BIRMINGHAM — Less than a year into it and the NCAA’s new transfer model has already changed the game.
“The transfer portal has changed everything, I think every head coach in America would say that,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said last month from the Regions Tradition Celebrity Pro-Am in Birmingham. “The first year was really a learning experience for everybody and I think that’s something you really need to plan ahead for. I think you have to be very strategic moving forward.”
Passed by the Division I Council in June 2018 and put into effect last October, the NCAA’s “notification of transfer” model takes the authority to control transfers away from coaches and school administrators and places it into the student-athlete’s command. Under the new model, once a student-athlete decides to explore their transfer options, they need only inform a member of their program’s compliance office and their name enters what has been categorized as a “portal” — an online database of transfer-eligible student-athletes that select coaches and administrators can view and then contact.
In the seven months since its implementation, roughly 500 football players from the Power 5 level have entered the transfer portal, according to 247Sports.com’s transfer tracker, with less than 100 actually transferring to another Power 5 program.
Given that discrepancy, and how much these transfers have adversely affected rosters all across the country, expect the portal to be a significant topic of discussion during this week’s annual SEC Spring Meetings in Destin, Florida, which begin Tuesday morning.
Every year, coaches, administrators and presidents/chancellors from all 14-member institutions take four days out of their summer vacations to meet at the Sandestin Beach Hilton to discuss various issues affecting the conference. And while there aren’t always significant or tangible changes to be made at the end of the week, this year’s Spring Meetings could feature quite a bit of rigorous discussions.
Along with potential roster management issues in the face of the NCAA transfer portal, expect coaches and administrators to openly debate everything from the idea of paying student-athletes for their name and likeness to potentially doing away with the prohibition against alcohol sales in SEC stadiums.
With that in mind, here’s a look at some of what could be at play next week in Destin:
1. NCAA transfer portal/roster management
SEC coaches, much like those affected from other prominent conferences, have been vocal in their displeasure with how the portal has adversely affected their ability to sustain a competitive a roster, with many openly comparing it to free agency.
“I think everybody’s affected by it because it may not be right now but it may be coming,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said last month. “We all are in the same hierarchy and we understand the rules we’re given, and the transfer portal is what we’re dealing with right now. So there’s not a lot you can do about it but you try to manage your roster the best you can.”
While any tangible rule changes are unlikely, especially after the league made it easier for student-athletes to transfer in and out of the conference in prior years, coaches and administrators will inevitably discuss ways the SEC can be more proactive in addressing some key issues associated with the new transfer model.
“Look, whatever the rules are, that’s what we have to live with,” Alabama’s Nick Saban said last month. “So we’re just hopeful that we do a good job for our players and they stay committed to our program and doing the things that they need to do to be successful.”
Alabama, alone, has had seven players enter the transfer portal, with graduate transfer quarterback Jalen Hurts highlighting the list after his offseason move to Oklahoma. But outside of Hurts, who was the Tide’s backup quarterback last season after two years as the starter, the biggest name to enter the portal was sophomore linebacker Eyabi Anoma, who quickly reversed course a day later and opted to stay at Alabama following a discussion with Saban.
Still, other SEC programs haven’t been so lucky, including at rival Auburn, where 11 total players have submitted their names into the portal, including sophomore quarterback Malik Willis, who found himself on the outside looking in on the battle to be the Tigers’ starter this spring. Willis remains in limbo without a solid landing spot, while others like offensive tackle Calvin Ashley, defensive tackle Jauntaivus Johnson, cornerback Cam’Ron Kelly and running back Asa Martin have already transferred to Florida Atlantic, Colorado, North Carolina and Miami, respectively.
“It really was (a hard time) last year, there’s no doubt about that,” Malzahn said. “Hopefully in the future we’ll have that solved. That’ll be a big part too.”
2. Player compensation for name/likeness
With the NCAA recently putting together a “working group” to “examine the NCAA’s position on name, image and likeness benefits,” many around the country are discussing the potential ramifications of permitting student-athletes to be paid for use of their likeness.
While nothing has been decided yet, nor any changes even discussed to this point, coaches and conferences are certainly keeping tabs on what the collegiate athletic model could look like if players are compensated financially for use of their appearance.
Paying players in anything other than a scholarship or stipend has long been akin to sacrilege when it comes to the power brokers in college athletics. But as collegiate revenue streams continue to rise along with coaching salaries, some are slowly coming around to a more common sense idea of some form of financial compensation, especially when part of that revenue comes from marketing the names or likenesses of individual players.
“I think it’s a great thing in the sense that, listen, to the victor go the spoils. But not as much when it comes to the student athletes. A college scholarship is worth a ton, (but) the realistic scholarship now, of providing the cost of attendance, is better,” Auburn men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl said recently. “In addition to being able to have student athletes to benefit from their own likeness would be the idea that the longer you stay and perhaps even the better you perform, having some kind of annuity, some sort of stipend, some sort of a trust. I think we need to treat student-athletes fairly.”
3. Allowing alcohol sales in SEC stadiums
Arguably one of the more significant changes that could be made this week is the potential to end the SEC’s decades-long prohibition on alcohol sales at on-campus stadiums across the conference.
For as far back as anyone can remember, the SEC has had a longstanding policy banning public alcohol sales at league sporting events, with only controlled exceptions like designated “premium seating” areas or the occasional beer garden at select baseball stadiums (Auburn, Texas A&M and LSU), which are nowhere near general or student seating. Alabama’s Sewell-Thomas Stadium sells beer in its club section and allows students to bring in a limited number of beer cans per person, but both sections are segregated and contained.
A yearly talking point between various forward-thinking programs and those with a more traditional mentality toward alcohol, recent changes around the country — including the NCAA approving alcohol sales at championship events last year as well as programs from other conferences finding beer and liquor sales quite lucrative — have made the topic far less taboo and should allow for meaningful discussions next week.
Whether those discussions lead to a policy change it yet to be seen, but it’s clear the SEC — which is the only conference with such a policy — is moving closer and closer toward removing its beer ban.