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NIL opportunities for Kentucky schools, athletes welcomed, but hardly a level playing field

Billboards in Lexington are replete with UK athletes in the school's major sports.
Erika Carter
Billboards in Lexington are replete with UK athletes in the school's major sports who're paid for their name, image and likeness.

After school, there’s a friendly series of 3 on 3 games underway in the Falling Springs Arts and Recreation Center in Versailles. Before hitting the hardwood, ninth-grader Noah Oney, who played on the freshman team at Woodford County High School, says he’s a NIL fan -- but not for the reason you might guess.

“Yeah, I think it's a good idea. That way there's not as much like bribery, with the bigger schools being able to give athletes money to come there.”

Noah says he’d love to play for the University of Kentucky – or their neighbors to the south, Eastern Kentucky University. That’s where Matt Roan, the vice president and director of Athletics, is charged with making sure the school, athletes and NIL contributors comply with a rapidly changing set of rules. Part of that equation is the Maroon Fund announced last summer and named for the Colonels’ school color.

“That's a group of individuals, that's a group of businesses who participate in that collective that make the decision really on their own, for who they might want to associate with, who do they think they could help benefit who could benefit them and their individual capacities, in their business capacities. And we work in hand really in concert with them to make sure that you know, we're receiving proper disclosure at the proper time, and that our student athletes are fulfilling what it is that they're supposed to fulfill.”

Roan says the Maroon Fund does a great job of distributing endorsement and other NIL opportunities across sports and genders – but in the end, it’s a market-based system.

“Some of our student-athletes who have been most successful in the NIL are those who have larger social media followings, and that might be a football player, it might be a men's basketball player, but it might be a tennis student athlete, it might be a golf student athlete.”

Schools aren’t required, or allowed, to make public how much NIL money their athletes pull in. Unverified estimates range as high as a million dollars and more. Roan says the NCAA can’t prohibit schools from discussing NIL opportunities with recruits, but EKU recruiters don’t make promises.

“We talk about what we have in place, ie, we embrace this NIL era, that we have a marketplace for our student athletes that, you know, we take this multi-pronged approach between our sponsorship team being in those conversations, our compliance team being in those conversations, our donor team being in those conversations. But, ‘Hey, you come here and you create value for yourself. And there'll be great NIL opportunities for you here in Richmond, in Madison County, and EKU.’”

Of course, those opportunities are likely a fraction of what their Big Blue neighbors to the north and some other universities can offer. It’s not a level playing field.

“Is it frustrating and disappointing? Yes. And, you know, we want our student athletes to have every opportunity, it's a school of opportunity, we want them to be able to profit and to maximize, you know, NIL as much as they can.”

Roan says EKU occupies a “certain space” in the NIL market. UK’s Athletics Department, which declined an interview request, occupies a certain, larger space.

Back at Falling Springs, there’s not a lot of defense being played, but some of the kids clearly have game. Like Makhi Mahorn, an eighth-grader good enough to play on Woodford County High’s JV team. Both of his parents are very tall, and former NBA bruiser Rick Mahorn is an uncle. He says he’d like to bypass college and go straight to the G League – the NBA’s official minor league. If that doesn’t work out, Name Image Likeness at a college sounds good.

“Money. Just a lot about money and basically all your work, the hard work paying off.”

Makhi has heard reports about how much a former UK player made during his last season on the court.

“I know Oscar Tshiebwe made over a million in Kentucky straight through NIL.”

If so, Oscar Tshiebwe took a pay cut when he signed a two-way contract with the Indiana Pacers last summer. He’s spent most of his rookie season playing in the G League, where, according to several sources, the maximum salary is about $500,000. I’m John McGary in Woodford County.

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John McGary is a Lexington native and Navy veteran with three decades of radio, television and newspaper experience.
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