Business News

Endorsement deals are shaping the NCAA tournament

DALLAS — Last spring, Isaiah Wong led the University of Miami men’s basketball team to its best season to that point, reaching the Round of 8 in the NCAA Tournament, where it lost to eventual champion Kansas.

Weeks later, Miami added one of the top transfers in the game: Nigel Pack, a sharpshooting guard from Kansas State, to form the best backcourt in Division I.

That same day, John Ruiz, a Miami alumnus and chief executive of LifeWallet, announced on Twitter that Pack had signed a two year deal He has $800,000 and a car with his company.

An agent representing Wong, who was also endorsed by LifeWallet, responded by telling ESPN that Wong would transfer if he did not receive a better deal, indicating that “he would like to join the Elite Eight team”. Was a team leader.”

Ruiz said he would not renegotiate the deal, and Wong eventually made his statement, saying the comments were “unauthorized” on his part and that he would do nothing to jeopardize his relationship with LifeWallet or Miami. will not do.

The skirmishes reflected this new era in college sports, which began in the summer of 2021 following the enactment of a series of state laws that made it possible for the NCAA to bar athletes from earning money from the use of their names, images and likenesses. made invalid, a category now known as NIL

Overnight, the experience for college athletes changed. Water polo players can advertise for summer swim lessons, and stars like Connecticut guard Paige Buchers or Southern California quarterback Caleb Williams can make millions in endorsements.

Ground zero for the advertising revolution is Miami, where the men’s and women’s basketball teams made their deepest NCAA tournament runs in program history, and where every scholarship member of the football team was offered a deal.

The man driving it all is Ruiz, 56, a flamboyant entrepreneur and a rabid Miami Hurricanes fan who says he has invested more than $10 million in Miami athletes. Ruiz broke pay limits for the play in an episode that led to an NCAA investigation and a brief suspension for the Miami women’s basketball coach. Some in college sports, such as recently retired Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boehm, have suggested that Miami “bought” the players.

“We’ve been the trendsetters,” Ruiz said in a recent interview, “no one does it like we do.”

“I think what the objective is is to make sure we get a return on investment from a company perspective,” Ruiz said. “While at the same time the students got more notoriety and zero value because the more value the player has, the better he is for us.”

It is still against NCAA rules for athletes to receive money from schools or boosters in exchange for participation in a game. Miami knows this well, as the school faced sanctions in 2013 after Nevin Shapiro, a booster who was incarcerated for a $900 million Ponzi scheme, told the NCAA that he sent cash to several Miami athletes. and other gifts were given.

The wave of state legislation in 2021 would allow athletes to leverage themselves through social media posts, autograph sales, appearances, sponsorships, endorsement deals and private training classes or camps. Now, many schools have groups that create pool booster funds and charities to arrange deals and advertising for athletes.

When athletes sign such deals, they are responsible for a certain amount of advertisements, social media posts and other requirements. (Wong, Pack, and Miami guard Jordan Miller wore LifeVault uniforms.) In a commercial before their conference tournament.) So how much money a player gets depends largely on his social media following.

Often, the best players amass the largest followings, which can make void deals look like boosters are openly paying for the best athletes.

Ruiz said that because of the pack and deep run by Miami teams in both the men’s and women’s tournaments, they got more eyes on LifeWallet, providing a “tenfold” return on their investment in athletes.

There are others like Ruiz, but they have not been as outspoken, as the presence of boosters often exposes the uncomfortable prospect of corruption. Miami benefits from a trade like this, but the athletic department has been publicly wary of embracing Ruiz.

On Thursday, Savannah Wood, Miami’s executive associate athletic director for brand and marketing strategy, told two reporters to “keep zero questions away from this” in an interview while speaking with Hurricanes players in an open locker room session. .

Before Miami’s round-of-8 game against Texas in Kansas City, Coty Kimble, an assistant coach, defended the team’s zero drills by comparing them to subway television commercials recorded by NBA star Stephen Curry.

“He plays for Golden State. He also works for Subway. So, two different deals. Same thing with our players,” Kimble said. “They play for us. We just coach them.”

Men’s basketball coach, Jim Larrañaga, avoided mentioning Ruiz in a news conference before the Final Four, turning the subject to the effectiveness of the transfer portal.

Meanwhile, several Miami players have been open about how much the NIL and Ruiz have affected their college careers.

Miami guard Harlond Beverly said of Ruiz, “Having guys like him really helps the players.” Beverly talked about knowing players who couldn’t afford food or buy their own clothing beyond what the team provided before the Niall (and Ruiz) came into the picture.

Haley and Hanna Cavinder, twin sisters who signed with the Hurricanes women’s basketball team last summer, are two of the most popular college athletes in any sport, with 4.5 million followers on their shared TikTok account. But Cavinders was a part of an NCAA investigation centered around Ruiz’s home trip before leaving for Miami, which led to a three-game suspension for her women’s coach, Katie Meier.

According to the NCAA report, it is against NCAA rules for non-authorized recruiters to have in-person, off-campus contact, and Cavinders visited Ruiz’s home and had dinner. Although the report does not name Ruiz, it calls the man “Booster” and references a photo from his Twitter account with the Cavinder family.

Ruiz said he plans to “fight” the report, saying it was factually incorrect and that his interactions with the student-athletes do not directly promote him.

The sisters, who have a sponsorship deal with LifeWallet, did not face any punishment, and helped lead Miami to the first Round of 8 in program history. He also made a viral video in response to the NCAA sanctions.

“NIL changed my life,” said Haley Cavinder. He said: “I think there are challenges within it because I think there are so many people that make you one-dimensional. You have to be an influencer; you have to be a basketball player. But I think both of you You can be.”

UConn men’s basketball coach Dan Hurley said that Wong’s public feud with LifeWallet and Ruiz was shocking and a realization of how much the college game had changed.

Hurley said, “I think when we saw it and how it was going public, it sent shock waves.”

Several coaches have expressed disappointment with this new era. Alabama football coach Nick Saban said that Jackson State and Texas A&M bought recruits, Boehm, the retired Syracuse coach, said college basketball was in a “terrible spot” because of endorsement deals, and accused Miami, Wake Forest and Pittsburgh of buying teams. Later he apologised.

But, in true Miami fashion, Larrañaga doesn’t fit that mold. Larrañaga has said that many schools operate similarly to Miami but are less open about it. He hopes a website showing zero player earnings will be available at some point, like viewing NBA contracts.

“TV makes money, right? Shoe companies make money. Universities make money,” he said, listing athletic directors and coaches. Larrañaga said, “Well, what’s wrong with filtering it?”

Billy Witz contributed reporting from Houston and Noah Weiland from Kansas City, Mo.


Back to top button