Armando Bacote didn’t flee North Carolina early after a memorable NCAA Championship run to pursue a professional playing career. Neither is Gonzaga’s Drew Timm, an All-America star at one of the nation’s top programs.
No, business is already good for male and female basketball players who can cash in on their fame now.
The opportunity to stay in school is more enticing than ever since the NCAA allowed college athletes to profit from the use of their name, image and likeness in the summer of 2021.
“It’s definitely a factor, definitely something that helped,” said Thieme, a two-time Associated Press second-team All-American and preseason pick this year. “If you look at the landscape of not just college basketball, but all college sports, that’s a big reason why a lot of people are willing to come back.”
This is especially true for women, where NIL deals and charter trips offer more appeal than rookie salaries and the much-discussed trade flights in the WNBA.
The women’s game saw stars like Connecticut’s Paige Buckers — who is out this year with a knee injury but will return in 2023-24 — and Iowa State’s Ashley Jones decide to stay. Other notables like Louisville’s Haley Van Leet and North Carolina’s Deya Kelly soon face a choice; they become eligible for recruitment once they turn 22 the following year.
“If you’re an influencer, especially as a college student-athlete, and that’s your NIL appeal, you’re going to want to stay in college because that’s how you’re going to make your money,” Van Litt said. “But I think when it comes to people who are going to pursue professional (playing) careers, I don’t know that it’s going to make a big difference.”
Deals are coming in quickly from companies looking for the most sought-after athletes, many of whom have hired agents to manage those opportunities. College town businesses are looking for ways to partner with athletes to capitalize on local notoriety. National companies did it with social media promotions or ads.
Athletes are given wide latitude as long as they provide some kind of service in exchange for compensation. Although the terms of the deal are not public, in some cases they are valued at six figures or more – with some of the most famous athletes even exceeding the million dollar estimates.
“The difference in college sports, as we’ve seen many times, is: Do individuals follow you?” said Columbia University professor Joe Favorito, a sports and entertainment marketing consultant. ”A kind of. But they do follow the school.
“So there are people who invest in Duke, North Carolina or Notre Dame because that’s part of the school. So if you go from St. John’s and transfer to Villanvoa, does that mean all the brand equity will come with you? Maybe not.”
Favorito added, “That’s the challenge of college athletics. Sometimes it’s much more about the community and the collective than the individuals.”
Yet it also explains why there’s value in sticking around to stay connected to the college brand, especially in the annual March Madness spotlight.
On the women’s side, Bueckers’ partnerships include Gatorade. Van Lith has deals with adidas, Dick’s Sporting Goods and JCPenney — which has led to a summer shopping spree for Louisville-area kids. Kelly’s partnerships include Dunkin’ Donuts and Beats By Dre — even presenting her team with custom headphones from the company — and she’s modeled a line of Sports Illustrated-themed swimwear for retailer Forever 21.
“Just taking that (NICHOL) into consideration as far as definitely wanting to play professionally,” Kelly said. “But I’m just looking at what’s the best option as far as what’s going to set me up to be the most successful, financially, at this point.” So I guess we’ll talk about it when the time comes.”
Jones, a preseason AP All-American, returned to Iowa State instead of entering the WNBA draft. Although NICOLA money and charter flights factored into her decision, the biggest motivator was getting her to finish her graduation requirements this fall.
“It was a long process and I went back and forth,” she said. “I didn’t think about it much last year because you’re focused on the season. I talked to my family some more and they said what is more important to you right now? I knew being able to graduate and have a degree was big.”
The dynamic is different on the men’s side with players eligible for the NBA draft at age 19. There’s also the fact that big men who used to be safe first-round draft picks have seen their value slide as the pro game has evolved toward more floor space and 3-point shooting.
Neither Bacot nor Timme were considered first-round prospects. Neither is Kentucky big man Oscar Tsheibwe, last year’s AP Men’s National Player of the Year. All three are back in college and cashing in on NIL partnerships, most notably Timme, who is turning his mustache into a Dollar Shave Club deal.
And then there’s Bacot. The 6-foot-11 fourth-year center suffered a severe ankle sprain in the Final Four and limped through the loss to Kansas in the NCAA title game, so he won’t be healthy enough for the NBA draft workouts.
But NIL also mattered.
The AP all-American’s long list of preseason endorsements includes local shops, such as donating a burger named after him at Town Hall Burger and Beer and helping local organization Me Fine raise money for families with children suffering medical crises .
Expanding beyond North Carolina, Bacot partnered with Arkansas-based Bad Boy Mowers and Kentucky-based thoroughbred horse facility and breeder Town & Country Farms — which ultimately landed him a trip to this year’s Kentucky Derby.
“Because of the success we had at the end of the year and me just having a pretty big name in college, it allowed me to take that and take advantage of those big opportunities,” Bacote said. “That was definitely something that weighed on me going back.”
And Bacot is not done. Over the summer, he filmed a role in the upcoming season of Netflix’s Outer Banks, a teen adventure series set on the Carolina coast.
The only problem? His summer training schedule interfered with filming dates, prompting him to joke that Netflix “are probably mad at me” and might write him off the show.
If it sticks around long enough, it might even get its own IMDB page.
Not bad to stay playing for the No. 1 team in the preseason rankings.
“It let me know that I had some security and I had some money, which is better than no money at all,” he quipped. ”This is great.”
AP basketball writer John Marshall in Phoenix contributed to this report.
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap