While tactfully picking through the best parts of a salmon salad over lunch, Horizon League Commissioner Julie Roe Lach explained how her conference has sorted through the broken pieces of the college sports landscape. The former model has shattered over the last few years, with unprecedented name, image and likeness (NIL) compensation, transfer portal freedom, and conference realignment constructing an entirely new and exciting, but potentially volatile, reality in major college athletics.
Lach’s 11-member, Indianapolis-based Horizon League finds itself caught somewhat in the middle of all of it. None of the Horizon’s member institutions are large enough for FBS football or eight-figure NIL collectives, but they’re not small enough to be able to sit on the bench. As one of the top mid-major conferences in the country, it is affected by every single one of these seismic changes, even if that impact isn’t always direct. IUPUI and Wright State aren’t cobbling together multimillion-dollar packages for coveted quarterback transfers, but student-athletes in all of Division I expect some type of NIL compensation, not only to get them to campus but to keep them there.
While some of Horizon’s peer conferences have been scrambling for solutions, Lach has attempted to rise to meet the increasing demands of the transforming college sports model while preparing the league for future challenges that likely will arise. Nearing the completion of her third year as commissioner and her 10th with the league overall, Lach talked about what the Horizon League has done in this ever-changing space and what she’s still bracing for in an exciting but uncertain time for intercollegiate athletics:
You’ve been commissioner for fewer than three years, yet there seems to have been 30 years’ worth of significant shifts within the college sports landscape in that time. How much of these changes have you been prepared for, and how much has been read and react?
Well, I think it’s a little bit of both. Having now worked in college sports for 25 years, 15 of those for national office [NCAA], we were often trying to get ahead of what the next big opportunity and evolution of college sports was going to be from the national scope. Right now, there have been and will continue to be legal cases that could literally reshape the model as it relates to our student-athletes and employees. Those legal threats are very real, so you’re constantly trying to mitigate the risk.
How has the newfound freedom for student-athlete movement through the transfer portal impacted the Horizon League, especially in men’s and women’s basketball?
I think it’s good that student-athletes have increased mobility in all sports. I was a student-athlete a long time ago, so having the ability to transfer and not sit out a year would’ve been a nice opportunity to have. The hard part is, the data shows the more student-athletes transfer, the less likely they are to graduate, and we’re in this to try to create a pathway to education. The first year of the transfer portal in basketball was a net gain for us in the Horizon League. Many of us were concerned that we were going to get poached. If you have a student-athlete make All-League, their profile is going to be raised, and they might get a chance to play at a Power Five school. So that happens. However, we had a student-athlete [Tanner Holden] do that—he transferred to Ohio State from Wright State, and now he’s back at Wright State because he realized the grass wasn’t greener.
The Horizon League broke the mold a bit in announcing the NIL deal with Opendorse last summer, a conference-wide marketplace. There were a lot of others who were playing the wait-and-see game when the floodgates opened. Why did you choose to aggressively pursue that?
When NIL first opened up, we started interviewing vendors, and you can imagine the cottage industry in the space exploded. We talked to no fewer than 10 different companies and then formed a group of basketball coaches, athletics administration and student-athletes to ask them, “What do you need the most in this entire [NIL] space?”
It came down to big pieces: No. 1 was, they needed some education. Not so much on do’s and don’ts, but more on how to build a brand. We had some student-athletes that are really sophisticated on social media, but many others weren’t sure how to even get started. Then, they needed some help to create pathways for NIL deals while also navigating NCAA compliance.
What kind of revenue has been generated for Horizon League student-athletes from the Opendorse partnership?
Opendorse is awesome. They have been to every one of our campuses and are now in their second round of teaching our student-athletes how to connect with brands on their platform. We reported almost $300,000 last year through Opendorse, and they also handled all of the tax forms for us. So we have the branding education piece, the hiring piece, and the compliance piece down, too. We have about 800 student-athletes that have registered, around 400 deals have been done, and [we] are approaching a grand total of $800,000 reported transactions by our Horizon League student-athletes.
We are not a league with Power Five schools [and big individual brands], so in order to have a meaningful market share, we wanted to take advantage of the collective 3,000 student-athletes and bring them all to the table. For example, Dunkin Donuts, who has hired some of our student-athletes via Opendorse, can go on there and pick who they want based on sport, location, major, are they a coffee drinker?—all these criteria you can sort out.
It seems the women’s sports space has particularly benefited from the proliferation of the NIL space. What has been the impact on your female student-athletes in the Horizon League?
It’s been a tremendous impact. Youngstown State women’s basketball program has had several student-athletes that have capitalized on this. One of their fifth-year seniors [Mady Aulbach] who is also on our Horizon League Advisory Committee, signed a deal with WWE after graduating earlier this year. They have a program for collegiate student-athletes who are strong in their sport and have charisma and train them to become potential WWE superstars. She credits the exposure she received from NIL for opening the door which allowed WWE to discover her.
Has the NIL impact been more positive or more negative on your league?
I believe it has been more positive for us, because we’ve helped our student-athletes build their brands. There’s real education, and they’re learning. We’ve had some star athletes make some significant money, and that helps offset some expenses that they used to have from being a college student. The fact we’ve had hundreds of student athletes do deals is pretty amazing, but our entire 3,000 [student-athlete] population are all learning from this, so I’d say it’s been a positive overall.
What are some of the negatives?
The downside that has affected us the most is on the men’s basketball level. NIL is being used more as a recruiting investment or a retention bonus. I have had coaches tell me they were recruiting a student-athlete that they lost to “XYZ conference” because they offered him however many thousands of dollars, but that’s really not NIL money. It’s, “You come here, here’s the NIL deal you’re going to do, and then you’re going to get paid this.” Because we compete nationally in basketball in the Horizon League, our coaches have to live in that space to figure out how to operate and do it ethically.
Does any part of you feel like the Horizon League might be a little more insulated because it doesn’t directly affect your schools as much? I’m talking maybe more of the conference realignment and NIL piece not impacting you as much as it impacts say, Mississippi State, when they’re trying to compete with Alabama and Texas.
I think it all definitely affects us; it’s just a question of degree. There are over 600 litigation cases facing the NCAA. In many of those cases, if the plaintiffs are successful, it will absolutely affect all of Division I athletics. NIL already impacts our league in the sports where we are competing nationally, like basketball, but it is not driving a lot of other sports, outside of FBS football. When Texas and Oklahoma announced going to the SEC, it affected the Horizon League. It took about 18 months and a lot of dominoes, but that move really shook things up and caused all D-I programs to look around at their situations. Everyone is asking, “Are we in the right place?” Even on our level, I’m getting asked about our growth strategy. Again, the impact might be more indirect, but we’re still part of it.
[Notre Dame Athletic Director] Jack Swarbrick commented a few months ago about how he felt it was time to collectively bargain with athletes, shocking many. Are you prepared for that possibility?
We know that conversation is happening, and we’ve talked about, what would that mean? There are half a million student-athletes, and Jack is talking about a very small number of those tied to generating incredible revenue. Many are not [generating revenue]—oftentimes, their opportunities are subsidized. So, the concern with the idea they should all be employees is that they’d then have to negotiate for everything. They’re no longer starting with the scholarship, academic support, mental health support, athletic training and nutrition support, so I think it would be a net loss for the overwhelming majority of student-athletes if they were in that place.
But, in this landscape, you have to be prepared for any possibility.•
From Peyton Manning’s peak with the Colts to the Pacers’ most recent roster makeover, Schultz has talked about it all as a sports personality in Indianapolis for more than 15 years. Besides his written work with IBJ, he’s active in podcasting and show hosting. You can follow him on X, formerly Twitter, @Schultz975.