The Straight Edge: U.S. College Endor$ements a big deal

Student athletes receiving any sort of financial compensation has always been sacrosanct in the NCAA. Times are changing.
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The NCAA has taken hits in the press lately thanks to million-dollar football and basketball coaches for players who don’t earn a dime, but that may be changing. In October, the NCAA board of governors voted unanimously to allow student-athletes to benefit from their names, likenesses and images – which is short-hand for an allowance of endorsement deals.

Though football and basketball players were probably the ones on the minds of the NCAA here, it will be interesting to see what impact it has on hockey. The college game is very strong right now, and the elite talent propelling that competitive landscape could reap the benefits of such an arrangement. “This would be for the high-end guy,” said agent Brian Bartlett, whose clients include former NCAA stars Cale Makar, Clayton Keller and Alex Tuch. “There would be similar buckets to the pro guys.”

Most obvious of those “buckets” – a term agents use to describe different opportunities or avenues – would be equipment. All the major stick and skate manufacturers could sign up players on the rise, giving the kids cash before they’ve signed their lucrative NHL deals. It would also benefit the companies, because they could likely save some money on those initial contracts.

Another potential revenue stream would come from memorabilia and autograph sales. The former was actually at the center of a college football scandal years ago when Ohio State football players traded jerseys, awards and championship rings for cash and tattoos at a Columbus parlor, and while the ink may seem superfluous, some of the players’ defenders noted that they really needed money to help their families at the time. Changing the rules around memorabilia and autographs could be particularly successful in some of the more rabid NCAA hockey markets. What would fans in Grand Forks have paid for a Jonathan Toews or Brock Boeser signature when those future NHL stars played for the University of North Dakota, for example? How many ‘Johnny Hockey’ T-shirts could Johnny Gaudreau have hawked at Boston College?

This brave new world of NCAA openness still has a lot of unanswered questions, and some non-hockey skeptics have zeroed in on the specific language used by the board of governors that says the new benefits must be “in a manner consistent with the collegiate model.” That’s a vague phrase for something potentially so big.

In the hockey world, a constant theme has been eligibility, thanks to the major-junior system. Right now, even playing one period in a CHL exhibition game can wreck a player’s NCAA eligibility, but will that still be the case in the future? After all, the reason for the CHL ban is that the NCAA considers those players to be pros, because they are paid a weekly stipend and receive other benefits such as housing from their major junior teams. But if a college player is now getting paid for an autograph or the endorsement of a certain stick company, isn’t that kind of being a pro? I’m also hearing that some NCAA hockey schools are pushing for a change to that major-junior talent ban – and that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms.“Once you start making exceptions,” Bartlett said, “I don’t know how you draw the line.”

Agents themselves are wondering what this news means to them. Under the current rules, NCAA student-athletes cannot employ agents. They can have “family advisors,” but that’s slightly different: family advisors can’t pay for a player’s expenses (travel for a skills camp, for example) and, technically, they don’t work for the players at all. But if college players are going to be signing deals with skate companies, who brokers that deal, if not an agent? It’s nice to give players freedom, but you don’t want them getting soaked.

There’s still a long way to go on this issue, and it will be fascinating to see what the college landscape will be like in the future – because it is ready for the change.

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