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The Transfer Portal, NIL, and College Sports ‘Free Agency’ Explained

Last Updated: October 25, 2022
What does the NCAA Transfer Portal mean in 2022? Boardroom takes a look at how Division I athletes use it — and how NIL plays into their decisions.

We’re now in that dreaded time of year when college football and college basketball are both in their off-seasons. With March Madness over and “Week 0” still months away, coaches nationwide are scrambling to figure out exactly what their teams will look like next year. In basketball, players are making their decisions to go pro or stay in school. In both sports, rising freshmen will be coming to campus soon for summer sessions. Most importantly, transfer season is heating up — particularly in men’s and women’s basketball.

Welcome to the NCAA Transfer Portal tango.

Every day for the next several months, you’ll see a bevy of tweets to the effect of “so-and-so has ENTERED THE PORTAL,” with some rumored school lists for the top available players peppered in. Right now, there’s over 1,000 players in men’s basketball alone in the Transfer Portal, and coaches are subsequently chomping at the bit to add that missing piece that could lead them to glory next March.

But what is the NCAA Transfer Portal, anyway, and how does it all work?

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Fortunately, the structure and function of this college sports phenomenon is actually pretty straightforward. We’ll lay everything out here, asnwer some FAQs, and clear up some of the common misconceptions.

What is the NCAA Transfer Portal?

The portal was designed to simplify the complicated process of players unhappy at their current schools finding a new program and a new coach. It consolidated all the players who wish to transfer and their contact information into one place, providing more transparency in the process and helping ensure compliance.

If a player wishes to transfer, he or she must simply submit their name into the portal, which they are free to do while also leaving open the option of returning to their current school.

Why are there so many transfers?

The short answer is that there are plenty of reasons. You’re free to formulate your own opinions about them, but the reality is that the annual increase in the rate of player transfers across college sports has little to do with the portal itself. Rather, there have been two major shifts in the past half-decade or so:

  1. The NCAA implemented the one-time transfer rule in 2021. This granted all Division I athletes the ability to transfer once to another school and be immediately eligible to play. Note that this was already the case for the vast majority of student athletes…just not those competing in revenue sports (Division I football and men’s and women’s basketball). In the past, those players would have to sit out a year before playing at their new schools unless they received a waiver.
  2. More simply, we’re seeing more athlete empowerment in action. There are so many different layers here, but between athletes being able to monetize their name, image, and likeness rights, using social media to raise issues important to them, and feeling freer to speak to the media about the college experience, players have more power than ever before. When they saw the coaching carousel wreak havoc on the landscape of their sport each year, yet they were not being given the same freedoms as those same coaches who get paid hundreds of thousands (or millions) of dollars, they spoke up. In turn, that emboldened student-athletes to think about if they were in the best position for them, not their program or coach.

How Does NIL Play into all of This?

Officially? Not at all. Unofficially? It can make a huge difference. But there are rules:

  • A coach is not allowed to promise specific deals or dollar amounts as part of the recruiting process, be it through the portal or just with high schoolers
  • Both schools and student-athletes must comply with state NIL laws. For example, in some states, schools cannot help facilitate deals — as ESPN points out here BYU’s team-wide deal with a protein bar company would have been impossible in numerous other states.

Transfers need to take the latter into consideration and coaches (and boosters) must comply with the former. Still, NIL opportunities can have a huge impact on where a player winds up. In the past, basketball or football players who are excelling at mid-majors might transfer to a bigger program to gain visibility and set themselves up better as a professional prospect. That still exists. But for those who aren’t guaranteed a long career in the pros, the ability to make more money now is going to be a factor.

Take NCAA Tournament breakout star Doug Edert as an example. He capitalized on St. Peter’s’ run to the Elite Eight with an apparel deal and a deal with Buffalo Wild Wings. But once next season starts, the Peacocks will rarely be on national TV, and any boost in interest that St. Peter’s receives locally will still be modest compared to the attention high-majors receive.

Edert is currently in the portal and may end up following his departing coach, Shaheen Holloway, to Seton Hall. If he winds up with the Pirates, he will play in front of thousands more fans every game, each of his games will also be on a FOX, CBS, or ESPN network, and he will be with a program with much more name recognition. It’s also much more likely that he will be able to return to the NCAA Tournament again next year, the sport’s biggest stage.

Taken together, a move makes him far more attractive to brand partners and will give him many more opportunities to earn money — important for someone not projected to play in the NBA.

Is this just college sports free agency?

Not exactly. After all, programs cannot pay players directly and there’s not an actual salary market per se. But you can bet that some athletes and some coaches occasionally treat this process like it was a kind of free agency.

Does all this hurt the small schools?

Yes and no. The portal, NIL, and the increase in transfers means that more good players at non-power schools are going to look for a bigger program. The question becomes whether you put more value in the student-athlete doing what is best for them or the coach of the smaller school having to work harder to keep their best players on campus.

But there’s another side to this too. Call it the Law of Conservation of Student-Athletes. For every “up-transfer” that takes a roster spot, there’s someone else who would have otherwise had that spot, who must transfer down or find somewhere else to play. The portal can be used for players at high-majors that are buried on the bench behind elite prospects. It gives mid-majors the ability to add talent with the promise of more playing time. This could also mean more visibility and NIL opportunities. The 10th guy on the bench at Ohio State probably isn’t getting a lot of NIL deals. But if he transfers to, say, Oakland, a basketball-first school with a strong local following, being the best player there may hold more value.

So there are pros and cons for the mid-majors. The common denominator is that the transfer portal has become an undeniable element to college athletics and the programs that embrace it will be set up to succeed while those who remain wary of bringing in transfers are bound to be left behind.

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About The Author
Russell Steinberg
Russell Steinberg
Russell Steinberg is an editor and writer at Boardroom. He came to the brand in 2021 with a decade of experience in sports journalism, primarily covering college basketball at SB Nation as a writer, reporter, and blog manager. In a previous life, he worked as a social media strategist and copywriter, handling accounts ranging from sports retail to luxury hotels and financial technology. Though he has mastered the subtweet, he kindly requests you @ him next time.