Players, schools, boosters adjusting to new NIL reality - and opportunity

Meet Miami's NIL king, John Ruiz (3:37)

Check out John Ruiz, a Miami businessman who has signed deals with multiple players from "The U." (3:37)

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Taylor Jacobs is hustling down one of the many purple-and-gold lined hallways inside the Pete Maravich Assembly Center in early August with a cell phone pinned between her ear and shoulder. She holds another in her hands, thumbing through emails and responding to text messages as she navigates her first week in a brand new role for the LSU athletic department.

Jacobs doesn't yet have a nameplate outside the door of her new office, but in the space of 90 minutes on a rainy Tuesday afternoon she has bounced from one locker room to the next to introduce herself to members of the volleyball and basketball teams to make sure they know who she is and what she does. Her job -- the overly-simplified description, at least -- is to help them make money.

LSU is among the most progressive of many schools that are getting more involved with helping their athletes manage and maximize the opportunities for name, image and likeness endorsement deals. Jacobs, a former tennis player at Auburn, was promoted last month from her compliance staff position to assistant athletic director of NIL and strategic initiatives. She is overseeing an NIL team that will expand its purview from education into building tools to make it easy for fans and brands to connect with their athletes. The school also plans to facilitate those deals when possible -- an idea that was antithetical to the NCAA's amateurism principles little more than a year ago.

"I anticipated things going a little bit more slowly," Jacobs said. "It's just escalated so quickly."

Jacobs' small team includes Katie Darby, an employee of consulting firm Altius, who will be embedded with the athletic department as a "general manager" focused on finding and arranging endorsement deals for LSU athletes among other duties. Altius is embedding general managers with at least six athletic departments around the country this school year. They will work on campus at the schools, but remain non-athletic department employees with an aim at providing an outside perspective on the national landscape and also providing a way for schools to manage potential legal liability involved with helping players find deals.

Other schools are filling similar positions in-house. One of Duke men's basketball coach Jon Scheyer's first hires was Rachel Baker, a former Nike and NBA employee, to serve as his team's general manager. Athletic directors in every Power 5 conference have created and filled positions to establish and oversee their schools NIL strategy this summer. The hands-on approach is a far cry from the distanced stance many administrators took (and the NCAA initially sought to codify in its rules) when the prospect of athletes making money while in school first arose.

The major shift is being driven by confidence, competition and a need for control. Coaches and administrators are generally more confident now in what the new rules allow them to do. The increased involvement of boosters pooling their money in NIL collectives to attract talented players has predictably made a robust NIL strategy a necessary tool on the recruiting trail. And as the influence of those collectives grow, more schools are realizing they need to get involved if they want to maintain some control over how their teams are attracting players.

Maryland athletic director Damon Evans, who is in the process of hiring a director of NIL for the Terps, said he's looking for someone who "first and foremost" can serve as a liaison between donor collectives and his athletic department. Evans said it's important to make sure that those groups are following state laws and NCAA rules. It's also important, he said, to coordinate to make sure they aren't creating "donor fatigue" by tapping into a similar pool of donors too often to provide funds to both the athletic department and the collectives that are paying players. Lastly, Evans said it's important to be able to show current and prospective athletes that Maryland is doing everything it is allowed to do to help athletes make the most of their new opportunities.

"We at the University of Maryland have to be doing everything we can because, like everything else, it's a part of the recruiting world," Evans said. "Ask Blockbuster if they wish they would've jumped in on streaming back in the day?"

Maryland is in one of several states where laws restrict schools from getting directly involved in facilitating deals for their athletes. Louisiana legislators repealed a similar part of their law in June 2022, which gave LSU and other schools in the state the freedom to explore new ways to play matchmaker between businesses and their athletes. Brittney Whiteside, the vice president of collegiate partnerships at Altius, said changes in both the law and administrators' attitudes have reshaped how many schools are approaching NIL strategies.

"That's when you started to see institutions be a little bit more comfortable and start asking questions about how they could go about this," Whiteside said. " How could they be more involved? And what's the best way to help support student athletes in this space?"

Evans said he would like a uniform set of rules for all NCAA schools that governs what they're allowed to do to help their athletes. He said he's not certain how he feels about a school facilitating deals for its players. On one hand, he thinks it would be difficult to make sure they're treating athletes from every sport at the school equally and that it is another step toward professionalization of college sports. Pairing up athletes with businesses or donors who might otherwise be giving money to the athletic department is not all that different from the school paying players directly with the money it receives from donors and sponsors. On the other hand, he says that realistically "the horse is out of the barn" on amateurism and that he is "open-minded enough to know that I might have to change that philosophy" if Maryland suddenly had the same opportunities to facilitate deals.

LSU football coach Brian Kelly said when Louisiana loosened its laws shortly after he arrived in Baton Rouge it led to a "dramatic change" in how they approached the help they provided to players. Kelly said he and Jacobs have a weekly meeting to discuss opportunities for his players and keep tabs on what other schools are doing in the NIL space. He often talks to her more frequently to answer questions. He believes schools should be doing everything they can to help players get a piece of the very large financial pie they help to create.

"We're taking in so much money," Kelly said. "Doesn't it make sense that eventually this is coming back to how can you help the student athlete?"

Jacobs and Whiteside said athletic departments are now starting to view NIL education as another area where they need to invest significant resources to help their athletes, similar to how athletic departments view nutrition, academic help or mental welfare.

Athletes throughout the country told ESPN this summer that they hoped to get more support from their schools on NIL subjects in the future. While many big athletic departments provided general information about NIL rules, brand-building and financial topics such as paying taxes, athletes say they want someone on campus who can provide answers to specific questions as they try to navigate the new marketplace.

LSU star gymnast Kiya Johnson, for example, said she remembers trying to pick a photo for a social media endorsement but struggling to understand whether it was OK to have the school's gym mats in the background or what kind of apparel she was allowed to wear. Jacobs found herself as the go-to source for those types of answers at LSU over the course of the past year, which has now grown into a more formal role. Johnson said she turned to Jacobs several times in the past year to try to make sure she was following the rules.

"​​It's the small stuff like that you don't really think about," Johnson said. "I think it's really important. It just makes it so much easier for us. Our schedules, all the things that we have to do, it's already hard enough. So having somebody in-house to help us whenever we need has been super helpful."

Back in the first week of August, a month before Kelly will make his debut as LSU's new coach at Tiger Stadium, Jacobs is striding through the top level of the stadium's concourse (with true SEC speed) on her way to tape a podcast about financial literacy tools for athletes. She weaves around pallets and construction equipment to reach the well-appointed, small studio that still has a faint smell of fresh paint.

LSU is in the process of renovating the top floor of the football stadium's south end to install a full-service content creation suite. The plans include rooms and state-of-the-art equipment for taping podcasts, photo shoots and video production. All of which, Jacobs says, will be used to help players build their brands and perhaps in the future shoot promotions for their sponsors. It is the concrete-and-drywall physical manifestation of the school's new NIL approach -- charging full speed ahead into a future that is still very much under construction.

Along with infrastructure like LSU's new studio, the products of a more engaged group of schools will be visible to fans in many ways as a new fall sports season begins. More than 100 schools have plans to launch websites this summer and fall that provide a way for fans to pay athletes directly for autographs, video shouts, public appearances or a host of other services.

LSU and Maryland are both among the many schools that plan to direct fans to those websites by advertising them on videoboard or around their stadiums and arenas during games this year. Picture a defensive back making an interception on a Saturday this fall, and seconds later a QR code that directs fans to his online NIL profile to purchase his autograph appears on the stadium's JumboTron. It's coming this fall.

The CEOs that founded the largest two technology companies helping schools build these online tools -- Opendorse and INFLCR -- agree that at least half their clients (a combined total of hundreds of Division I schools) are aggressively leaning in to ways to promote NIL opportunities for their athletes in an effort to remain competitive in recruiting.

"It's a high priority in their staffing, their recruiting messaging," said Opendorse CEO and founder Blake Lawrence. "It's a high priority for educating sponsors and donors. The other half are holding back a bit and letting the market settle before diving all the way in. It won't be long before 100% of Power 5 schools have definitive NIL solutions and staff on campus."

Many of the schools filling those roles are hiring with an eye on an uncertain horizon. From hands-on practitioners like Jacobs to coaches and administrators like Kelly and Evans, all agree that the current set of rules governing how college athletes make money is a temporary stop in an ongoing journey, not the end destination. It's possible that in the not-so-distant future the infrastructure being built today will be used to help conferences distribute some of the spoils of their massive media rights deals to athletes or to have schools share sponsorship money in creative ways that allows them to avoid entering into a direct employer-employee relationship.

"With what we've seen lately, I think those are all possibilities," Evans said. "We have to look at how we can get more benefits into the hands of student-athletes. Can we do that in a way that is not pay for play? ... It's hard to see exactly what the next step is, but there is a next step."

Evans said Maryland's hope in beefing up its NIL staff is that its athletic department will be well-positioned to embrace whatever change is coming soon.

Jacobs feels her role at LSU is similar. She said she's tried to push the envelope to find creative and innovative ways to help athletes, and has found a generally receptive audience in her bosses at the head of LSU's athletic department. A little more than a decade removed from her own time as a college athlete, Jacobs is part of a new wave of fast-moving, limit-pushing, fresh-thinking people who are shaping a college sports world that remains under construction.

"Do I think it's changing college athletics? Maybe a little bit," she said. "But things change. And being adaptable to that change and making sure that we're moving in the right direction and providing the best resources to our staff and student athletes is our priority here."