Learning from a Message Board Genius

Or, why College Football is the purest sport.

The twitter account Message Board Geniuses trawls the deep dark waters of single-team message boards and screenshots the most unhinged posts, often in galleries on Saturday when a particular team is melting down. I like to check in from time to time but I can’t bear to actually follow it because it’s just too much bile and hatred. Here’s an interesting one recently:

In case it all gets taken down here is the text they are making fun of:

What is stopping NIL deals for NFL players. Why is this on a college level only? Clearly people have National endorsements but for example why isn’t a car dealer in Miami offering a huge NIL deal on top of their team contract to join the Dolphins? Why are the donors just at the college level…Is it cap related? I just find it hard to believe that their aren’t billionaire fans that won’t pay the extra money to get a big free agent to their city. What’s stopping an oil billionaire from getting Mahomes on his next free agent deal to the Texans?

user speedychase1 on the Bucknuts board, quoted by @BoardGenusies

Most of the replies are along the lines of “Ha so stupid of course NFL players can pursue their own endorsement deals,” but I think there’s a question here worth answering.

For one thing, most commenters seem to be avoiding the central reality that speedychase1 is alluding to: NIL (Name, Image & Likeness) deals are not, in the vast majority of cases, about name, image and likeness. You are aware, right? Sure: some QBs are out there hawking cars and some linemen with funny names get deals with like-named products. But when people talk about the shadowy “NIL collectives” dropping high-seven-digit deals on recruits, they are not endorsement deals in the classic sense. They are talking about pay for play.

On Friday, a five-star recruit in the Class of 2023 signed an agreement with a school’s NIL collective that could pay him more than $8 million by the end of his junior year of college, The Athletic has learned. He’ll be paid $350,000 almost immediately, followed by monthly payouts escalating to more than $2 million per year once he begins his college career, in exchange for making public appearances and taking part in social media promotions and other NIL activities “on behalf of (the collective) or a third party.” … “Whatever casual sports fans or coaches think student-athletes are earning from collectives, they’re (undershooting) by 10X. While $2 million (a year) is wild, $200,000 isn’t, but most people are thinking they’re getting $20,000.”

Five-star recruit in Class of 2023 signs… The Athletic, March 11, 2022

Note that no mention is made of any particular product or deal and indeed there is none because no company could justify paying millions for the endorsement from a recruit that hasn’t played a game yet. The supposed endorsee is the collective itself. This is a bald end-run around paying college football players using the newly allowed NIL clause. You get that, right?

And it’s… Well, it is what it is. Some days I think it’s all fine and some days I wish they’d pump the brakes just a little.

College Football is the purest sport.

Boy: There’s a reason I love you…
Girl: My goodness!
Boy: Don’t be absurd.

Old gag, I can find it quoted in It Ain’t No Sin by Simon Louvish, a biography of Mae West

There’s a reason I say this about college football, and it isn’t the nobility of student-athleticism or amateurism or any of that claptrap.

In College Football the people who control the money actually care about winning more than anything.

That’s the deal! Boosters care about one thing: their team winning. And they pour money into college programs to prove it. Pro sports are larded down with thousands of restrictions big and small to make sure winning is subordinated to making money as the ultimate goal.

The Warriors are perhaps the most naked “we want to actually win” franchise in the NBA, and they have been richly rewarded for it. Franchise value over $7B! But Lacob does not want to win so much that he will pay borrow against that valuation to pay a punitive 100% luxury tax when the big two come up for renewal next year. He won’t lobby for the end of the cap, draft, or the reserve clause. He won’t take a billion dollars to Europe, establish a shadow team siphoning up all the continent’s talent and test the legality of subjecting European players to the draft. (Think of what SEC boosters would do if other countries were playing meaningful high school football!) No NFL owner speaks against the unbalanced schedule, cap, draft etc. Mark Cuban knew all the shady NBA ref stuff that ended up denying his own team a championship but elected not to publish it and “kill the golden goose.” Ultimately they all believe in the parity-enhancing anti-winner match-fixing policies that pro sports restrict themselves with because they see those things as necessary to turning a profit.

Rich people don’t like to lose money on something that could be making money. And they really don’t like to contribute money to another rich guy’s bottom line for nothing.

College football has the unique position of being a shared tribal “banner” that rich boosters can pour money into knowing they’re not directly enriching any rival person.

Boosters have no compunctions about sacrificing competitiveness or parity over the sport as a whole. Alabama football boosters believe that the ideal recruiting class would be all the top players in the country stacked 3-deep on the Tide depth chart. The rest of the nation could be a smoking ruin reduced to scrabbling together a few all-star teams that could hope to beat Alabama on a barnstorming tour that took place in the stadiums of fallen former rival schools. This would be a great season in their mind. (They’re not wholly wrong.) Booster appetite for talent and edge knows no limits. If someone muses that having a recording studio or two and a flight simulator in the players’ center might make kids more likely to commit, then the boosters will fund and build it.

That’s what makes CFB so compelling: all the punch-pulling that goes on at the higher levels is removed here. College Football recruiting is the only unrestricted free agent marketplace for an American athlete’s skills. Think of the travesty of the NFL Draft: highly skilled performers forced to sell their labor into a price-setting monopsony cabal controlled by 30 billionaires where the biggest on-field losers are rewarded with the most spoils. If the rival owners were really consumed with winning they’d get together and end the draft as fast as possible. (Imagine if someone pitched a recruiting draft for the SEC and how fast the boosters of all the big schools would unite in lighting that idea on fire.)

In College Football you can spend what you want on trying to win games. As a member of society the result is terrifying. But as a fan who wants to see widespread athletic competition at a high level with as few fingers on the scale as possible: it can be pretty refreshing.

So in the end the answer to speedychase1’s question is… well let’s run the simulation. Independent of league tampering rules, let’s say there truly was a rich superfan willing to spill money into a sham NIL deal for a prospective NFL free agent. Total comp is fungible, so that money they spend would be money accrued to the team owner’s effective payroll power. The cap is already designed to ensure owner profit; any resulting increased revenues would also flow to the team owner. Any small bump in winning for that year would be offset by the ensuing parity measures that immediately dampened the results of adding the new player. The superfan would be looking at a rapidly depreciating “investment” in “win now” for that one first year while a not-insignificant portion of that investment goes directly to the pockets in the owners’ box. For superfans with money to burn there’s a better way, which is simply to buy into that box. Minority stakes in pro teams trade pretty regularly.

In the end, the Message Board Genius you are dunking on is a Message Board Genius called yourself.