STILLWATER — Mike Gundy has likened name, image and likeness to religion and politics.
It’s a divisive issue that can cause arguments and hurt feelings, so it’s not worth discussing.
But just because the Oklahoma State football coach would prefer not to talk about NIL, which allows college athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness, doesn’t mean he can avoid being asked about it. The issue has become an almost regular part of his weekly press conferences.
And recently, there has been a shift in Gundy’s rhetoric, a softening of his tone on NIL.
Even though he doesn’t necessarily like it, he seems to understand its importance.
“If you brought in 50 of our players and said, ‘We’ll NIL you $50,000 to $60,000 a year cash or we can build you a new weight room and meeting room, which one do you want?'” Gundy said.
He didn’t answer his own question, but he didn’t have to.
“Players used to want to go somewhere for shiny new facilities and new uniforms and things like that,” Gundy said. “They still want to go somewhere where they win, but they also want the other stuff.”
Gundy’s dismissive attitude about NIL raised eyebrows this past offseason when OSU lost nearly a dozen players who were starters or significant reserves. Then when OSU got a beat down from South Alabama and suffered a second loss to Iowa State, his stance on NIL really came under fire.
The Cowboys, lots of fans lamented, were falling apart because they’d fallen behind in NIL.
Even though back-to-back wins have cooled the heat on Gundy and his team, NIL isn’t going away. And OSU football is at an interesting intersection of the issue. The Cowboys have muscled their way up college football’s pecking order over the past two decades by being a developmental program. Gundy and Co. make two- or three-star recruits into four- and five-star players.
OSU needs to keep those players to continue building, but with the lure of NIL and the ease of the transfer portal, the chance of losing such players is higher than ever. If NIL lags at OSU, Cowboy football could become a farm team for higher profile programs, losing top players to teams with more NIL money to offer.
“I know for a fact we’ve had some here that have left to go take NIL money because they know they’re not a pro player — ‘So I can go play for somebody and get $150,000 or $200,000 a year for two years, and I’m not good enough to play in the NFL, or I can stay at a school and get $30,000 or $40,000,'” Gundy said. “That’s not a good business decision (to stay), and you can’t blame them for doing it. But that’s what’s going on.”
Can OSU put a stop to it?
Can it get on par with other Power Five programs?
Good news, OSU has done it before.
‘Put the money in the bank and spend it on NIL’
Only 25 years ago, OSU had football facilities that looked like they belonged at a high school, not a major college.
Metal bleachers. Undersized locker room. Few bells and whistles.
Boone Pickens’ $165 million gift jumpstarted a change, paying for most of a massive renovation to the stadium that now bears the megabooster’s name. But other OSU alums jumped in. They gave big gifts. They gave small gifts. But over time, they transformed everything about the football facilities.
Truth is, the upgrades were so profound, the desire to improve trickled over to other facilities. Basketball. Tennis. Baseball. Soccer. Equestrian. Hundreds of millions of dollars transformed the landscape of OSU athletics.
The dollars were there.
“I could not be more proud of the generosity of the Oklahoma State fanbase and donors,” said David Downing, an OSU alum who is now executive director of Pokes with a Purpose, the collective that provides NIL to OSU athletes. “It humbles me when I see a $10 gift, a $10,000 gift, a million dollar gift, and we’ve had all of those.
“But every one just makes me warm and fuzzy.”
Earlier this year, Pokes with a Purpose posted on its Instagram account that it raised $3.5 million in 2022.
Hardly chump change.
By comparison, Texas collective Clark Field Collective launched with a $10 million initial commitment, according to On3.com. Nebraska collective N100 reported in August 2022 that it had raised $5 million that year. Florida collective Gator Guard raised $5 million on its first day.
One of Tennessee’s collectives, according to On3.com, had a goal of raising $25 million a year.
Downing says OSU donors to NIL have grown in number and in generosity.
“Donors are seeing this isn’t a fad,” he said. “This isn’t a phase. This is here to stay. And they know if we are going to recruit and retain and remain competitive, we have to embrace it.”
Still, Downing is concerned about donor fatigue.
“We’ve got all these opportunities for folks to give money,” Downing said, mentioning the OSU Foundation, the OSU Alumni Association as well as the athletic department. “Their money’s about the same. Their appetite for donations is probably about the same.
“That’s what’s a little worrisome.”
Adding to the stretching of dollars, OSU announced a massive vision plan last spring intended to overhaul the athletic landscape. It includes new facilities for football, softball, basketball, wrestling, track, equestrian and golf while upgrading facilities used by all athletes for academics, performance and mental health.
Total price tag: $325 million.
At least where football is involved, Gundy doesn’t want any donations going to football facilities.
“Don’t do it. Put the money in the bank,” he said “Put the money in the bank and spend it on NIL. It’s just the future, and I’m not saying I agree with it. I only know the sign of the times.”
‘We are Julie Andrews singing at the top of lungs, ‘Please come help us’ ’
Downing and Barry Hinson lead OSU’s efforts on NIL, Downing with the collective, Hinson as OSU’s director of NIL, and while both work with all teams and all athletes, they realize football has to be treated differently.
“The 900-pound-gorilla phrase always comes into my mind,” Downing said.
He said that’s because football not only has the largest roster of any sport on campus but also has an outsized impact on athletics as a whole. It’s the main revenue driver for all of athletics, whether through ticket sales or donations or postseason payouts.
Bad football, then, is bad business for all of OSU athletics.
So even though every athlete is important to the collective, Downing said different athletes have different levels of value both in the marketplace and on campus.
“Just like in corporate America, CEOs are paid more than administrative assistants … ” he said, “the level of NIL compensation may vary depending on what the collective believes to be the fair market value of that athlete’s name, image and likeness.”
Downing and Hinson want to do as much as they can for athletes, but the ground on which they stand seems to shift constantly.
“Every day I walk in my office, something changes,” Hinson said. “Right now, we’re reactionary instead of adapting, and I don’t think that’s good.”
The NCAA has largely taken a hands-off approach to NIL while the IRS (yes, the Internal Revenue Service is involved in all this) deemed collectives to be non-profits capable of receiving 501-c-3 status, then issued a memo saying they weren’t non-profits but then continued granting 501-c-3 status to collectives.
And the federal government has held nearly a dozen congressional hearings on NIL, the latest Tuesday. With an election looming and global strife roiling, it doesn’t look like any legislation will be forthcoming.
Hinson wishes someone, anyone, would step forward and erect some guardrails.
“Athletic departments nationwide are screaming out for help,” he said. “We all understand that this is in no way sustainable in the future. We are begging for an organization to step forward and help us with NIL.
“We are at the top of the mountain. We are Julie Andrews singing at the top of lungs, ‘Please come help us.’”
Downing, who spent a career in advertising and marketing, said macroeconomic principles may ultimately take over.
“Every market will eventually find equilibrium,” he said.
“Right now, this is such an evolving market and it’s a little out of control.”
What does that mean for OSU? How will it impact football?
That is anyone’s guess, but Downing and Hinson have seen the cumulative power of Cowboy fans. While OSU might not have as many megaboosters as some schools — or as Gundy put it, OSU has to make sure it’s “not trying to squeeze blood from the same turnip all the time” — previous efforts have shown what is possible.
“If the horn is sounded in Stillwater, Oklahoma, on our campus, then every alum, every graduate will come to the sound of the alarm,” Hinson said. “No doubt in my mind. We have for years. We’ve done more with less, and we will continue to be successful.”
For Gundy’s part, he says rarely a day goes by that he isn’t on a phone call or in a meeting about NIL. What has changed. What is being done. What could come next. He doesn’t have answers for everything, but he knows this: NIL is part of the equation for his football team.
That means it has to be part of the equation for him.
“Whether we like it or not,” he said, “it’s here to stay.”