Why is Michigan hiring a GM for NIL? ‘Everyone’s feeling like they’re behind’

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The transfer portal opened March 18 for men’s and women’s basketball, which meant Rachael Bacchus was having anything but a normal day.
Normal days barely exist for Bacchus, the general manager for NIL at Arizona State. Her job is to stay on top of policy changes, court rulings, portal windows and everything else that goes into the ever-changing world of name, image and likeness. When a season ends and the portal opens, the bidding begins. For Bacchus, that means having in-depth conversations with coaches and players about what the athlete is earning, what’s being offered and what Arizona State can do to retain its players.
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“We’re understanding how collectives on the outside are operating, making sure our coaches know our starting forward is being reached out to and DM’ed and having conversations from other collectives,” Bacchus said. “‘Here’s what we’re up against. Here’s what he made last year in NIL through his disclosures.’ In your exit interviews with him, if he says, ‘Hey, coach, I want more NIL,’ here’s how you know what ‘more’ is.”
Bacchus is an employee of Altius Sports Partners, a consulting firm that advises athletic departments on NIL. Altius has general managers overseeing NIL programs at 18 schools, with Michigan soon to become the 19th. It’s an all-encompassing position that involves working with collectives, coaches, athletes, sponsors and administrators to implement a cohesive strategy in an inherently unstable environment.
If there’s one thing Bacchus has learned in 10 months at Arizona State, it’s not to get too attached to her to-do list. No matter what she has planned, every day is going to have its surprises.
“There is not one day that I’ve been able to get through my to-do list or get through everything that’s on my calendar,” Bacchus said.
Having an on-campus general manager for NIL has become increasingly common as schools try to keep tabs on NIL opportunities for hundreds of athletes in a fiercely competitive market. Altius hires and places GMs at the schools that sign up for its services, collecting a consulting fee from the school as well as the equivalent of the GM’s salary. Though the GMs aren’t university employees, most have offices on campus and work with school officials to tailor an NIL strategy to the specific institution.
Brad Bauer, GM for NIL at Northwestern, has an office in the academic advising wing of the school’s Walter Athletics Center and keeps his door open for athletes and coaches who need guidance on NIL. Bauer has a background in sports marketing and worked for Northwestern Sports Properties as an employee of Learfield, which has on-campus teams managing multimedia sponsorships for nearly 200 schools.
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As an Altius GM, Bauer sees himself as a “lightning rod” for all aspects of NIL at Northwestern.
“NIL is so pervasive,” he said. “It touches every coach and administrator. Whether they know it or not, whatever their job is, NIL has an impact on them.”
Michigan’s new GM will arrive at an interesting time. The Michigan football team just won a national championship and now has to reload under new coach Sherrone Moore. The men’s basketball team bottomed out at 8-24, leading to the firing of Juwan Howard and the hiring of Dusty May, who will have to remake the roster from the ground up.
Champions Circle, the primary NIL collective operating at Michigan, launched a “March with May” crowdfunding campaign that raised $22,000 within three days of May’s hiring. That’s a start, but after the downturn for men’s basketball late in Howard’s tenure, the new general manager will have to be creative in generating NIL funds to assist with May’s rebuild.
“I probably spend about 25 to 30 percent of my time on NIL, recruiting donors, giving access to our program, doing anything we could to provide opportunities for our players,” May said. “It is what it is. I’ve learned to enjoy it. It’s not going away. I’d love for our players to be taken care of as much as possible and rewarded for the work they put in.”
It’s time to give a Wolverine welcome to our new @umichbball Head Coach – Dusty May. We are launching the “March with May” NIL campaign to show @CoachDustyMay and the Men’s Basketball program that we’ve got their back. Let’s all March with May today!https://t.co/ZPphFV9Mpj pic.twitter.com/7x7Y4ue5cE — Champions Circle (@ChampCircleUofM) March 25, 2024
Finding enough NIL money to go around is a challenge for every school that aspires to compete in multiple sports. The fear of falling behind is pervasive, and fans everywhere worry that their school is getting out-hustled by its rivals. That’s been true at Michigan, where NIL is a constant topic of discussion among fans.
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“Everyone’s feeling like they’re behind in NIL,” said Solly Fulp, executive vice president of Learfield Sports. “Everyone is feeling like they’re chasing it. There’s no one at the mountaintop right now.”
Most schools have at least one collective, like Michigan’s Champions Circle or TrueNU at Northwestern, that operates outside of the athletic department and pools donor funds for NIL deals. Several smaller collectives have popped up at Michigan, along with internal NIL initiatives like the football team’s M Power program. Hiring a general manager will address one persistent complaint, which was the lack of a centralized structure for those various entities.
Michigan’s contract with Altius, obtained via Freedom of Information Act request, includes a $5,000 monthly consulting fee and a salary allocation of $255,754 for the yet-to-be-hired general manager. The consulting agreement gives Michigan access to market data about other schools’ NIL strategies, which helps decision-makers know how Michigan’s NIL offerings measure up.
“We want Michigan to be on the cutting edge of NIL and know what others are doing and continue to push the envelope,” said Chin Weerappuli, founder of Hail! Impact, a nonprofit collective for Michigan athletes. “Altius is going to, from what I’ve heard, really assist with that.”
Every school is different in its approach to NIL, said Brittney Whiteside, vice president of collegiate partnerships at Altius. Some take what Whiteside described as a “boots on the ground” approach to generating as much NIL funding as possible, whereas others are more hands-off. The person hired at Michigan will do things the “Michigan way,” Whiteside said, which means leaning into the school’s educational resources and the power of NIL to position athletes for long-term financial success.
Athletic director Warde Manuel has said Michigan won’t use NIL deals as inducements, which aligns with the NCAA’s stance on NIL. Attorneys general in Tennessee and Virginia filed a lawsuit challenging the NCAA’s attempts to restrict NIL for recruits, and a judge granted a temporary injunction in February that prohibits the NCAA from enforcing NIL restrictions for the time being.
The temporary injunction came down on a Friday afternoon on the East Coast, which meant there was still daylight in Arizona. Bacchus, a lawyer by trade, was able to issue updated guidance later that day about what coaches and collectives could and couldn’t do in light of the ruling.
“Programs that have opened the doors and allowed these (GM) roles, it allows them to be nimble, because we’re prepared,” Bacchus said. “That’s what this job is, to make sure our counterparts at the programs we’re serving know, ‘This is coming.’”
Rachael Bacchus has been Arizona State’s NIL GM since last spring. (Courtesy of Altius)
Predicting the endgame for athlete compensation is one of the biggest questions facing decision-makers in college sports. As part of its contract with Michigan, Altius offers a “playbook for the future of college athletics” that encompasses “revenue sharing, collective bargaining, employment status, or some combination thereof,” an acknowledgement that some form of direct compensation is likely coming.
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Michigan’s deal with Altius runs through Dec. 31, 2027, spanning what’s likely to be a period of major change in college sports. Even if schools or conferences are allowed to provide direct compensation for athletes, endorsement deals would remain a major source of income for college athletes, just as they are for the pros, and a coordinated NIL strategy will be paramount.
“Brands are just getting started in this space,” Whiteside said. “I think we’ll see more of what I would call traditional marketing opportunities for athletes and branding dollars flowing in this space. That’s a bucket we often forget because we think about collectives and donors and forget about those traditional marketing opportunities that do exist.”
Part of a general manager’s job is educating coaches, athletes and donors who are new to the world of NIL. Bacchus counsels coaches to be careful about what they put in writing, which led to an amusing exchange with a coach who assured her he never writes anything down — only in text messages.
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With April 15 approaching, Bacchus has been leading seminars on tax preparation to make sure athletes are accurately reporting their NIL income. Several times in the past week, athletes approached her and asked what would happen if they didn’t pay taxes. Would there be repercussions? Would the IRS even know?
“I use the example of Wesley Snipes,” Bacchus said, referring to the actor who served time in prison for failing to file income tax returns. “I forget that they don’t know who Wesley Snipes is.”
Three years in, It’s understandable that coaches and athletes are still figuring out the world of NIL. Keeping track of the rules is a full-time job, which is why it helps to have a full-time GM.
“We’re providing that guidance, hands on, real time,” Bacchus said. “Other programs that don’t have that national landscape view? God bless them, honestly. I can’t imagine.”
(Top photo: Scott W. Grau / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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