A NIL-Sum Game: What’s Discombobulated This Year’s Final Four


If you, dear reader, asked me to identify the state with the highest population density of scoundrels, scofflaws, brigands, pirates, swindlers, con artists, charlatans, rascals, fops and mendacious foofs, I would provide a two-part answer:

1) Excellent question, but you forgot mountebanks and rapscallions
2) Florida

Don’t take it from me. Columnist and novelist Carl Hiassen has spent his illustrious career chronicling the foibles of his native state. He once wrote:

“If you picked the headlines from the five largest newspapers in Florida every day, you could make a very solid case that the human race was slipping backward into the primal ooze.”

Since he wrote that before Ron DeSantis became governor and Donald Trump became a full-time resident of Mar Al Lardo, we can hazard a guess that the ooze is up to the lower lips of many, and it has nothing to do with climate change (although for many of us outsiders, climate change can’t get here fast enough, if it were to wash the high seas over the Sunshine State).

The observation became more relevant in sports this week because the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, known to wealthy bookies everywhere as March Madness, has two teams from Florida in the Final Four in Houston.

Ninth-seeded Florida Atlantic meets fifth-seeded San Diego State in one semifinal, and fifth-seeded Miami meets fourth-seeded Connecticut in the other semifinal. The combination of these four teams was forecasted by exactly no one who filled out a pre-tourney bracket, making the number nearly the same as those who forecasted Covid-19 and the Ukraine war. Where did the rumor start that the human race had many smart people?

Since seeding began in 1979, this is the first time that none among the No. 1, 2 or 3 seeds advanced to the tourney’s final weekend. In its 34-year hoops history, Florida Atlantic has never won a tourney game until this month. And it joins SDSU and Miami in never having reached a Final Four (UConn won the most recent of its four titles in 2014, but has been mostly lame for a decade).

Should Florida State and Miami win Saturday, the title game Monday will feature teams that have campuses in Boca Raton and Coral Gables, wealthy enclaves of Miami, that are 50 miles apart. In North Carolina, such proximity among hoops-addled schools has been known for years as Tobacco Road. Since I don’t know of a proper carcinogen-related nickname for Florida, I’ll defer to Hiassen for the selection: “The floating-human-body-parts capital of America.”

What we can attribute much of this unprecedented arrival of ne’er-do-wells to the pinnacle of the industry is the demon spawn of NIL(name, image, likeness). Not that it’s a bad thing. The new collegiate rules that pay players for use of name, image and likeness are bringing financial stability to many young people and wealth to a few. But the ability to lure without penalty the transfer of athletes from one school to another has discombobulated the NCAA sports structure.

The reason that the game’s traditional blue-blood programs such as Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas and UCLA aren’t in Houston isn’t exclusively because of NIL. College basketball’s skills and the randomness of injuries remain important. The difference in the second year of national NIL is that lesser programs that are one top player away from contention can find private cash to pay the star that gives schools a better chance for a slice of the March Madness payoff. They seek the Gonzaga Syndrome, where a couple of national TV tourney appearances catapult a moribund school into prominence that draws ridiculous amounts of donor funding in areas beyond sports.

To cite one of many current NIL transformations, Miami point guard Nijel Pack transferred from top power Kansas State for more playing time with the Hurricanes, who reportedly came up with booster “jobs” worth $800,000 over two years. One of his new teammates, Isaiah Wong, the Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year, pouted about his cash stash, which was promptly amended to reflect no disrespect from the Pack deal.

The ‘Canes 73-year-old coach, Jim Larranaga, offered that he was not among many in his age group demanding NIL get off his lawn.

“TV makes money, right? The shoe companies make money,” Larrañaga said Saturday during a media session. “The universities make money. The athletic directors, they run the program, and they benefit from their relationship with the shoe companies. And the coaches make a hell of a living. Well, what’s wrong with that filtering down? It’s a natural progression to our players.”

Indeed, nothing is wrong. Should have been that way 100 years ago. But now that economic justice has arrived, the question becomes who survives in this new pro game — just the renegade outfits in Florida and Texas?

That question reverberates in the halls at Montlake, where the University of Washington has just retained for a seventh year men’s hoops coach Mike Hopkins, despite evidence to the contrary in the Huskies’ record.

UW’s 16-16 mark included 8-12 in the Pac-12 Conference (eighth place) and an opening-game ouster in the league tournament. After his first two seasons produced NCAA tourney bids largely with holdover players from the Lorenzo Romar regime, Hopkins hasn’t returned the Huskies to the madness. That’s unacceptable to many who dress in purple, but Hopkins was retained only because he has two years and $6.3 million left on his $17.5 million extension he signed in 2019. The Huskies can’t afford to pay Hopkins to not coach, not in this national marketplace.

Three players already have said they are leaving UW via the transfer portal. Three haven’t decided. Five said they will remain. Who will join them? That depends on how hard the private group of boosters known as the Montlake Collective, which is in charge of raising NIL funds but is not part of the university, wants to play.

Last fall the rich guys helped the football team to an 11-2 mark, including a bowl win over Texas. In January, they also retained the services of QB Michael Penix Jr., the nation’s leading passer who skipped the NFL draft to stay one more year, presumably because the money was good enough.

But playing the top-tier NIL game in the two revenue sports — plus doing things for athletes in the non-revenue sports, a big deal at UW — is a serious pull. Particularly in hardening economic times. Yet Hopkins’ job likely depends on luring a big-time recruit to a backsliding team. Programs better and richer than UW’s have been disrupted by NIL. After the success of this year’s Final Four field, even more obscure schools will be tempted to borrow against the campus endowment to hire a 7-footer from Serbia.

Or the Huskies could wait for climate change to trim the field. Except Montake is only 10 feet above sea level.

Art Thiel
Art Thiel
Art Thiel is a longtime sports columnist in Seattle, for many years at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and now as founding editor at SportsPressNW.com.


  1. I’m a bit confused, Art. What in the world is the connection between a hit piece on Florida and one about the Huskies falling behind in the NIL arms race? It seems that you strongly favor NIL, but you are against schools from states that you don’t like politically using it. So, OK if Washington boosters pay big bucks to lure quality athletes, but not OK for Miami to do this.?

    You say: “Indeed, nothing is wrong. Should have been that way 100 years ago. But now that economic justice has arrived, the question becomes who survives in this new pro game — just the renegade outfits in Florida and Texas?” What makes schools from these 2 states ‘renegade outfits’??? And correspondingly, why wouldn’t Washington be a ‘renegade outfit”? Is this simply that you don’t like the conservative majority in Florida and Texas, and that you favor the liberal majorities in other states, like Washington?? State politics seems pretty irrelevant in an NIL discussion, and broad-brushing colleges from the states you don’t like politically as being of the same ilk seems pretty misplaced, and frankly, weird. Am I missing something here?

    • Even people like me who love Florida freely admit that, jeez, that place is nuts. Whichever party is in charge of Tallahassee is irrelevant; there’s corruption and crazy everywhere. Check out Florida resident Dave Barry’s book “Best State Ever” for a look at what makes the place tick, not just the idiotic actions of ever-present “Florida man”.

      • I’m a fan of whatever remains of Florida’s glorious natural beauty. Remind me to tell you of the time I kayaked through the Okefenokee Swamp. As for the rest, Barry and Hiassen are the poets of the real Miami vice.

    • Big time college football and basketball are so unable to regulate themselves that NCAA officials are begging the federal government to intervene, which I’ve written about before. Meantime, the states where the big-rev college sports are huge entertainments, such as Florida and Texas, are riding into town and stealing all the horses and whiskey. Smaller programs, too. The Huskies have to play in these lawless badlands, and seem to be doing so in football (the Michael Penix return), but but not so much in hoops so far. So yes, the Huskies have to join the renegades. Some states’ politics factor into their college cultures, but it’s often coincidental, not universal. The big-time college sports in all 50 states are upon a reckoning. The only long-term solution is to become completely professional in name as well as deed.

  2. Yes. I realize there’s some financial exposure for athletes, but it’s a price to pay for getting your price. NCAA schools can’t ban disclosure because it’s out of their jurisdiction, but so far have strongly discouraged it.

  3. Schools like Seattle University and my favorite University of Portland cannot compete. “You can’t teach height” and you can’t match NIL.

    • The divide goes even higher up the athletics ladder, Jim. Washington State and Oregon State have the smallest sports budgets in the Pac-12, and they will join many other similar-sized schools in being left out when the big boys and big TV revs go pro.

  4. The ironic thing about two South Florida schools involved in the Final Four is that Florida is overwhelmingly a college football state. Heck, Miami didn’t even have a basketball team between 1971 and 1985.

    I’m more interested in how NIL will affect in-between sports like ice hockey, which ranges from important (Michigan, Wisconsin, the Ivies, Miami of Ohio) to THE big moneymaker (Boston U., North Dakota, Minnesota-Duluth, and nine-times champion Denver). Hockey is starting to experience more frequent transfers and graduate transfers, which annoys the coaches, who tend to stay in the job for a decade or three. NIL could upend a few things, particularly the schools where hockey pays the athletic departments’ bills.

    • One point I meant to add, but it’s obvious: The hire of one great player can turn a basketball team into a power. It takes several more hires to transform a football team. Regarding lower profile sports, they all are impacted, but since they generate nearly zero TV dollars, NIL has far less influence in the transfer portal than, say, more playing time.

  5. Great piece, Art. As a former college athlete, I can’t help but think that students getting paid is ultimately for the best, regardless of what else comes of the NIL. The rest of the upheaval will level off in time, but even if it doesn’t, do we really care? I shudder to think at the amount of money-guzzling among “blue blood” athletic departments before NIL. To boot, all of the (many, many) payments to athletes were hush-hush with the specter of real reprimand for the talent, aka the students – see James Wiseman, among dozens of other examples.

    Let the money go to the talent, is my take on it. And if Florida winds up paying their talent more, then I’d advise athletes to pull a Lebron and “take their talents to South Beach.” And then of course to get out as quick as possible after graduation.

  6. Well said, Eric. I’ve been advocating full professionalization in colleges for nearly my entire journalism career. The hypocrisy and fraud of amateurism has ended. Let’s graduate to honesty, transparency and justice.


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