Heat Checks and Hail Marys – Transfer Portal & NIL Learnings

Mike Cagley, Co-Host IlliniGuys Sports Spectacular and Big Sports Radio

July 5, 2023

Today’s transfer portal & NIL environment provided college sports fans with a fascinating and emotionally charged experience during the last open portal period. It’s like watching pro sports free agency if that process were on steroids.

Beyond just the players changing teams, we’re watching a new ecosystem being born in front of us. It’s not easy for anyone. The players are trying to figure out how to navigate the transfer portal waters. Coaches are trying to figure out how to build (and rebuild) rosters on an annual basis. Sadly, their struggles have been educational for a lot of fans, like me, who have pretended we were the General Manager/Athletic Director of teams in our imagination for years.

Here are three of the things that I learned watching the latest round of collegiate basketball’s version of musical chairs.

Heat Check #1 – For Players, Timing is Everything

Talented players need to be very circumspect when considering the exact timing of when they enter the portal. Timing is critical. For perspective, let's make a comparison in the sports world. Take a look at how boxers may choose to fight during a three-minute round. Some boxers believe they need to fight hard the first 30 seconds of a round and the last 30 seconds because judges only remember what happens at the beginning and end of a round when scoring. Thus, a fighter can win a round by fighting for a minute instead of fighting for a full three minutes. In a similar fashion, talented players can be successful by making more NIL money depending upon when they choose to enter the portal. While this isn’t a perfect analogy, it’s one with merits.

If a highly sought after player wants to maximize his NIL deals when transferring, sign quickly and be one of the first big “wins” for the victorious school to celebrate. This strategy requires the player to be good enough to be chased by multiple teams. The initial “hoopla” of the portal will drive the dollars up for the player.

Conversely, strong players could wait until the week prior to the portal closing to take advantage of the “desperate” nature of coaches and teams that have missed on their targets and now need a player to fill wide open holes on their roster. While talented players who enter the portal on day one may be able to commit at premium NIL levels because of the fact multiple teams are scrambling for their services, the same can be said about the players who are there near the portal’s deadline. As teams realize they really need a player for a key position, even lesser ranked players may find themselves cashing in on NIL deals that are higher than they dreamed. At the end of the portal, it is all about supply and demand. If multiple teams have a burning need at PG, the PGs left may be very happy with their NIL earnings under these circumstances.

Timing matters. Players need to strategize their portal timing to provide leverage to maximize their collegiate NIL earnings. When only 1.2% of collegiate basketball players make it to the NBA, understanding and strategizing transfer portal entry for the maximization of collegiate earning potential incredibly important.

Heat Check #2 – Coaches Need to “Recruit for the Transfer” When Recruiting High Schoolers

With the transfer portal providing players the opportunity to transfer once without needing to sit out a year, it is easier for a disgruntled player to decide to start over somewhere else with little to no ramifications. This means players who thought they had the patience to sit behind others on a depth chart, players who want more playing time guaranteed, or just players who disagree with their current coaching staff will be out looking for a new school. What schools would they look to transfer to first? Logic says the first look would go to the schools a player turned down in their initial recruiting experience. But, the player and the "losing" coaching staff's relationship must have concluded on a positive note.

Now more than ever, it’s critical to leave things on a positive footing with every recruit. Even when the initial recruiting process results in a hard-fought loss. Even when the coaching staff gets emotional about the player choosing to sign elsewhere. Every impression matters. In recruiting, the first impression is critical, though not always accurate. The last impression may even be more critical as it is a key factor in making future decisions. Coaches who lose recruitments with class will have a legitimate chance to land that recruit in the future, if that player chooses to enter the transfer portal.

More than ever, coaches have to continuously build bridges with recruits, even ones considered lost causes, currently. With the transfer portal, today’s lost recruiting cause is tomorrow’s highly touted transfer player.

Players or coaches who choose to burn bridges do so at their own peril.

Heat Check #3 – Backchanneling will be Critical

In the world of the transfer portal, player and coaches must be able to gauge interest, compare schools/players/coaches, and have a dialogue to come to an understanding through intermediaries. Players and coaches will communicate with each other by using the player’s former AAU coaches, high school coaches or key members of the player’s entourage. People around the coach can be used as well.

These informal networks can help shorten the decision-making process and allow for the shorter time the portal is open to be effectively used to help the player and school find the best match. We can also assume that "theoretical" NIL discussions can be had here as well. While this is a gray area, informal networks/backchanneling is essential for both sides to be successful.

This means that coaches need to find a way to resolve any potential outstanding issues with AAU and high school coaches. The future may require many go-betweens depending upon the recruit question. Alienating potential sources of backchanneling might mean missing out on a key transfer in the future. There is no point in risking the loss of a key piece of a roster because of vanity-based feuds. College coaches must set aside their egos and not let contentious situations get out of hand.

The time is now to mend fences for the good of the teams and the players involved. Don’t wait until it’s too late!

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