Utah State running back Calvin Tyler Jr. (4) runs into the end zone for a touchdown in the first half of the LA Bowl NCAA college football game against Oregon State in Inglewood, Calif. Saturday, December 18, 2021. (Ashley Landis, Associated Press)
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LOGAN – For Utah State quarterback Logan Bonner, it was a dinner several years in the making.
Ever since his day at Arkansas State, the quarterback has always wanted to reward his offensive line by taking it to a nice restaurant — a token of gratitude for their efforts to protect the line of scrimmage. But an all-encompassing dinner for several tall people was a tall order on a student-athlete’s budget, so Bonner never got the chance.
That changed in November. Bonner signed a name, image and likeness deal or NIL deal with Deseret First Credit Union. And one of his first issues after signing the deal? Take his offensive line to the Kabuki Steakhouse and Sushi Bar on Main Street in Logan.
“I mean, that’s like a big bill,” Bonner said. “I don’t know if you’ve seen these guys when they’re all together.
“After I signed with Deseret I just wanted to say thank you and they were willing to do it and I took them out to dinner. It was a really good time. One of them ordered a medium well steak. I was nice. I’d rather order him a good chicken if he ate a hockey puck.”
Questionable culinary preferences aside, it was a unifying night for a group of college football players who were just weeks away from winning the Mountain West Championship. It was a night that probably wouldn’t have happened in any previous season.
In July 2021, the NCAA officially deregulated rules prohibiting NIL opportunities for their student-athletes; This enabled players in a multi-billion dollar industry to monetize their personal brands.
Nearly a year after the landmark announcement, NIL is the talk of college athletics. Policies originally established by the NCAA, such as play-for-play and fair-market value, went largely unenforced, making NIL a massive recruiting tool and sparking controversy in programs and conferences nationwide.
In the state of Utah, the impact of NIL is not that big – at least from a dollar perspective.
Although student-athletes are required to disclose their NIL agreements with the university, they are not public records (Utah State cites them as “educational records” protected from public access under a federal law called FERPA). This makes the exact monetary amount of individual deals unclear.
Clearly, six- and seven-figure deals for Aggie’s student athletes aren’t quite within the realm of possibility.
“I don’t really know much about the huge contracts and stuff these guys sign because obviously we’re not a big school. So you’re never really going to see that with us,” Bonner said. “And a lot of guys just switch for money and stuff like that, and I don’t think we really have to deal with that in our school.”
In other words, don’t expect to see Bonner in a brand new Lamborghini gifted to him by an Aggies booster until Utah State’s home opener against Connecticut on August 27th. That’s not to say NIL hasn’t directly influenced a handful of Aggies athletes, though.
According to athletic director John Hartwell, 40-50 student-athletes currently have NIL deals on campus. Some of these deals involve Olympic athletes.
For example, some track and field team members have received free products in return for sponsoring brands on their social media pages. However, the majority of deals went to men’s basketball and soccer players.
The most notable beneficiary of NIL this past season was basketball forward Justin Bean. The fan favorite during his college career landed a sponsorship deal with Taco Time — he’s been promoting a “bean burrito” combo meal. He also teamed up with USU Credit Union, where he attended events throughout the year, eventually ending up on a company billboard on I-15 just south of Brigham City.
Aside from Bean’s and Bonner’s stores with recognizable, nationwide brands, other stores were more niche.
Several local restaurants in Cache Valley have organized meet and greets and autograph sessions. Bean and Aggies guard Rylan Jones, among others, have attended such events. Five soccer players, including Bonner, received compensation for promoting the LA Bowl on social media in December; and several soccer players have launched their own clothing brands.
Some offerings are tied directly to a student-athlete’s ability off the grid. Long snapper Jacob Garcia landed a contract with a local cooking company where he teaches cooking classes; Defensive tackle Hale Matuapauaka, a three-time world fire knife champion, has teamed up with Wilson Motor in Logan to perform before the public on June 10.
In Bonner’s view, they are “broke college students like everyone else,” and if they help the university make money from their performance on the field, they may also have a chance to make a profit themselves.
“We’re up (on campus) from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and we train every day,” Bonner said. “We have meetings, we have hour-long meetings and study, and then we have school. Yes we have full scholarship and we get our books and paper which is amazing.
“But we don’t have any money to live on. It’s just like it’s enough to go and we can do a few things here and there. … So it’s tough sometimes, but that helps us have the opportunity to get some extra money and make our lives a little bit better.”
A year into the NIL opportunities, things have been smooth sailing for the state of Utah, but the university hopes more of its student-athletes will be able to use their NIL, in large part for the benefits Bonner described.
The State of Utah recently entered into an agreement with Opendorse, a platform that allows student-athletes to create a NIL profile and allows both companies and student-athletes interested in making NIL deals to connect.
“We’re excited to provide this platform so hopefully our student athletes can benefit from more NIL deals,” said Hartwell.
When speaking about NIL, Hartwell often sees two benefits: a chance for student-athletes to earn compensation, and providing student-athletes with real-world business opportunities while they’re at college that will help them in their future careers.
To improve the business skills of potential NIL recipients, the university offers a four-credit NIL course in the fall through the Hunstman School of Business. several student-athletes are already enrolled in it.
Bonner has recognized the potential long-term business benefits of NIL and wants his teammates to benefit. He is attempting to put together a job fair for his teammates, inviting local businesses to come and meet with the football team, potentially offering NIL opportunities and building connections.
“We don’t get paid as well as these big schools, which is okay, I didn’t expect that,” Bonner said. “But I think the biggest aspect is the networking part. How many people can we meet and how many people can influence and get to know us in the community and after football – see what happens.”
It’s a healthier, more hands-on approach to using NIL that Aggie’s student-athletes are taking notice of, and that coaches and administrators are pointing out. But there’s another component of NIL Utah State that would be kidding themselves if they didn’t consider that a factor: recruitment.
There’s no doubt that an increase in NIL deals for on-campus athletes would benefit recruitment, even if winning a child for Logan isn’t the main selling point.
“Zero questions come up fairly regularly in recruiting, and that’s only going to increase over time,” said basketball assistant coach Matt Henry. “For not all prospective physical education students, but for many, it’s part of the equation when deciding on a school.”
The number of basketball and soccer recruits who solely decide where they go to college and who can bid the most money is still in that vast minority. And typically, these are high-quality recruits that the state of Utah could never have successfully recruited.
But when a three-star linebacker is torn between Utah State, Fresno State and Wyoming, a decent track record of athletes finding NIL opportunities in Logan could make all the difference.
“The question comes up, ‘Hey, are there ZERO options,'” admitted Hartwell. “And we can point to some of our football players or basketball players who took advantage of those opportunities.”
Nationally, NIL has yet to be sorted out and the genie “put back in the bottle,” as Hartwell explained.
“I think it was a bit naïve to use the term ‘can’t be paid above fair market value’. Well, that’s such a nebulous term,” Hartwell said. “There probably has to be some dollar amount limits, but I’ll say that, probably the reason it hasn’t happened is because you have the NCAA as a body, which, you know, for want of a better term, Litigation detrimental at the moment they don’t want to limit things for fear of being sued.
“So that’s part of it, but I think something needs to be done to limit some of these just extraordinary amounts that are clearly doing very little to ‘earn’ those things.”
At Utah State, there is an internal belief that things are being done right; They adapt and grow over time. But one rule seems set in stone: if you’re dining off your teammates’ ZERO dime, don’t order a medium-sized steak.