you experience it and fully understand how much it can truly benefit you you’ll never appreciate it,” she said. “I am extremely grateful I was able to take advantage of it because it changed everything in the best possible way.”

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