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A look into the world of college sports collectives, which provide 'a payroll for players'

The men’s Final Four tips off at State Farm Stadium in Glendale on Saturday afternoon.

North Carolina State University takes on Purdue University in the first national semifinal, followed by University of Alabama and University of Connecticut in the second. The winners will play in the championship game on Monday night.

While there are a lot of differences between these schools, they do have at least one thing in common: groups of boosters, known as collectives, which help raise money to give to the players.

Billy Witz covers college sports at the New York Times, and along with a colleague, looked into how these collectives operate at the schools which made it to the Sweet 16 of this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

The Show spoke with him about whether there were any common themes that emerged between the schools that were advancing in the tournament.

Full interview

BILLY WITZ: Well, I think there are more differences than commonalities, and I think that stems from this being essentially a start-up industry. It didn't exist a couple of years ago, and it was just a way of, it's kind of a free market, an extreme free market where very little, you know, almost no regulation. And the boosters began to look for ways to, how can we get enough money to the best players that our coaches want so that they come to our universities. And so there's a lot of creativity and you know, different methods. And that's essentially why we went about this, is to see if we could look at at the 16 teams and seeing how each of them were unique in this process of essentially creating a payroll for players.

MARK BRODIE: How important are these collectives in terms of universities and coaches trying to land the best players and the players that they want?

WITZ: Well, they're essential. And the way that a coach explained it to me was like, when, when somebody wants to come hire you, what's the first thing that you're gonna, you're gonna ask is, OK, what, you know what's in it for me? What are you paying me? You're not gonna go work for, for free at some place when somebody else is giving you a quite a bit of money.

BRODIE: In terms of the amount of money players were able to get, is there a correlation between higher, higher amounts and how far a team went in the tournament? Like, for example, did the teams that have advanced to the Final Four seem to pay their players more from these?

WITZ: Well, that's another part of this is that it's such an opaque process that schools don't want to release. Even public schools don't want to release the amount of money that is going to players through these collectives, which they all have. In fact, it's kind of mandated by many state laws that they have to collect this information, but they don't want to release it because they say it would be a competitive disadvantage.

So we had one collective executive tell us that, you know, this is like the, the world's greatest game of liars poker because nobody's telling the truth.

BRODIE: Well, and one of the things I found that was so interesting is for some schools, you know, basketball is the main sport and some majority of the collective money will go toward that. Whereas at other schools, maybe football is a, a bigger sport or, or even something else might be a slightly bigger sport and, you know, they have to sort of divide that money up in, in different ways or set up sport or team specific collectives.

WITZ: Yes, that's right. That's another reason where it's different. So I think like if you look at this Final Four, you have North Carolina State, you have Connecticut and you have Purdue and you have Alabama. So Alabama obviously is a big football school. North Carolina State State is, you know, probably football takes the, the, the lion share of things. Maybe at Purdue, it's a little more equal. But at Connecticut, it's basketball, basketball, basketball. And football is very much of an afterthought. So Connecticut is, I think the only school that we found where there was a collective for all sports where more money went to basketball — for men's and women's, because their women's team is also in the Final Four — than did football.

BRODIE: I'm curious about some of the ways that some of these collectives raise money. You found some pretty interesting things in terms of items that were being sold or, you know, ways to sort of raise money to, you know, to be able to pay some of these players.

WITZ: Right. And, you know, some of it is just through straight up donations and fundraising. I think at the University of Arizona, there was a, you know, a level of giving that was, you know, upwards of $10,000 a year. And in other ways, there was at the, at the University of Connecticut, they're the defending national champions. So one thing they did is they had the players from last year's team sign balls and so you can buy an autographed Yukon championship ball from last season for $500.

So I think one of the, one of the more creative ways that people found it give out NIL payments was at Purdue, which their star player is Zach Edey, who's probably going to be the two-time national player of the year, but Zach is from Toronto. So there are restrictions on how he can earn money in the United States. He can't have a job per se that's off campus. And so what they've done is they put his name or, or I'm sorry, they put his image on on soda, soda cups that are sold at the arena, and they can give him a percentage of that because you know, it makes the case that the people are buying a soda in part because Zach's images on the is on the cup.

BRODIE: So you referenced how new all of this is. And I'm wondering, based on the people with whom you spoke, do they give you the sense that this is going to continue as is? Are they seeing big changes on the horizon for, not just for NIL, but maybe even specifically for how these collectives operate?

WITZ: Well, I think the answer to that is yes and yes. So they you know, it's a perpetually evolving space. There's lawsuits, in fact, one was just filed in March by the state attorney general in Tennessee, who sued that it was illegal that the NCAA was violating antitrust laws by putting any restrictions on name, image and likeness payments. So there's that part of it.

And then also the head of the collective at Connecticut. I asked him, I said, is this sustainable? And he said, absolutely not. I don't want to be doing this for the rest of my life right now. So right now, I think it's, it's just kind of one of these things where people are waiting for it to shake out. There's court challenges, the NCAA is in turmoil in some senses, it's fighting for its very existence. So this is all kind of a move I think towards the systemic professionalization of college sports. I mean, it's, it's clearly obviously a, you know, a professional enterprise with the, I think it was $17 billion that that went through the industry that in revenue last year. So, you know, I think this is a sort of a, it, it's all part of an evolution that's, that's going on. Really a revolution.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.