Texas A&M and Miami are winning at NIL and sometimes at football. (Washington Post)
COLLEGE STATION, Tex. — As if it weren’t vivid enough around here that Texas A&M just took a jarring, smiting home loss to a less-funded Appalachian State, next comes what you might call a September bowl game — not a game of the week or year but a game of the era.
It’s the NIL Bowl.
Happy NIL Bowl to all.
Feel free to leave your donations in that barrel over there.
Okay, that vat.
When No. 13 Miami visits No. 24 Texas A&M on Saturday night, it will pit two of the front-running programs in the area of NIL, the mechanism hatched in the California state legislature enabling college athletes to share in the revenue they generate by capitalizing on their names, images and likenesses. A fitting halftime motif might entail a roundtable at the 50-yard line with boosters playing boisterous poker.
Two lovable underdogs just toppled college football royalty. What a blast.
It would seem unwise to bet against John H. Ruiz.
Ruiz is the Miami-lover from Miami who made a splash when he announced details of an NIL deal on Twitter. He’s out front and upfront. He’s on his way out here with 120 winners of a ticket raffle, 30 of whom will travel by private jet. He has never been to Kyle Field, which does quake even if it quaked less last Saturday. “They say it’s absolutely amazing,” he said in a telephone interview this week.
On the other side would be the legendary donors of Texas A&M, long seen as a hushed force in college athletics and lately seen as a force in college football recruiting. They’re the ones whose debatable influence on Texas A&M’s top-ranked recruiting class helped irk dynastic Alabama Coach Nick Saban, whose words in the spring irked Texas A&M Coach Jimbo Fisher, providing a nation with fine distractive fare. These donors do tend to stay Garbo about it, even if complete quiet can prove elusive when people donate $25 million to one of those normal, bizarre American college funds that fund shinier athletic facilities. That’s what April and Jay Graham, Class of 1992, sent along in midsummer, Mr. Graham having taken his petroleum-engineering degree to the heights of the fuel business.
Not only does Miami vs. Texas A&M, a game arranged in 2016, pit NIL heft against NIL heft, it also pits one NIL style against another NIL style — the direct approach vs. the collective approach.
“They do it differently than we do,” said Ruiz, who is both an entrepreneur and an attorney who has pledged to spend at least $10 million on athletes to promote his businesses. “Just a different structure.” He said, “Maybe I’m not being as objective as some believe, but I think we have the best NIL platform in the country.” He told of direct, business-to-player guidelines in which players learn skills such as commercial making and business managing: “They’re learning about the real world of business. The biggest part of it is, they know they’re going to work for the money. If they fall behind what’s required of them, we immediately put them on notice.
“The collective — I just don’t think long term that’s beneficial,” Ruiz said. “We run like a true business and have to have a return on our investment or it doesn’t work for us. … I want to teach kids they’ve got to earn money and not just, we’re going to give you money.”
Gilbert Frierson and the Miami Hurricanes are off to a 2-0 start. Frierson is one of many Miami players with a name, image and likeness deal with LifeWallet, the company owned by John Ruiz. (Eric Espada/Getty Images)
Just how big is college football?
Hoo boy, Ruiz says, essentially.
“At least from our vantage point, it’s been the best dollars we’ve ever spent on advertising,” he said. “I knew there was a strong reach, but the amount of people that feel college sports and obviously football is the key one.” He noted the constant replenishing of students and thus business and said, “There’s so much value in college football.”
In these early NIL days, Texas A&M has its collective, dubbed “The Fund” in some parlance, as Andy Staples reported in the Athletic during the spring. Aggies football players have received more than $3.3 million in NIL deals, according to information obtained by the Bryan (Tex.) Eagle through a records request.
While the free-flowing money has kindled enough national reputation to stoke fine banter between highbrow coaches, it has yet to saturate local business talk, Bryan-College Station Chamber of Commerce chair Wade Beckman said. “Lots of conversations,” Beckman said, “but those conversations seem to be about the same thing these conversations always seem to be about, and that’s whether players should or should not be paid.”
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Beckman, who with wife Mary — they met as Texas A&M students — owns three restaurants and a catering company in next-door Bryan, describes a bustling Chamber of Commerce and foresees player-business bonding down the line. One factor: This 2022 team doesn’t have (yet) an overriding star figure such as Johnny Manziel, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner.
A company representing players for deals did solicit the Beckmans by mail early this week, a first, and while that doesn’t fit for now, he has had this thought during games when players turn up on the big screen talking. “I always thought, ‘Man, that would be the coolest thing, to have a couple of players razzing about my restaurant,’ ” he said.
Then: “Of course, they start at $10,000.”
“I think that’s something that a business owner can [weigh] now,” he said. “Before, you couldn’t ask a player to do anything. … If five players came in and I bought them all dinners as a nice gesture, that could have been a violation.”
A donor with his name (Monty) and his wife’s name (Becky) on sports facilities, Monty Davis, Class of 1977, summarized the crucial American urge to donate in an interview in 2019 with the 12th Man Foundation: “I am the first in my family to graduate from a university, and it was by the grace of God that I ended up at Texas A&M because we had no ties or connections to the school at that time. I met my wife Becky here, and we married shortly after graduating from A&M. Both of our daughters attended A&M, as did my brother, who also married an Aggie and has two sons that went to A&M. We are maroon through-and-through at this point.”
Theirs and others’ Aggies love is a love pretty much unparalleled in college football in the way it glides over all the thudding rapids. Texas A&M hasn’t won a national title since 1939 and has neither played for one nor appeared in any playoff nor won any conference titles since 1998, yet the love persists, reminiscent of English Premier League fans who revel in all-weather loyalty to drought-stricken clubs.
That love got another test last Saturday — Appalachian State 17, Texas A&M 14 will make for swell T-shirts but not here — and a slight, palpable pall lasted into the week. Beckman told of bummed-out postgame diners. Football players told reporters of some players not necessarily buying in. Fisher, the fifth-year, $95 million coach, told of having young players in key positions, always an American groaner. A listener to the Zone 1150 messaged midday host Louie Belina on Wednesday about whether Belina thought the Aggies might jump out ahead for a change this week. “No,” Belina replied gently, then pivoted to the next topic. (LOL.)
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Still, the boulevards such as those named for George H.W. Bush and Gene Stallings — one became U.S. president, the other went higher — do bubble with Texas A&M love. An electronic sign discouraging texting-and-driving flashes the cherished mantra “GIG ’EM NOW” and then “TEXT ’EM LATER.” Members of the famed Corps of Cadets train near the stadium and its striking Stephen Whyte sculpture of 12 Aggies fans, and some cadets run sidewalks in their white T-shirts and fatigues and defiance of imperious heat.
At Aggieland Outfitters, with the red neon Texas Longhorn in the window — with broken horns and the mantra “SAW ’EM OFF!” — you still might spot in the grand mix of T-shirts a “Don’t Mess With Jimbo,” which remains unburned. You still can see an SEC pillow with 14 school logos stitched in and weep for whoever has to stitch in the Longhorns logo three years hence.
All around, you can feel another Saturday coming — a “bowl game,” no less — one week after things hit the throes and a Johnathan P. Manziel tweeted: “I’ve got 2 years of eligibility left, right?”
You talk about some NIL.