The Future of NIL, Branding, and Money in the MAC

The Mid American Conference and its member institutions are sitting on top of an incredibly valuable nest egg, Division I status. The MAC's value is enhanced by its FBS status in football as well. The conference has become synonymous with Tuesday nights in November, giving people who are looking for actual football as opposed to the CFP Ranking Show a game to watch (or alternatively trying to erase a weekend of bad beats). Ohio scored an impressive knockoff victory over defending national champions Virginia last March. Central Michigan knocked off P5 Washington State after getting a surprise invitation to the Sun Bowl, resulting in a nice paycheck and a national audience on CBS. There've been many moments where the MAC's David has defeated a Goliath program with better resources, but the landscape of college sports is changing.

With the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in NCAA v. Alston ostensibly stating that the NCAA has no right to prevent student athletes from profiting off their name, image, and likeness, the economic model of college sports has undergone a revolution. When combined with the removal of restrictions on eligibility post transfer, athletes have more freedom than they ever had before. For the individual athletes, this is a far more just outcome than the status quo that existed prior to the summer of 2021. This is the first time that athletes have freedom of movement between institutions akin to what the average transfer student has had for generations. Also, with the advancement of NIL we are seeing athletes who have to sacrifice their time and bodies for the profit of others, start to get what they're worth. Yes, we can say that the student athlete has more power than at any other point in living memory. The question is what does this mean for the MAC?

With the NCAA being rebuked there is a power vacuum in the regulator position when it comes to the economics of college athletics. What is going to stop a group of boosters (see for example the fund recently announced by Ohio State) from pooling together millions of dollars and buying the players to win championships (something that's already done with coaches it should be noted)? At present moment there's really no answer to that. Players will most likely follow the money, and with no transfer restrictions they can keep chasing. This has never been a particularly wealthy conference. Buffalo has the largest endowment in the MAC at $795 Million, a mark that is slightly more than half that of Rutgers' $1.484 Billion the smallest in the Big Ten. The Bulls would be middle of the pack in the AAC, if we're comparing G5 conferences. Meanwhile, Kent State, Northern Illinois, and Eastern Michigan all rank below the AAC's lowest endowment; future Big XII member UCF. All 12 MAC members are public schools with only the aforementioned SUNY Buffalo and Ohio University being flagships (with the qualifier Buffalo is one of four SUNY flagships, and Ohio is a distant second to OSU in the University System of Ohio). With a few exceptions many MAC members were founded to fill the expanding needs of midwestern states for more individuals (frequently teachers) with a high degree of specialization in their field. These institutions would all be full fledged universities eventually as the GI Bill and other Post WWII societal shifts lead to an explosion in the number of Americans seeking a higher education. The point of the history lesson is this. MAC schools have never been like the Big Ten schools with their large alumni bases, troves of money to spend in both academics and athletics, and massive state of the art athletic venues, that was never the point in the first place.

The inherent challenge that every member of this conference faces is that treading water in the middle class of college athletics ain't cheap or getting cheaper. Some schools are barely at the NCAA's minimum requirements for offering varsity programs, and precariously complying with Title IX. This isn't going to get any better when the cost of competing (especially in revenue sports) is only ever going to get higher. Obviously, we haven't reached the point where schools are paying athletes yet, and it's not clear that that will ever happen. However, organizing a parallel economic apparatus to lure potential recruits to a university will take resources, and those will cost money.

For schools that don't have the wherewithal to squeeze tens of millions out of their alumni and communities, what do you do? Perhaps the most interesting idea is outside investment. A lot of these ideas for creating a fund for boosters (and interested investors) to pool money into seem to be indicating the financialization of college sports. Strange as it might seem, investing a Division I program is probably a good call. You've got the value of the brand and associated trademarks that are widely circulated through all types of media, and they also have intrinsic value as a part of building a community at a university. However, a university's primary purpose is to educate students, the second priority is usually to fund research, and by the time that's done there still needs to be money for maintaining campus facilities. In a conference of universities that don't have significantly large budgets, where the money comes from for athletics can oft be a difficult question. Enter as a case study the story of Eastern Michigan University and GameAbove Capital.

EMU is one of the most cash strapped universities in the FBS, in fact it almost cut football in 2016. As a commuter school that exists very much in the shadow of its neighbor 10 miles to the west, EMU is not in a very advantageous situation anyways, so it has to get creative. Enter GameAbove Capital, a subdivision of CapStone Holdings. GameAbove identifies itself as an "Impact Fund for Environmental and Sustainability Solutions" with a $50 Million starting point (holy cow that's a lot). GameAbove's initiative at EMU started by gathering together a group of EMU alums to "go for greatness and think big" in late 2019. The results so far have been somewhat mind boggling. Giving $8 million for new golf facilities, $1 million for the SAPC in the north endzone at Rynearson Stadium are two examples. Obviously if you're a regular reader of this site's coverage you already know about the George Gervin GameAbove Center (which I have affectionately dubbed the Ice Box), and Charlie Batch tweeting at Caleb Williams with the promise of $1 million dollars in NIL from GameAbove. The fact that GameAbove has been able to include Batch, Gervin, and TJ Lang on the advisory board of its EMU initiative certainly lends it credibility on the athletics side. Obviously there's been plenty of contribution on the academic side ($10.5 million if you add up the initiatives listed on their site) as well. In fact the sum of just what GameAbove has listed that they've done so far, is equal to about a quarter of EMU's endowment (as per Wikipedia).

I can't help but wonder if this can be an effective blueprint for other MAC schools going forward. Of course, courting private investors is not necessarily always going to end well (we have yet to see that EMU will be an example of success), and there certainly should be plenty of scrutiny and due diligence by the powers that be. I think that definitely having an advisory board of alumni like in the EMU case would be beneficial as well. Bringing outside money into the MAC ecosystem both on the athletic and academic side would be tremendously beneficial to all 12 members and the communities around them. The MAC has a history of being resilient as forces in the broader D1 world have devastated other conferences, and the adaptations that have created that resilience are ones that have kept the conference valuable. The courtship of alternative capital funds has the potential to be a force multiplier when it comes to the spending power of member institutions. The visibility afforded to these firms by the broadcast of MAC athletics on the regional and national stage both on TV and streaming presents lots of advertising opportunities for other ventures of their’s. Investment could also come to the academic side and to community initiatives could be encouraged or stipulated as well. Obviously, not having traditional income streams diverted to the increasing cost of being competitive in Division I in this new era will allow those funds to stay focused on education, research, and other important parts of the university’s mission. Athletics have been dubbed a university’s front porch, and as far as money is concerned that’s certainly true. In the MAC it also could be the next frontier for money.

This post was submitted by one of our esteemed readers and does not necessarily reflect the opinions or thoughts of Hustle Belt or SB Nation.