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Column: Could the NIL + transfer portal combination crush some mid-major programs?

In short — yes, but many programs will flourish because of NIL and the one-time transfer rule, as well.

Bryant v Wright State Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

It’s 2022 and we have officially entered the era of college basketball free agency. Is it technically free agency? No, because athletes are not signing contracts with their new teams. Tanner Holden is not being compensated by Ohio State directly, for example. But with the one-year transfer rule instituted last season and NIL (name, image, and likeness) approved this past fall, transferring from program to program has essentially turned into free agency.

How so? Here’s how.

For today’s purposes, understand that I am referring specifically to college basketball and its relationship with the transfer portal.

Previously, athletes had to sit one season after transferring to a new team — see Justice Sueing, for example. Sueing transferred to Ohio State in 2019 sat out that season under the old transfer rule. This rule and stipulation discouraged players from transferring for very obvious reasons. With that rule out of the way, players can get up and transfer to a new program and play right away — no hardship waiver or appeal needed.

Not getting enough playing time? Transfer. Bad relationship with the coach? Transfer. Too far from home/miss your family? Transfer. There’s is no longer a penalty for getting up and transferring elsewhere on a whim, regardless of the reason.

And previously, players could not earn any money or take financial advantage of their status as a high-level collegiate athlete. There was no signing autographs for money, no making and selling your own gear/merch, no appearing in commercials, speaking at events — nothing. But with the passage of NIL, players can now make some money for themselves after years and years of athletic departments being the major beneficiaries of their athletes’ accomplishments. This is a good thing.

But with players now able to transfer immediately and make money off their name, image, and likeness, transferring becomes a lot more complex than simply visiting a campus and picking a place where you feel “at home”. It’s also about surveying and educating yourself on which NIL opportunities may be available to you, should you transfer to that university. Does the school have connections to businesses or non-profits that would compensate you for some type of service? Is it a large city with a diverse assortment of businesses, where you’re likely to benefit off NIL even if you have to make those connections on your own?

Whether we like it or not, the monetary aspect of transferring is just as crucial to athletes as finding a coach they connect with, a campus they love, or proximity to family. Money talks — always has, always will.

An average NIL deal at a Division-I program right now is $594, according to OpenDorse. However, the average NIL deal at Ohio State right now is $4,777. The average NIL deal for athletes at the University of Arkansas is $4,102. Clearly, there’s a steep drop-off between what the Big Ten and SEC athletes are compensated and what athletes in say, the Ivy League are being compensated for similar deals. Lots of smaller NIL deals have to be happening to bring these huge deals down to a national average of $594.

And as we’ve seen lately, a ton of high level players from mid-major programs decided to transfer to a new school for one reason or another. The athletes don’t have to explain their motivation for leaving — we are not owed that. Whether they have a sick family member and want to be closer to home, don’t get along with their coach, want to make more money, or anything in between, that is totally fine. But it’s extremely difficult to not assume that the financial aspect plays into most — if not all — mid-major players choosing to transfer to a bigger program.

The Buckeyes have already been beneficiaries of it this off-season, landing a commitment from former Wright State guard Tanner Holden — a Wheelersburg native. Holden’s former teammate Grant Basile, who was a two-time All-Horizon League honoree as well, is also transferring. Power 5 teams, including Wisconsin, have reached out — and Basile will be playing in front of a much larger crowd next season, whether that is at Wisconsin or elsewhere.

So what happens to a team like Wright State, who hit home runs on a couple zero-star recruits in Holden and Basile and just won their first NCAA Tournament game in program history? Can they possibly build on that momentum from last season after losing their top two scorers? It’s unlikely. But what can Wright State really do to keep players like Holden and Basile? Both guys will be at programs where they’ll have bigger and better NIL opportunities. They will be playing in front of bigger crowds with more national exposure on TV as well. They’ll have better facilities and more resources available to them throughout the season. So, how can programs like Wright State compete and keep their best players from transferring?

They can’t.

But it’s not just Wright State — I’m picking on them because they’re nearby. Ohio University lost star point guard Mark Sears to Alabama. The nation’s leading assist man Yuri Collins just announced this week that he’ll be transferring from St. Louis as well — and Tennessee appears to be an early favorite to get him. Belmont star Will Richard — an incoming sophomore — transferred to Florida. Colgate’s Nelly Cummings is now at Pittsburgh. These schools will continue to lose star players by way of transfer, almost like they are a minor league feeder system for bigger schools.

And that kind of sucks!

But on the other side of the coin, there are also loads of players who don’t quite pan out at a high-major program and choose to transfer to a smaller school where perhaps they can find more success. Programs like Wright State, Belmont, and Colgate — for example — will be in play for these types of players.

Sam Sessoms has averaged 14.6 points per game in four seasons at Binghamton and Penn State, and is transferring to Coppin State. Eric Gaines — a former four-star recruit— is transferring from LSU to UAB. Former four-star recruit Dwon Odom — the No. 60 recruit in the 2020 cycle — averaged just over six points per game at Xavier for two seasons and is now transferring to Georgia State. I also would not be surprised if now-former Ohio State players Meechie Johnson and Justin Ahrens wind up playing at MAC or AAC-level schools.

For every big-time player leaving a smaller school, we can’t forget there are loads of players from high-major programs who are considering transferring to a program in the MAC, Horizon League, Sun Belt, and so on. Players have the freedom now to move around and find a home that works for them, and I think that’s pretty cool. For guys like Holden and Collins, that means transferring somewhere that’ll help them become more of a household name. For others like Odom and Gaines, that means transferring somewhere you’ll have a larger role, be closer to home, or anything else.

So yes, this newfangled combination of immediate eligibility plus NIL is going to hurt a lot of small programs, and there isn’t a ton they can do to stop said players from leaving. But the same freedom that allows those players to move “up” also allows other players to migrate to the Wright States and the St. Louis’s and the Colgates of the world from larger programs where it didn’t quite work out. Players may bounce around a little bit until they settle down at a place that works for them.

But hell, coaches have been able to pack it up and take a new job without any kind of warning forever. Dollar signs have usually taken priority over loyalty. So for the first time, players can do the exact same thing.

Welcome to the wild, wild west!