When It Comes To NIL, Team Goals Trump Individual Ones For March Madness


ALBANY — Doug Edert could have never predicted it, but the endorsements kept flowing in.

Following St. Peter’s stunning upset over Kentucky at last year’s NCAA tournament, Edert signed a Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) deal with Buffalo Wild Wings. BW3s, the popular restaurant chain, offered fans six free chicken wings if they checked in at an eatery within 30 minutes of a March Madness overtime contest. With his distinctive bushy mustache, Edert held a wing high and posed in front of a table with a smorgasbord of flavors to celebrate the deal.

Shortly after, another followed, where Edert earned money through video messages posted on Cameo. In the new landscape for college athletics created by NIL, the endorsements are a biproduct of success in March Madness.

“Everybody just wants to advance, all they’re focused on is team,” said Iona coach Rick Pitino, on Thursday, when asked on the implications of the landmark new policy.

In many respects, St. Peter’s improbable run underscores the commercial opportunities available for mid-majors when a Cinderella captivates the nation. But in Albany, one of eight hosts for the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament, top players have placed a greater emphasis on team objectives than potential NIL deals.

“I feel like the whole team, the focus is winning games,” said Miami guard Nijel Pack, ahead of the Canes’ first-round matchup against Drake. “I feel like guys are not really worried about NIL — NIL comes with winning games, being successful, and winning championships.”

The Canes sidestepped controversy last spring when Pack received an offer for up to $800,000 from LifeWallet CEO John Ruiz. Pack, a transfer from Kansas State, received $400,000 for this season, with another $400,000 that will kick in if he stays for 2023-2024. The deal reportedly angered backcourt mate Isaiah Wong, who threatened to leave the program if he didn’t receive added compensation. Ruiz, a billionaire owner of a medical records technology firm, vowed to eventually find other deals for Wong, the team’s leading scorer.

While Miami avoided an upset in Friday’s first round, many others did not. In total, five double-digit seeds advanced to the Round of 32, including East No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson and Princeton, the 15th seed in the South. It marked the first time in NCAA tournament history that a 15-seed and a 16-seed notched victories in the same tournament.

Top players from the mid-majors may be in line for a deal that is comparable with Edert’s before the Sweet 16 begins on Thursday. Fairleigh Dickinson, a 63-58 winner over Purdue on Friday, will earn a trip to the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history with a victory over Florida Atlantic on Sunday night. Several NIL deals with Knights’ players are under consideration, a source close to the program indicated on Saturday.

Despite the bevy of upsets, a host of marquee players still have their sights on the Final Four. When Indiana forward Trayce Jackson-Davis led the Hoosiers over Kent State in the first round, he became the first player since 1986 to record 20+ points, 5+ assists, and 5+ blocks in a tournament game. Since the start of the month, Jackson-Davis’ deals with Dunkin, LG Electronics, Bose, and NextGenCamps have materialized, according to On3.com, a website that tracks NIL activity. As of Sunday, Jackson-Davis ranked fourth among college basketball players with an annual NIL valuation of $887,000.

After spending a decade as a head coach in the NBA, Indiana coach Mike Woodson returned to his alma mater in 2021. Though Woodson admitted Thursday that the new rules have made his job more challenging, he implores his players to focus on schoolwork rather than commercial deals.

“These players understand how I feel about the NIL,” he said. “You’re going to come play for Mike Woodson, you’re going to have to come to school and get an education and play basketball, and NIL will take care of itself.”

Much like Jackson-Davis, UConn’s Andre Jackson Jr. has established a presence on Instagram, where he has approximately 60,200 followers. Earlier this season, Jackson hosted an NIL event at a restaurant near the Storrs campus, one that received clearance from the school’s compliance team. Jackson had 10 points and dished out seven assists in Friday’s win over Iona, rattling the rim with several thunderous dunks.

On the next level, he appeals to NBA teams with a “Swiss Army Knife-like,” presence in the mode of Draymond Green. As with Green, Jackson can impact nearly every aspect of the game without scoring.

“He doesn’t care if he takes a shot, he doesn’t care about his NIL valuation,” said UConn coach Danny Hurley at a press conference Thursday. “He’s just a throwback, man, that only cares about UConn basketball.”

The opening weekend of March Madness has been held against a changing backdrop for NIL partnerships. Later this month, a Congressional committee will hold a hearing on the impact of the rule changes on college athletics. While the NCAA has rules that make it impermissible to use NIL as a recruiting inducement, the rules in many cases are loosely enforced, according to Darren Heitner, an attorney with Heitner Legal.

When asked if Congress will be successful in establishing a uniform, national standard for NIL, Heitner responded, “if it was a prop bet, I would wager against it.”

“I don’t believe there is anything positive that can come out of the hearing other than a greater realization that amateurism is a myth,” said Heitner, who teaches NIL law at the University of Miami and is one of the nation’s foremost experts on the subject. “The NCAA continues to throw money and other resources to lobby Congress to do its dirty work, and believes that rights of publicity laws should likely remain outside of the federal government’s purview, and with the states.”

Meanwhile, rumors swirl that Pitino may leave Iona to accept the head coaching vacancy at St. John’s, a move that would enable the New York City native to return to the Big East.

Pitino, 70, told reporters last week that he hopes he can coach 12 more years, but will take “another six or seven.” Pitino remains in the sport, even as other legends such as Mike Krzyzewski, Jay Wright, and Jim Boeheim have left coaching over the last 12 months.

Wholesale changes to the sport, namely the introduction of the transfer portal, have hastened the departure of a handful of coaches, Pitino noted. He doesn’t envision the eradication of NIL anytime soon.

“It’s here to stay,” Pitino emphasized. “I certainly don’t know what to do about it, and the NCAA doesn’t know what to do about it, because now everybody’s a professional athlete. There are no more amateurs.”

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