DALLAS — Last spring, Isaiah Wong led the University of Miami’s men’s basketball team to its best season to that point, a run to the round of 8 in the N.C.A.A. tournament, where it lost to Kansas, the eventual champion.
Weeks later, Miami added one of the top transfers in the sport: Nijel Pack, a sharpshooting guard from Kansas State, to form one of the best backcourts in Division I.
On that same day, John Ruiz, a Miami alumnus and the chief executive of LifeWallet, announced on Twitter that Pack had signed a two-year deal with his company worth $800,000 plus a car.
An agent representing Wong, who was also endorsed by LifeWallet, responded by telling ESPN that Wong would transfer if he didn’t receive a better deal that reflected “that he was a team leader of an Elite Eight team.”
Ruiz said he would not renegotiate the deal, and Wong eventually made a statement of his own, saying that the comments on his behalf were “unauthorized” and that he would not do anything to jeopardize his relationship with LifeWallet or Miami.
The skirmish reflected this new era in college sports, which began in the summer of 2021 after a series of state laws went into effect that made it illegal for the N.C.A.A. to prohibit athletes from earning money from the use of their name, image and likeness, a category now known as N.I.L.
Overnight, the experience of college athletes was transformed. Water polo players could advertise for summer swim lessons, and stars like the Connecticut guard Paige Bueckers or the Southern California quarterback Caleb Williams could garner millions in endorsements.
Ground zero for the endorsement revolution is Miami, where the men and women’s basketball teams made their deepest N.C.A.A. tournament runs in program history, and where every scholarship member of the football team was offered a deal.
The man making it all go is Ruiz, 56, a brash entrepreneur and a rabid Miami Hurricanes fan, who says he has invested more than $10 million in Miami athletes. Ruiz has straddled the line of pay for play that in one episode prompted an N.C.A.A. inquiry and resulted in a short suspension for the Miami women’s basketball coach. Some people in college sports, like the recently retired Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim, have suggested that Miami has simply “bought” players.
“We’ve been trendsetters,” Ruiz said in a recent interview, adding: “Nobody does it like we do.”
“I think what the purpose is, is to make sure that we get a return on investment from a company’s perspective,” Ruiz added. “While at the same time the students got more notoriety, and N.I.L. value, because the higher the value that the player has, the better it is for us.”
It is still against N.C.A.A. rules for athletes to receive money from a school or a booster in exchange for participating in a sport. Miami knows this well, as the school faced sanctions in 2013 after Nevin Shapiro, a booster who was incarcerated for a $900 million Ponzi scheme, told the N.C.A.A. that he provided cash and other gifts to many Miami athletes.
The wave of state legislation in 2021 allowed athletes to profit through social media posts, autograph sales, appearances, sponsorships, endorsement deals, and private training classes or camps. Now, many schools have adjacent collectives that pool booster funds and donations devised to arrange deals and endorsements for athletes.
When the athletes sign such deals, they are responsible for a set amount of commercials, social media posts and other requirements. (Wong, Pack, and Miami guard Jordan Miller wore LifeWallet uniforms in a commercial before their conference tournament.) So the amount of money a player gets largely hinges on the extent of their social media following.
Often, the best players amass the biggest followings, which can make N.I.L. deals look like boosters are openly paying for the best athletes.
Ruiz said that because of Pack and deep runs in both the men’s and women’s tournaments by Miami’s teams, he got more eyes on LifeWallet, generating “tenfold” returns on his investment in the athletes.
There are others out there like Ruiz, but they haven’t been as outspoken, in part because the presence of boosters often evokes the uncomfortable prospect of corruption. Miami benefits from doing business this way, but the athletic department has been publicly wary of embracing Ruiz.
On Thursday, Savanna Wood, Miami’s executive associate athletic director for brand and marketing strategy, interrupted an interview, telling two reporters to “keep the N.I.L. questions out of this,” when talking with Hurricanes players in an open locker room session.
In Kansas City ahead of Miami’s round-of-8 game against Texas, Kotie Kimble, an assistant coach, defended the team’s N.I.L. practices by comparing them to the Subway television ads recorded by Stephen Curry, the N.B.A. star.
“He plays for Golden State. He also works for Subway. So, there’s two separate deals. Same thing with our players,” Kimble said. “They play for us. We just coach them.”
Jim Larrañaga, the men’s basketball coach, avoided mentioning Ruiz when asked about him in a news conference ahead of the Final Four, changing the subject to the effectiveness of the transfer portal.
Meanwhile, several Miami players have been open about how much N.I.L. and Ruiz have affected their college careers.
“Having people like him really helps out players,” Miami guard Harlond Beverly said of Ruiz. Beverly talked about knowing players who could not afford meals or to buy their own clothes beyond those provided by the team, before N.I.L. (and Ruiz) came into the picture.
Haley and Hanna Cavinder, twin sisters who signed with the Hurricanes women’s basketball team last summer, are two of the most popular college athletes in any sport, with 4.5 million followers on their shared TikTok account. But the Cavinders were a part of an N.C.A.A. inquiry centered around a visit to Ruiz’s home before they committed to Miami that led to its women’s coach, Katie Meier, being suspended for three games.
It’s against N.C.A.A. rules for nonauthorized recruiters to have in-person, off-campus contact with prospects, and the Cavinders visited Ruiz’s home and had dinner, according to the N.C.A.A.’s report. Though the report never names Ruiz, it calls the person a “booster” and references a picture from his Twitter account of him with the Cavinder family.
Ruiz said he plans to “fight” the report, saying that it was factually incorrect and that negotiating deals with student-athletes directly does not make him a booster.
The sisters, who have a sponsorship deal with LifeWallet, faced no punishment, and helped lead Miami to its first round of 8 in program history. They also made a viral video in response to the N.C.A.A. sanctions.
“N.I.L. changed my life,” Haley Cavinder said. She added: “I think there’s challenges within it because I think there’s a lot of people that make you one-dimensional. You have to be an influencer; you have to be a basketball player. But I think you can be both.”
Dan Hurley, UConn’s men’s basketball coach, said that Wong’s public fracas with LifeWallet and Ruiz was startling and a realization of how much college sports had changed.
“That sent shock-waves, I think, when we saw that and how it was playing out publicly,” Hurley said.
Many coaches have expressed frustration with this new era. Nick Saban, Alabama’s football coach, said that Jackson State and Texas A&M bought recruits. Boeheim, the retired Syracuse coach, said college basketball was in an “awful space” because of the endorsement deals, and accused Miami, Wake Forest and Pittsburgh of buying teams. He later apologized.
But, in Miami fashion, Larrañaga hasn’t been of that mold. Larrañaga has said that many schools do the same things as Miami but are less open about it. He hopes that a website showing player N.I.L. earnings will be available at some point, like viewing N.B.A. contracts.
“TV makes money, right? The shoe companies make money. The universities make money,” he said, also listing off athletic directors and coaches. Larrañaga added, “Well, what’s wrong with that filtering down?”
Billy Witz contributed reporting from Houston, and Noah Weiland from Kansas City, Mo.
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