As Name, Image, and Likeness compensation floods into college sports, a WVU-aligned organization is helping Mountaineers field sponsorships to keep them playing for the home team.
Once upon a time, student–athletes were loyal to their colleges—whether due to home state pride or dedication to a supportive coach. But recent changes in the landscape have upended all that. The 2018 launch of the NCAA Transfer Portal made it easy for Division I student–athletes to change schools at will. Then, a 2021 U.S. Supreme Court decision opened the way to lucrative commercial opportunities for student–athletes—especially for those on the hottest teams.
It can be enough to lure the most loyal Mountaineer to greener fields. But a new organization, the Country Roads Trust, is working to keep our WVU athletes at home.
Money in the Pros, 1970s and Now
Pro sports has increasingly become a money game over the decades, as we know. Our own beloved Mountaineer and pro basketball great Jerry West stands as a stark example.
Playing for the L.A. Lakers from 1960 to 1974, West was voted 12 times into the All-NBA First and Second teams and 14 times into the NBA All-Star Team, and he was All-Star MVP in 1972. In 1980, he was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and named to the NBA 35th Anniversary Team. West was named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA history in 1996 and to the NBA 75th Anniversary Team in 2021.
And he is the NBA logo.
So how does this superstar’s 1970s compensation compare with what NBA players rake in today?
Playing for the Lakers, West’s highest income for one season was $90,000, and he had no significant endorsement deals. That $90,000 equates to $678,000 in 2022 dollars. Today, the actual average NBA salary is $7.5 million, more than 10 times as much. But for a real comparison—we are talking the NBA logo, here—the top 10 NBA salaries for the 2021–2022 season were all north of $39 million. Much more than 50 times West’s salary in his prime.
This is how money has changed in the world of sports. And now, these changes are impacting college athletics.
Name, Image, and Likeness
The new acronym permeating college athletics is NIL: Name, Image, and Likeness. In June 2021, in a 9–0 decision, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision that NCAA restrictions on “education-related benefits” for college athletes violate antitrust law. This ruling forced the NCAA to allow student–athletes to monetize their Name, Image, and Likeness, or NIL. The impact on recruiting and retention of athletes can not be overstated—and it’s just beginning.
“We are at a seminal moment in college athletics,” says Tony Caridi, WVU play-by-play announcer for the Mountaineer Sports Network. “This moment has been pushed upon us by money. Money is always the catalyst, and now we are seeing its impact in sports.”
Just a few weeks after the Supreme Court decision, University of Alabama quarterback Bryce Young’s life had changed dramatically, head football coach Nick Saban told the Texas High School Coaches Association’s annual convention in July 2021. “Our quarterback already has approached ungodly numbers,” Saban said. “It’s almost seven figures. And it’s like, the guy hasn’t even played yet. But that’s because of our brand.”
Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud inked an NIL deal with a luxury automobile dealership in the spring of 2022. Stroud promotes the dealership through appearances and on social media and, in return, receives a series of leases on wheels of his choice, starting with a $200,000 Mercedes. In June, OSU announced its athletes had signed more than 900 NIL contracts.
NIL opportunities for athletes have given highly visible programs an even greater advantage than they already had when it comes to recruitment. Higher-profile universities like Alabama and Ohio State have more exposure through television and other media opportunities, which makes for greater NIL opportunities for their athletes.
“You take the Transfer Portal with instant eligibility, NIL, throw in COVID, and you have an unprecedented era in college sports,” says Caridi. “Then throw in two West Coast teams announcing that they are joining the Big Ten, which will now create a conference that spans coast to coast,” he adds, referencing that June 2022 surprise. “College sports is being totally redefined.”
Country Roads Trust
For schools that don’t enjoy highest-profile status, we are seeing a creative solution to the competition for athletes: the creation of stand-alone entities that are aligned with a single university and committed to facilitating NIL opportunities for its student–athletes.
Entering this arena is Country Roads Trust. Created by WVU alumni and prominent pro and college sports figures Ken Kendrick and Oliver Luck with the help of Bowles Rice law firm, Country Roads Trust arranges NIL opportunities for WVU student–athletes.
An Athlete Advisory Team made up of all-time Mountaineer greats provides guidance and input to the trust. Team members include West along with former St. Louis Cardinals infielder Jedd Gyorko, soccer Olympics gold medalist and pro player Ashley Lawrence, former Buffalo Bills linebacker Darryl Talley, rifle Olympics gold medalist Ginny Thrasher, and many others who have gone on to high-profile careers.
The organization current works with WVU athletes competing in baseball, basketball, cross country, football, gymnastics, rifle, soccer, track and field, volleyball, and wrestling.
Other programs have been developed to aid student–athletes in managing these changing times, too. In 2020, WVU launched the 5th Quarter Program to assist student–athletes in areas including character and leadership development and social responsibility. As part of the program, WVU football is teaming with brand marketing expert and author Jeremy Darlow to develop student–athletes’ skills in growing their personal brands.
These aggressive and innovative actions by those invested in WVU athletics will help WVU continue to produce national-caliber athletic teams. WVU’s history of competing with larger-market programs bodes well for the future. “When it comes to return on investment, WVU is the greatest story in college sports,” says Caridi. “They are in the Top 20 all-time in football and basketball history, and they are doing it in a state of 1.8 million people. That is an incredible accomplishment.”
The one thing that is certain is that more change is coming. Several states now allow coaches and athletic administration officials to assist in NIL deals, and state NIL laws largely supersede NCAA policy. No one really knows for sure where the college sports road is headed—sports fans better buckle their seat belts and hang on for the ride.
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