Strength in Numbers

Group licensing for college athlete NILs could restore EA Sports' football game—and much more

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The potential ramifications of California’s new law allowing college athletes to cash in on the use of their names, images, and likenesses (NILs) just became more interesting.

Most of the discussion around the law, which goes into effect in 2023, has centered around individual athletes profiting from their NILs in ways currently prohibited by the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s amateurism rules: a star quarterback landing a soft drink endorsement deal; an All-American point guard signing with a shoe company; a popular and charismatic track and field athlete monetizing their popular YouTube channel or Instagram account.

However, the law’s biggest impact may involve group licensing—that is, NIL deals involving collections of athletes.

On Monday, the National College Players Association (NCPA), the nation’s largest campus athletes’ rights group, announced that it has entered into a partnership with a marketing subsidiary of the NFL Players Association, REP Worldwide, to explore how to maximize NIL rights, with the ultimate intention of providing group licensing representation to “every college athlete whose state passes a law to allow it.”

Among the areas the NCPA and REP Worldwide intend to explore? Merchandise, gaming, and broadcast revenues.

The latter would be a big freakin’ deal.

After all, merchandise is nice. Bobbleheads and trading cards are sports swag staples. And gaming is cool—everyone wants EA Sports to bring back its popular college football title, and a big group NIL deal with major college players is exactly what’s needed to do it.

But broadcast revenue? That’s the jackpot. Where the real money is. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament is worth nearly $1 billion a year. The College Football Playoff alone—just three games, plus the Rose, Sugar, and Orange Bowls!—earns the Power Five conferences about $500 million annually.

If college athletes in California and elsewhere can leverage statutory NIL rights into a piece of college sports’ television money pie, it could mean hundreds of millions of dollars into their pockets. All of their pockets.

Of course, we’re a long way from that happening. But the NCPA-NFLPA announcement is a first step—and a clear shot across the bow of the NCAA, which currently is facing attacks on amateurism from other state legislatures and lawmakers in Congress, and also has convened a NIL rules working group that absolutely, positively will not be recommending that college athletes get a cut of the broadcast cash.

To get a better sense of what the NCPA-NFLPA partnership means and why group licensing for college players could be a game-changer, Hreal Sports spoke to NCPA Executive Director Ramogi Huma, a former University of California, Los Angeles football player who was one of the key advocates behind California’s NIL law and has been campaigning for campus athletes’ rights for more than two decades.

(The following conversation has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity).

Hreal Sports: For those who are unaware, what is the National College Players Association, how long as it been around, who belongs to it, and what are its goals?

Huma: The NCPA is a nonprofit advocacy group I founded as a student group while I was playing football at UCLA back in 1997. Currently, over 20,000 current and former college athletes have joined us. We fight for various college athlete protections such as improved health and safety standards, increased medical coverage, ending player abuse, increased graduation rates, and compensation for athletes.

What is a group license, and how is it different from, say, the quarterback at USC signing an endorsement deal for a sports beverage?

Group licensing is a way to bundle players’ name, image, and likeness value when those players they appear together for various commercial uses. Most people are familiar with the EA Sports video games. They’re very popular. They were pulled from the shelves, unfortunately. Basically, EA Sports needs to secure a group license from college athletes to have a product like that—they need all the players that they can get. That’s different than a star QB getting their own endorsement from, say, Under Armour.

Group licensing recognizes that some commercial value can only be realized with inclusion of the masses—all of the athletes in a given sport, in a given league, or on a given team. Whatever type of player group a commercial entity is interested in making a deal with.

Why partner with a NFLPA subsidiary on potential group licensing for college athletes?

Fist of all, we have a great relationship with the NFLPA. [Union executive director] De[Maurice] Smith has been great about being vocal about the need for better protections for college athletes. And he has provided us other support over the years.

The NFLPA has 25 years of experiences in representing their players for group licensing. And they represent players of other sports as well. (Hreal Sports note: REP Worldwide represents the Women’s National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA), the United States Women’s National Team Players Association (USWNTPA), the Major League Soccer Players Association (MLSPA), and the United States Rugby Players Association (USRPA). We wanted to make sure players of all sports can maximize the value of their group licensing. And we wanted people who care about the athletes.

I have been watching this discussion unfold for a number of years now. I was an advisor on the O’Bannon case. (Hreal Sports note: that case was a federal antitrust lawsuit brought against the NCAA by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon over the use of his NIL in a EA Sports video game; a district court ultimately found that the association’s amateurism rules violated the law but did not require the NCAA or its member schools to stop prohibiting college athletes from receiving compensation beyond their scholarships and cost-of-living stipends).

In O’Bannon, the federal courts acknowledged for the first time that college athletes have group licensing rights to their NILs—and that the schools and the NCAA are the ones selling those rights and taking the players’ share. They are giving the players nothing. That’s what happens when the vehicle for group licensing has a conflict of interest. They don’t prioritize the players. It’s as simple as that.

Your press release says want to explore opportunities for merchandise, gaming, and other officially licensed products. People are going to want to know—does this mean a possible return of EA Sports’ college football video game?

[Huma laughs]. People have been asking me about that since it went away. I think this is major step in that direction. EA Sports cannot have a game without those player group licensing rights. And unlike the NCAA, we would love to bring those video games back—and make sure players get the value they deserve from the game as well.

What other kinds of merchandise, products, or even services would fall under group licensing, and what kinds of things would fall under individual athlete NIL deals?

Those are things we will be putting out. This announcement is more of a soft release of what is going on. We’ll be putting out more information soon.

Do you have any sense of what group licensing for college athletes could potentially be worth, dollar-wise?

We are not prepared to put out any estimates at this point on any potential revenue streams. That’s part of the process here. 

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Okay, then let’s talk about what I think is the most significant line in the press release: “We will also review how recent developments impact television broadcast revenues in pursuit of fairness.” Is this suggesting that by using group licensing, college athletes might be able to receive some of the billions in TV revenue in college sports?

The answer is yes. In general, when it comes to TV broadcasts, it was made clear in the O’Bannon ruling that players’ group licensing rights must be negotiated for in order for a broadcast to take place. The federal judge in that case stopped short of providing a more robust remedy, but it was established that players have NIL rights and that schools are currently the ones who sell those rights and take the money.

We are looking at those issues now, and the degree to which players could get their fair share of it.

That would be a big deal!

Yes it would.

What is the path to that happening?

That will be some of our exploration! But obviously, we’ve mentioned it for a reason. We believe it can open up real value for the average player—that is what we are exploring. A lot of the potential individual endorsements that have been talked about are for star players. But players of all levels come together to put on a very valuable product. And they all deserve a piece of a pie.

"UCLA | UNDER ARMOUR" by Sean Flanagan, Alex Bardoff, Trang Dam, Gustavo Uriarte is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 

How does this initiative tie into the new California state law allowing college athletes to profit from their NILs that is scheduled to go into effect in 2023?

Basically, in O’Bannon, the judge did not strike down the NCAA or its member school’s ability to punish players when it comes to profiting from their NILs. Calfoirnia just did. So that’s the difference, and why we’re announcing this.

Other states have introduced legislation similar to the California law—and more are in the process of doing so. Here where I live in Washington, D.C., there’s a bill in the House of Representatives that would strip away the NCAA’s tax exempt status if doesn’t change its amateurism rules to allow athletes to profit from their NILs. I’d also be very surprised if we don’t see similar legalization in the Senate sooner rather than later.

When it comes to group licensing for college athletes, would it be better to have different states with different laws about NILs, or a national law governing athletes in every state?

I’ve had meetings with staff of various members of the House and Senate. Our position is that federal legislation is fine—unless it rolls back players’ rights established by the California law. That would be a [pro]-NCAA bill. We will support a players’ bill but oppose a NCAA bill. It’s a pretty clear distinction. 

In a group licensing deal—let’s say it’s for a video game—how does the money made generally get distributed to athletes? 

Generally, it’s an equal amount. 

The press release also says that your organization wants to design an injured athletes fund derived from generated revenues to help current and former college athletes who have to pay out of pocket sports related medical bills. How would that work, and would it make more sense to negotiate and fund some sort of group insurance plan?

The options will likely be determined by the amount of money available. We’ve made progress on all relief options. Details on that will be provided in the future.

I wrote last week about how the NCAA and its member schools could—and likely will—tie up California athlete NIL deals in court, potentially for years.

Here’s the short version: the California law explicitly prohibits schools from taking away athletic scholarships from athletes with NIL deals. But it says nothing about withholding them from competition. So I think schools will bench players with those deals—otherwise, the NCAA will penalize the schools for fielding ineligible players.

At that point, the athletes will have to sue for an injunction in order to get back on the field, which means judges will have to interpret the law, which means it will go through a slow and lengthy appeals process. So there’s a good chance those athletes will never play again.

How can that scenario be avoided?

Group licensing will help. It’s one thing for a coach to try to single out one player—but a coach can’t bench the whole team. Also, our model legislation improves the clarity on these issues.

(Hreal Sports note: the NCPA’s model legislation specifically prohibits schools, conferences, and the NCAA from “fully participating in intercollegiate athletics without penalty and earning compensation as a result of the student’s use of his or her name, image, or likeness rights, or athletic reputation.”)

In addition, we’ve asked California Attorney General Javier Beccera to be proactive on the NCAA’s group boycott threats and to enforce existing state antitrust law. I just had a meeting with the California Department of Justice Antitrust staff.


This has been Hreal Sports, a weekly newsletter written by Patrick Hruby about sports things that don’t stick to sports. If you have any questions or feedback, contact me at my website, www.patrickhruby.net. And if you enjoyed this, please sign up and share with your friends.