How athlete endorsements will change college sports recruiting forever: 'It opens Pandora's Box'

Photo: Gregory Payan/AP

Hank Plona is the head basketball coach at Indian Hills, a junior college powerhouse in rural Iowa. The Indians are a perennial top-10 program that has sent 35 players on to Division I basketball since 2015, including one to reigning national champion Virginia last spring.

Plona has dealt with every kind of college coach — from low-majors through blue bloods — and has seen seemingly every pitch.

And he’s preparing for seismic change to how recruiting is done.

The first year California’s new Fair Pay to Play Act takes effect is 2023, allowing the state’s college athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness. It’s become a national discussion since, with other states and U.S. congressmen discussing similar state and federal legislation. Meanwhile, an NCAA task force studying this model is expected to make its recommendation later this year.

“If anybody says that … money and what you can do for a kid in recruiting is not a factor, they are lying. It’s important,” Plona said. “It would alter how you have to go about being successful.”

USA TODAY Sports has talked with numerous top football and basketball recruits, junior college coaches and recruiting influencers since Gov. Gavin Newsom signed California’s bill into law in late September to weigh the potential effect of endorsements in recruiting.

What that change would look like, however, isn’t as clear.

“It opens Pandora’s Box,” said Rene Pulley, founder and owner of Twin Cities-based AAU club Howard Pulley, whose recent NBA alumni include Harrison Barnes and Tyus Jones. “There’s a lot of ways to do it. I guess I just wonder how the hell it’s going to be done.”

Here’s how the experts see things playing out.

This will not sway elite recruits as much

John Lamb runs Des Moines-based AAU basketball club Beyond Ball. He’s also a guardian of Omaha Biliew, a 6-foot-7 freshman considered one of the top-10 prospects in 2023.

Lamb knows that, by the time Biliew commits, players may be getting paid for their name, image and likeness. There would be schools where Biliew is more marketable — where he’d be in line for more money through local endorsement deals in the community.

For a top-20 prospect, though, Lamb doesn’t think that will matter much.

“You’d have to consider, and probably predict, that it’s probably better to continue to go to Duke and Kentucky,” Lamb said. “You’d have to consider that the national scale that these schools have already cemented themselves on will continually hold the upper hand.”

Sonny Vaccaro agrees.

Vaccaro, the former Nike, Adidas and Reebok marketing executive who helped create shoe company influence in recruiting decades ago, said schools that are NBA springboards will still get the country’s elite. The lottery-pick paycheck they can help players land outweighs local endorsement money.

Also, an athlete could boost their professional endorsement outlook by playing for the most visible college programs and compete for national titles.

“On that level, they’ll pick the same schools,” Vaccaro said. “If I’m LeBron James, if I’m that kid and I’m going somewhere for a year, I’m still going to go to Duke or North Carolina.”

Photo: Jasen Vinlove, USA TODAY Sports

Sharife Cooper is one of those elite prospects. A five-star Auburn point guard recruit and the No. 2 player in the Chosen 25, Cooper said he could see endorsement deals affecting prospects’ commitments in the future, depending in large part on their financial situations.

For him, though, he said it wouldn’t have mattered.

“More than anything, it’s about the fit and the system,” said Cooper, a product of McEachern High in Powder Springs, Georgia. “I focus on the game. The rest will come.”

The further down the rankings, the greater the effect

Once you get out of that top-20 range of prospects in basketball, experts said things could get more interesting. That’s when potential earnings in one location versus another may matter.

Jerrel Oliver is the director of Chicago-based AAU club Team Rose. Recent alumni include Kansas State freshman DaJuan Gordon and Los Angeles Lakers rookie guard Talen Horton-Tucker.

With name, image and likeness compensation, Oliver thinks more prospects would choose schools closer to home because that’s where they’re most well-known — where they’ll have the most value in endorsements and apparel sales.

“You can market this or market that,” Oliver said, “and you’re selling the fact that you can get paid to represent your hometown, where you will always come back to and end up at for the rest of your life anyway.”

Pulley said endorsement deals could especially entice four-year college prospects to stay closer to home, because their earning potential may never be higher than it is in college.

“It’d be a plus for the ones that aren’t that a five-star, guaranteed first-round pick,” he said. “You’ve got a good chance of staying at home because that’s where your marketability is.”

In football recruiting, the effect of name, image and likeness compensation would look different.

For Vaccaro, it’s simple: There’s more name recognition — and endorsement potential — in a three-player basketball class than in a 25-player football class.

Mater Dei quarterback Bryce Young (Photo: David Chisholm/1550 Sports)

Still, it’s expected there’d be money in jersey sales, video games and local endorsements in football.

California five-star 2020 quarterback Bryce Young, an Alabama commit, said earning potential would not have factored into his decision.

“But I definitely don’t think that would be the universal answer,” Young explained. “There’s a lot of people where that would have a lot to do with their decision.”

Role of boosters: ‘Opening up a whole can of worms’

Experts said boosters’ recruiting presence would increase — and come out from under the rug — if name, image and likeness compensation is allowed.

That’s a scary proposition for some, including Oliver, Pulley and Scott Strohmeier, head coach of junior college football powerhouse Iowa Western, which has 11 of 247Sports’ top-100 juco prospects in the 2020 class.

“You could literally just have them over to your house and say, ‘Hey, I want you to do this TV piece for me, selling cars. And by the way, here’s $20,000,’” Strohmeier said. “With some of these boosters and some of these fans, you’re opening up a whole can of worms.”

Vaccaro doesn’t see that as a bad thing.

In a free market-driven system like this, he said, prospects would get the money they deserve, and schools with passionate boosters willing to shell out funds could become larger players in recruiting.

In essence, boosters could put their money where their mouth is.

“In basketball, you only need one or two of those son of a guns,” Vaccaro said. “That would allow basketball to tighten up. The little school could beat the big school.”

In his sport, Plona could see name, image and likeness compensation helping schools without football, such as Marquette and Xavier. That allows boosters and local companies to focus their contributions on basketball.

“The Creightons of the world. The Wichita States of the world,” Plona said. “There could be some programs that really get some of those significant donors or boosters or owners of small companies around the area, and all of a sudden, the basketball kids could be their top guys.”

Minnesota’s Pitino: We would adjust

California’s new law was a popular talking point at last week’s Big Ten men’s basketball media day.

Minnesota’s Richard Pitino was also asked how the law could specifically affect recruiting.

His answer reflected what experts told USA TODAY Sports: Colleges would have no choice but to incorporate marketability and potential endorsement opportunities in their recruiting pitches.

“You’re going to have to show how your program can provide opportunities for players in that realm, right?” Pitino said. “So we’re all trying to figure that out. We all sell whatever we’re offering to kids. … Now it’s going to be about the opportunities in the community, and it’s our responsibility to educate the players.”

Plona said today’s successful coaches do everything in their power, within the rules, to find and exploit every advantage they can for their program.

And if endorsement deals became legal, he said, they’d simply provide one more way to gain an advantage.

“I would think trying to make sure kids are aware of every potential dollar they could get would be a part of (recruiting),” Plona said.

Vaccaro believes, if a prospect has financial value, he or she should have the option to make the most of it. On the flip side, others worry boosters and local companies could take advantage of families and athletes in most need of money. Oliver is concerned money would play too big a factor, and that recruiting could become bidding wars.

“Almost, ‘Who can offer the most?'” Oliver said.

Pulley worries about bidding wars, too. But he’s been around a while. He founded Howard Pulley in the 1980s. And, based on his 30-plus years in the business, he thinks introducing name, image and likeness compensation would help more than hurt.

“This could go several different ways. But I’d like to think positive,” Pulley said, “and think it’s going to go in the right direction.”

USA TODAY High School Sports reporters Jason Jordan and Logan Newman contributed to this story.

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