Cunningham, other athletic directors expect some quick, unanticipated changes in new NIL era

By Michael Smith

LAS VEGAS -- Olympic sports at colleges might soon be funded the same way most youth sports are supported in this new era of name, image and likeness. That’s just one of the potential outcomes of moving toward a pro model in college sports.

“We have to think about how we fund these sports with a different economic model,” North Carolina’s athletic director, Bubba Cunningham, said. “How the money in college athletics gets moved around [via NIL] is going to change. … We’re going to continue to have broad-based programs, but they’re going to be funded differently. Parents and families pay for youth sports. They pay for high school sports. They pay for AAU sports and club sports. Parents are going to end up paying for the college experience for the student athlete. That’s going to happen in the next three to five years.”

North Carolina AD Bubba Cunningham said NIL and other changes will bring about a new economic model that mimics aspects of professional sports.tony florez

Cunningham has been one of the most outspoken voices on the direction of NIL, and that didn’t change during his appearance last week at the Learfield Intercollegiate Athletics Forum in Las Vegas. A proponent of NIL and a pioneer in group licensing at the college level, Cunningham predicts that with these developments will come a new economic model that mimics aspects of professional sports. Ultimately, most of the money in the system will make its way to the top handful of male athletes.

All of this is happening in an unregulated space that is quickly evolving without any real enforcement by the NCAA on its pay-for-play rules.

“We all know what professional sports look like,” he said. “That’s not a negative; it’s just the way things are changing. … We’re two to three years away from having a different relationship with our student athletes. It may be employer-employee. Every decision we’ve made in the last 15 years has pushed us in that direction. It’s made us look more like the pros.” 

NIL and its impact on the future of college sports dominated two days of discussion last week at the forum. ACC Commissioner Jim Phillips said the current unregulated platform for NIL is causing inequities across the collegiate landscape as schools — and donors — look for ways to get an edge on their rivals.

“It’s created chaos, and it’s going to continue,” Phillips said. “And it’s unsettling when you don’t have a national legislation when you play a national schedule. It’s created inequities amongst the schools, amongst men’s basketball and football and the Olympic sports, and is exactly what we didn’t want to have happen. … We have now something that we’re not able to monitor. And one interpretation at one school or one state is different than another school or another state.”

Cunningham said he’s getting questions from donors now about whether their donations should continue flowing into the Rams Club or if they should start contributing to these third-party collectives that feed money to athletes for their NIL activity.

It’s a conundrum.

“Donors are confused, and they’re asking me, ‘What do you want me to do?’” he said. “That puts us in a tough spot. You can’t sit there and say, ‘This is my favorite athlete.’ I can’t tell them to put it in this bucket or that bucket. The hope is that they continue to support the broad-based program of 28 teams and 800 athletes, and maybe do something additional for some individuals.”

NCAA President Mark Emmert, with SBJ’s Abraham Madkour, fielded questions about the organization’s future. tony florez

Overheard at IAF

NCAA reform

“Everybody knows the enforcement process is broken. It takes too long to get decisions. Too often, student athletes and programs who were not involved in a violation end up paying the price for those who did. And so, that will go down to the division so that they can get quicker decisions and people can move on.”

Former CIA director Robert Gates


“The core functionality of [the NCAA] doesn’t change. If you’re going to have national championships, if you’re going to have something approaching competitive fairness, if you’re going to have any sort of regulatory system, you need a national body like the NCAA. So, I don’t see that changing fundamentally, but my hope is that each of the three divisions will rewrite their bylaws, so that on the regulatory side, it’s a much slimmer, simpler model.”

NCAA President Mark Emmert


“ESPN has been a phenomenal partner of the CFP. They deserve to be involved. But I think there are so many people who want to carry college football forward … that other media partners [should have] an opportunity to be able to bid on this.”

Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren


“We think it can be a significant competitive advantage for the Pac-12 because of having five of the top 20 cities in the country. Our alumni run some of the most important companies in the world. We don’t have Power Five competition in the Mountain and Pacific time zones.”

Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff


“The commissioner of the Pac-12 was here and said that they’re in the biggest metropolitan areas with incredible alumni at the best companies. Well, that’s recruiting.”

North Carolina AD Bubba Cunningham

SBJ Morning Buzzcast: June 24, 2022

Excel Sports scores at NBA Draft; Breaking down year one of the USFL; DP World Tour finally states its LIV Golf policy and big names in sports invest in Jackpot.

SBJ Unpacks: Thaddeus Young, NBA forward and venture capitalist

SBJ's Austin Karp posted up with NBA power forward Thaddeus Young. The 15-year veteran discussed his venture capital strategy, his investment in technology and much more.

SBJ Spotlight: Predicting which U.S. cities will host World Cup matches

SBJ Facilities Writer Bret McCormick and Soccer Writer Alex Silverman say five U.S. cities are locks to host World Cup matches in 2026. But they have different ideas when it comes to the rest of the field.

Shareable URL copied to clipboard!

Sorry, something went wrong with the copy but here is the link for you.