Aztecs’ NIL collective provides opportunities

Nebraska coach Matt Rhule made headlines recently when he put a rub-your-eyes price tag on top-tier college football talent.

“Make no mistake,” Rhule said, “a good quarterback in the portal costs $1 million to $1.5 million to $2 million right now.”

The NCAA transfer portal has combined with name, image and likeness (NIL) opportunities to create such a situation.

That’s at the upper echelons of the sport, however. The Power Five haves in college football. What about the havenots? Those in the Group of Five.

There is perhaps no better contrast than this: Utah players get cars while San Diego State recruits get to pose next to cars.

In September, a Salt Lake City car dealership announced it was giving trucks to Utes players.

Last week, SDSU recruits in town for official visits had their pictures taken next to high-end Sports cars parked in Snapdragon Stadium’s south end zone.

Another development is Power Five schools poaching Group of Five players by waving cash in front of their faces.

“Our top 12 players on our team have all had offers to go other places,” Colorado State coach Jay Norvell told The Coloradoan this week.

It included, Norvell said, an offer of $600,000 to Rams quarterback Brayden Fowler-Nicolosi if he transferred elsewhere.

At SDSU, six of the 20 players who have entered the transfer portal already have found landing spots.

All six — guard Cade Bennett (TCU), tight end Cameron Harpole (Arizona State), cornerback Dez Malone (Oklahoma), linebacker Cooper McDonald (TCU), safety Marcus Ratcliffe (UCLA), tight end Mark Redman (Louisville) — transferred to Power Five schools.

That’s twice as many SDSU players as transferred to P5 schools a year ago, and more are expected to join them.

Not all the players were enticed by the promise of NIL riches, although some are expected to receive as much as 100,000 to $200,000 at their new schools.

“There’s levels to it all,” SDSU coach Sean Lewis last week said after addressing the crowd at halftime of the UC Irvine-SDSU men’s basketball game. “I know those numbers are out there for the high-end guys. For us, the monetary piece is never going to be the first piece to it all.

“We’re going to be about development, but knowing that we need to be competitive in that arena so that we can provide all the opportunities for our guys.

“What that looks like here, time will tell.”

Lewis was introduced as SDSU’s new head football coach on Nov. 29 at Snapdragon Stadium. A day later, Lewis was in front of a group of local Business owners, detailing his vision for the future as well as the urgency and need for their support.

SDSU’s NIL collective is called Aztec Link. It is designed to provide revenue-generating opportunities for Aztecs athletes, not direct-deposit payments to their bank accounts.

Aztec Link includes a subscription model for fans, ranging from 99 cents to $126 a month, as well as sponsorship opportunities for businesses.

“NIL isn’t pay for play,” Aztec Link Executive Director J.R. Tolver said. “I think that’s what a lot of people in the community think. Honestly, I think that’s how some of the Power Five programs approach it. But it was never intended to be pay for play.”

Tolver said SDSU wants athletes to know there are NIL opportunities.

But, he said, “Coach Lewis has said he believes San Diego State is a place where you can come and get a great degree, you can come and win championships and play exciting football and, if you produce, you will have a path to the National Football League. … Those three things take precedence, and the NIL is an additional opportunity for them that this community is going to get behind and support as well.”

Tolver has estimated players could make $10,000 to $30,000 a year in NIL, depending on their level of involvement.

Last year, SDSU seniors made $1,000 to $2,000 doing a promotion with local Sonic restaurants. This year, Aztecs offensive linemen made a similar amount working with DonJoy, a local company that specializes in Sports braces.

“We say NIL isn’t pay for play, but if you make plays, you can get paid,” Tolver said. “And the reason is because if you go out and make plays, then your name, image and likeness becomes more valuable.”

The best example of this was the game-winning basket — now known as “The Shot” — SDSU’s Lamont Butler made against Florida Athletic to send the Aztecs to the national championship game.

Fans can purchase a 16” x 20” autographed photo of Butler hitting The Shot for $455 ($555 framed).

“If Lamont Butler never makes that shot, that NIL deal never comes about,” Tolver said. “That’s an example of how we’re designing NIL to help the student-athletes create those opportunities if and when they’re warranted.”

Tolver, an Aztec Hall of Fame member who set school records as a receiver, said the idea for Aztec Link was to build a program that can support athletes interested in pursuing NIL opportunities.

“Our goal has been to create a connection to the fans and the brands and the community,” Tolver said, “so that when we do have athletes who are worthy of NIL opportunities, that we make that bridge as short as possible.

“We’ve made a lot of connections with businesses. We’ve got a lot of subscribers on the fan side. We think we’ve done a good job over the last four or five months establishing the foundation.”

Tolver said the goal is to generate $1 million to $1.5 million annually in NIL opportunities for athletes.

“We have unbelievable supporters,” Lewis said. “I know they want us to win at a really high level and they’re going to position us to do what we need to do.

“They’ve supported us in a lot of different ways in every way that we’ve ever asked. So I’m looking forward to them supporting us in this way as well.”

As Lewis said, time will tell.

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