Big Bucks, Big Recruits: Big Ten

(InvestigateTV) — It’s been 10 years since Nyles Pinckney was first recruited to play Division I football, and from his perspective, one thing hasn’t changed: the pitch.

“A lot of coaches are like used-car salesmen,” Pinckney said.

Pinckney, a defensive tackle who spent five years at Clemson before transferring to the University of Minnesota for his last season, saw the recruiting landscape evolve throughout his time in college athletics. The salesmanship tactics stayed largely the same, but Pinckney said the amount of money on the line has increased.

Getting players to buy into a program means Big Ten schools must pay out. Thirteen of the public universities in the conference have spent $173.2 million since 2014 to attract players, according to the Arnolt Center for Investigative Journalism’s and InvestigateTV’s analysis of the Knight-Newhouse College Athletics database at Syracuse University. Northwestern University, a private school, is not required to release its financial data.

What the Big Ten has spent to lure athletes is nearly a third of the at least $541.9 million spent by Division I Football Subdivision Schools spent on recruiting since 2014.

But the proliferation of name, image and likeness, commonly called NIL, deals, and the NCAA’s decision to lift the cap on official visits opens the door to even more money being laid on the table, experts say.

“At the end of the day, no matter how many rules you put in, no matter what you do, the institution will do almost anything they can, literally by any means necessary, to try to get that recruit,” said B. David Ridpath, a professor of sports administration at Ohio University and an expert on the NCAA.

Ridpath said that men’s football and basketball spending has ballooned in recent years, and there is no limit to what top programs are willing to spend on a recruit.

InvestigateTV made public records requests to all the public universities seeking detailed expenditures for recruiting.

Nine schools provided records with detailed spending; Ohio State and Michigan provided summary figures; Indiana University is still processing the records request; and Penn State and Northwestern are exempt from public records laws.

Big Ten schools’ recruiting expenses ranged from meals to airfare to birthday cards, according to records obtained by InvestigateTV:

  • The University of Wisconsin paid for $164,322.86 worth of meals in the span of two days during October 2021.
  • Rutgers University spent $8,699 on birthday cards and badges for recruits in September 2021.
  • The University of Illinois spent $25,459.95 on an item simply labeled a “courtesy car.”
  • Purdue University purchased $43,388 worth of office supplies on July 14, 2021. It also had three recruiting dinners that cost more than $12,500.
  • The University of Nebraska spent $8,456.53 on vinyl envelopes in a single day. It also paid $4,550 for a 360-degree photo booth.
  • The University of Minnesota spent $2,400.88 on balloons in one day. It paid $71,416.06 to Aviation Charter Inc. on Jan. 24, 2021, and another $42,810.37 on Nov. 4, 2021.

Since 2014, the Big Ten’s recruiting spending has increased by 15%.

Steve Salaga, a professor at the University of Georgia who specializes in sport economics, said the NCAA’s decision to remove the cap on official visits could lead to increased spending on recruitment across the board.

“You would expect that recruiting expenses would increase, all else equal, if programs are gonna take advantage of that rule and bring in a larger overall number of recruits to evaluate,” Salaga said.

According to InvestigateTV analysis of data from Sports, one 5-star recruit from the class of 2022 received offers from 76 schools including 11 Big Ten members. It was the highest number of offers. Two others received offers from 70 schools. The 5-star recruit with the fewest received 19 offers.

Those offers now could translate into weekend after weekend of visits, with schools rolling out the red carpet for the most coveted high school stars.

Ridpath said as schools scramble to win over prospects, recruiting expenses will continue to shoot up.

“So, it’s a perpetual dog chasing its tail, so to speak, that everyone’s trying to one up each other,” Ridpath said.

During his last year as a football player at Minnesota, Pinckney was a mentor to younger players. He said he noticed that recruitment today is even more intense than when he was recruited.

Programs now compete for prospects’ attention through name, image and likeness deals.

That can be a challenge for the coaching staff, but also the young players, Pinckney said. Incoming athletes were not prepared to manage the money, he said.

“If you tell a kid that hasn’t come from much that he can go somewhere and make $2 million, I think it’s a no brainer that [they would accept],” Pinckney said. “But they don’t tell them they still have to pay taxes on all of it. They’re not teaching kids how to handle that kind of money.”

From an institution’s perspective, NIL can be a major factor in a program’s success, Salaga said.

“It’s become more and more important,” Salaga said. “The programs that have more NIL money, from what I’ve seen anecdotally, they’re the ones that are more successful in pulling an existing player off another team’s roster.”

In regards to NIL, Ridpath said, the money has always been there, but now it is out in the open in the form of marketing and merchandising deals. He said the athletes do not always benefit from the deals — they aren’t able to focus on getting a degree, and sometimes they don’t even receive playing time.

Ridpath said the “arms race” between schools to secure the top recruits ultimately hurts the students. Plenty of athletic programs are funded in part by student fees, he said.

“It makes me feel a little bit dirty almost when I look at what we’re spending to get kids to come to our institutions that we can try to exploit for money later,” Ridpath said. “It just doesn’t feel right.”

Heather Graf, Jill Riepenhoff and Conner Hendricks, of InvestigateTV, and Mina Denny, of the Arnolt Center, contributed to this story.

This story was written by journalists at the Arnolt Center for Investigative Journalism at Indiana University in partnership with InvestigateTV.