SALT LAKE CITY — Standing on the footsteps of the Utah State Capitol on July 1, 2011 — exactly 10 years ago to the day — Commissioner Larry Scott ushered in a new era for the University of Utah as it joined the Pac-12. The move was part of a nationwide and wide-ranging expansion to collegiate sports.
A decade later, those same steps are now quiet and Scott is no longer the commissioner of the conference — his last day with the Pac-12 concluded on June 30.
But today, July 1, a major shift takes place in the makeup of college athletics, even for a school like the University of Utah. For the first time in the history of the NCAA, college athletes can now profit off their name, image and likeness, or NIL, while still keeping their "amateur" status in check.
This isn't a "pay-for-play" system or a new approach where athletes can get paid for making an all-conference team or winning various awards — though it can "enhance" their opportunities available to them; it's an open door for athletes to have the same opportunities available to them as that of their collegiate counterparts who don't have to navigate the intricacies of the NCAA to remain "eligible."
"At the end of the day, it's like anything else, this is work; they have to be paid for work, and they have to be able to have the time to do it and put in the effort," Utah Athletic Director Mark Harlan told KSL.com on the eve of NIL changes taking effect.
"The point of all of this is they are now like any other student who's on campus who wants to get involved in this type of space; they now have the chance to do it," he added. "They will now be able to factor those things into their decisions about what they want to do as a student-athlete. It's a long time coming and I'm real pleased it's here."
So what is NIL and how does it work?
In short, an athlete can profit off their name, image and likeness through various means — all of which take work on their part. For example, it could be sponsored posts on social media platforms, endorsement deals, autographs and merchandise, or training sessions such as camps or private lessons.
"We'll see some create businesses, because we've got a lot of brilliant kids here," Harlan said. "And we'll see those really high-profile student-athletes that might get some agents that want to work with them on these opportunities, and we'll work closely with all of them on that. So I think we'll see all these different levels."
It won't just be football or basketball players — although they may seem the most likely to profit from NIL — that will benefit. It will be available to all, and "everybody's going to have the opportunity, and it's up to them — she or he — to take advantage," Harlan said.
It helps someone like MyKayla Skinner, who was recently named an Olympian in gymnastics, to take part in sponsorships opportunities. In 2016, ahead of her freshmen season at Utah, Skinner had to weigh whether to turn pro or pursue a college educate while maintaining eligibility.
"For me, it was really, really hard, especially after the last Olympics," Skinner said, speaking about having to turn down sponsorship opportunities available to her at the time to maintain collegiate eligibility. "I was talking to agents: do I go pro, do I go to college."
Utah gymnastics head coach Tom Farden said he sees many athletes that already have the "entrepreneurial spirit," such as senior gymnast Sydney Soloski, who already manages her own YouTube channel.
"I can see that some of our athletes, like Sydney, are definitely setting themselves up in terms of getting and building a base down," Farden said.
But Soloski, who is from Canada and is an international student, doesn't yet have NIL opportunities open to her immediately due to visa rules and regulations. That part of NIL is still yet to be figured out.
Still, the university hopes to partner with its 500+ athletes and give them the best opportunities to succeed in a multi-faceted approach. One approach has been the creation of the Ute Academy, as well as the recently announced Elevate U program, which is directly tied to helping athletes with NIL opportunities.
"I break down Elevate U really into two major categories: it's opportunity and education," Harlan said, describing the new program.
The opportunity side relates to the ability for athletes to partner with the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute and the David Eccles School of Business to find various partnerships in the community to help grow their brand or ideas. The education side is about what is permissible (and not) to stay eligible as a collegiate athletes.
"These are young people and they've got a whole life ahead of them of professional opportunities and we want to make sure as they begin this process, the first group — particularly that's in this process — we want to make sure that they step forward in the right direction," Harlan said. "It's really a collaborative opportunity in Elevate U to work together with the students and with us.
"We're going to learn stuff, too," Harlan admitted. "They're gonna teach us along the way about opportunities. ... Elevate U is about educating me, too. And I think that'll be — that's the fun part that we'll be working together on it."
Exciting times ahead!!!! pic.twitter.com/cVBR1X3GvT— Sydney Soloski (@Sydney_soloski) June 30, 2021
Why is this happening now?
In September 2019, the state of California passed a law that would allow athletes in its state to profit off their NIL on Jan. 1, 2023. Several states followed suit, which put pressure on the NCAA to change NIL policy. In total, 20 states passed NIL legislation and 11 took effect on July 1, including Alabama and Florida.
On Monday, the NCAA's Division I Council officially recommended an interim NIL policy that suspends its amateurism rules related to NIL and opens up profit opportunities to all athletes starting on July 1. On "NIL Eve," the Division I Board of Directors approved the interim policy.
As it now stands, universities in states with NIL laws in place must follow the rules established in their state law, whereas those without a state law may make university-specific rules that fall under NCAA eligibility guidelines.
In Utah, no such law is on the books — each university in the state may run their NIL policies in a way that fits their needs. But according to Harlan, the state's leaders have been working closely with the universities to ensure the best possible way forward — with or without legislation codified into law.
"We sit here today in a great position to be able to launch forward into (today) with the way we think is best for the University of Utah student-athletes, and we're going to do it in the right way," he said. "We're not going to take that kind of blank canvas approach irresponsibly. Matter of fact, we're going to be very responsible on it. So very, very happy with where things stand."
What will this do for recruiting?
Point blank, any attempt to steer an athlete to a university as a recruitment tool is in violation of the NIL policies in place, let alone other NCAA recruiting policies. Can it happen — and likely will it? Sure, but NIL is not an open tool to recruit players, at least on the surface. Could it potentially lure athletes to bigger markets where endorsement deals could seemingly be easier? Maybe, but it's no different than the current status of collegiate recruiting.
"I think it would be disingenuous for me to say that I'm not a little concerned about how nefarious actors could enter the space and we could see things like inducement to come to a university," Harlan said. "But we already deal with that and we deal with budgets that are bigger than others.
"It is the responsibility, I think, of everybody involved in intercollegiate athletics to do the right thing — from the administrators to the coaches, and certainly to the students, to do this in a way that keeps the integrity of competitiveness in the right place," he added. "But I'm choosing to focus in on the positives and the opportunities for the students, and I'm way less concerned about what it will do in a level playing field."
How quickly will this change college sports?
The floodgates aren't suddenly open, with every athlete in the NCAA lined up with an endorsement deal or a system in place to profit off their NIL. Most college athletes won't see a change in how they approach their collegiate experience; others will want to take full advantage as soon as possible.
"I think we're going to see some that are going to come out of the gate fairly organized and have been thinking about it for a long time," Harlan said. "We're going to see others that are still in a learning mode and want to understand more."
How athletes approach NIL on July 1 will be drastically different a year or two from now. Some may find it a distraction to an already busy lifestyle. Programs like Elevate U can help facilitate some opportunities, but it's still up to the athlete to put the work in to make it possible.
In the end, it gives the athletes an option should they want to pursue it.
For Harlan, it's an "exciting" development and one that should be celebrated to help athletes.
"Our obligation here at the University of Utah is to make sure that we're providing the best platform for them to do it, educate, assist where we can within what the rules will allow, and to really have them flourish," he said. "At the same time, hold our expectations that we all have each other: graduate and compete for the Utes at the very top of your ability. And at the same time, use your name, image and likeness in the best way you see forward in a collaborative way with us, with them. I'm really excited about it."