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MESA in the Union Tribune

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Is San Diego State’s approach sustainable when other schools’ NIL collectives are buying teams? San Diego State forward Jaedon LeDee, center, and teammates meet inside the Fowler Athletic Center after arriving back on campus on Monday. Fellow Final Four competitor Miami ‘bought’ a team with a reported $2.2 million in combined NIL payments, which dwarfs what Aztecs players are getting By Mark Zeigler

San Diego State is in the Final Four this week in Houston. Miami is in the Final Four. San Diego State has name, image and likeness money for its players. Miami has NIL money. That’s where the similarities end. “Miami,” since-retired Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said earlier this season, “bought a team.” Aztecs guard Darrion Trammell was asked to guess how much NIL money the Miami roster receives. He guessed $800,000. That’s what one player, Kansas State transfer Nijel Pack, is getting. The team’s combined NIL deals reportedly are worth $2.2 million. SDSU scholarship players each get $2,000 per month from the MESA Foundation in exchange for participating in a half-dozen community events over the year and promoting them on social media. Everyone gets the same amount, bench warmer or leading scorer. “Obviously it would be a blessing if we had money like that,” Trammell said of Miami. “But we get what we get. We’re grateful that they’re doing what they can to make sure we have money in our pockets and our rent is paid. You can’t really look at it and compare yourself to other situations and what they have. You have to embrace what you have and enjoy what you have.” The two programs have achieved the same results with different approaches. The question going forward is if either is sustainable. Can SDSU continue competing without Miami NIL? Can Miami keep providing Miami NIL? “NIL,” SDSU Athletic Director John David Wicker said, “is the new reality in all of college athletics. But I think there are enough good players out there that for some it’s about the money and for others it’s about the culture, about what I can get out of the program and all the other intangibles that come with it. They chose to value other pieces more.” Jeff Smith and some fellow Aztecs basketball boosters created the MESA Foundation last fall based on the latter model, with the goal of providing modest NIL money to players while reflecting the program’s team-first ethos and adding a community service component. It was never meant to compete with Miami, or any of the dozens of other power conference programs that have used NIL as an unabashed, pay-for-play recruiting incentive — legalized cheating, in the eyes of many. “We’re not big donors with big dollar amounts and players driving around in crazy cars and things that are off-putting for a lot of people,” Smith said. “Ours is much more of a water level, equal involvement thing … There’s no real way to know exactly what everybody else is doing, but you do hear these intimidating numbers and it does make you nervous. It makes my head spin.” The latest numbers circulating involve a pair of Mountain West Conference transfers that might have considered the Aztecs but didn’t want to wait until the end of their NCAA Tournament run to visit. Colorado State’s John Tonje, who averaged 14.6 points for the ninth-place Rams, committed to the SEC’s Missouri, sources said, for north of $200,000. Jeremiah Oden from last-place Wyoming is headed to the Big East’s DePaul — a program that has one winning season in the last 16 years — presumably for a healthy payout as well. Smith’s group set a first-year budget of $350,000 and says they recently hit it thanks, in part, to the team’s magical run through March. But now they have to do it again next year, and the year after that. Their initial strategy was to target deep-pocketed donors. That quickly shifted, from pursuing quantity of contribution instead of quantity of contributors. About a half-dozen people have pledged $25,000 or more. About 150 people, Smith estimated, have given anywhere between $25 and $1,000. Another approach is an online trivia game that allows users to win money for their favorite charities. “We weren’t going to be a school that could clip off $250,000 to $500,000 from an individual,” Smith said. “We learned pretty quickly that’s not San Diego State. The truth is, if this does get sustained and MESA does continue forward, we need to get the word out that this is only going to work if everybody buys in just a little bit. We’ll succeed based on the support of the community, not a few people.” The athletic department and coaching staff — and even former coach Steve Fisher — have all embraced the MESA model with video messages on its website. So has the university, with plans to include its messaging in alumni materials. Miami’s model is different, essentially driven by a single person: billionaire alum John Ruiz and his LifeWallet company that streamlines medical reimbursements. Ruiz announced on Twitter last April that Pack, who averaged 17.4 points for the Big 12’s ninth-place team, was committing to Miami and receiving $400,000 per season for two years. An agent representing the Hurricanes’ incumbent star, Isaiah Wong, threatened that Wong would transfer if his NIL deal wasn’t sweetened. Advertisement Apparently, they sorted it out enough to lead the fifth-seeded Hurricanes to three second-half comebacks in four NCAA Tournament games, including 13 down against Texas on Sunday to reach the Final Four. Proof that their approach worked. So, though, did SDSU’s. “We have to be involved in NIL,” Aztecs coach Brian Dutcher said Tuesday. “We have to fundraise actively to help NIL, to tell people the importance of it, that if we want to maintain our level of success, no matter how we decide we want to do it, we have to be able to do it at some level. Obviously, we’ve done it a different way. With the MESA Foundation, every (scholarship) player on the team gets the same amount every month.” Will schools like Miami raise the bar? “We’ll see,” Dutcher said. “I think this is a moving target. Some raise all this money for the first year of NIL. In the second year, is that pot always going to be the same? Can they go back to that person and say, ‘I need $1 million every year.’ That person might say, ‘I just gave you $1 million, and you spent it all?’” Advertisement In the meantime, Smith and MESA plug away, trying to parlay a Final Four run into long-term sustainability. Trying to get the word out. “San Diego State’s version of basketball success has always been about players wanting to be here, about players liking the culture,” Smith said. “This is a national opportunity to show people exactly what that means. … Are we worried about the future? The answer honestly has to be yes. But we can only be who we are, and our version of NIL is always going to be complementary to what the program is about.”

Mark Zeigler

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