Thanks to NIL, local car dealers are out of the shadows and landing star college athletes

On Jan. 19, two days after he became the most coveted football player in the NCAA’s transfer portal, and mere hours after he welcomed Ohio State coaches for a recruiting visit, Caleb Downs announced his change-of-address plans. The freshman safety who’d earned second-team All-America honors at Alabama committed to the Buckeyes. Not long after, Downs and his father began relocating to Columbus.

Getting there was simple enough. Getting around was another matter.

Some wheels needed to be put in motion.

“I get a call from someone on the coaching staff and they said, ‘Hey, I’m here with Caleb and his dad now. Are you looking to add somebody else to your team?’” says Rick Ricart, the CEO and owner of Ricart Automotive Group in Columbus. “Would you be willing to do a car deal for him?’”

For decades, these were shifty conversations. Local car dealerships had long been conduits for the whispered inducements coaches or boosters promised talented players. When discovered, scandal erupted. Repercussions were often stark. Then came the seismic summer of 2021, when changes to Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) rules allowed college athletes to earn money without fear of NCAA sanctions.

Car dealers nationwide quickly exchanged leases and keys for players boasting about their new ride on social media or even starring in commercials. The scheming, overzealous outsider morphed into the connective tissue for landing a star. A practice parked in the shadows was almost literally driven into the light. “All of a sudden, it was like, ‘What are the rules here?’” Ricart says now. “There are no rules anymore.”

Even before Ohio State coaches reached out to Ricart last winter, fans flocked to his direct messages, begging him to help woo Downs. The player ultimately received a Land Rover from a different dealership, orchestrated via The Foundation, Ohio State’s NIL collective, with Downs agreeing to be an ambassador for multiple charity partners. Ricart at least tangentially fulfilled everyone’s wishes, though: He’s on the collective’s 24-person board.

Besides, business was still good. After Ohio State landed prized five-star receiver Jeremiah Smith in late December, Ricart zeroed in on a prospect who could be the program’s next great wideout. Two days before Downs was pictured in front of his new Land Rover, Ricart and Smith stood in front of the Ohio State football complex. Behind them was Smith’s new ride: a black 2024 Dodge Durango 392 SUV.

In 1895, William E. Metzger attended the world’s first automobile show in London. He was a bicycle enthusiast with a shop in Detroit that dealt with suppliers in England, but the revelation of motor vehicles left Metzger convinced about the shape of the future. He returned to the United States and within two years opened the first retail car dealership in the country. Metzger, who by all accounts didn’t attend college, had a great idea.

He also didn’t have the foggiest idea.

Less than 40 years later, the movie “College Coach” hit the big screen. The central character, James Gore, is beset by expectations and obsessed with winning. At one point, an offensive lineman visits Gore’s office and discusses the possibility of quitting and joining “Atlantic Eastern College.” The player – in what seems to be a tortured Eastern European accent – says he’s been offered, among other things, the use of a 1928 Chrysler with six cylinders.

“Well, I’ll top that offer right now,” Gore replies. “I’ll get you one with seven cylinders.”

This was 1933. It wasn’t a half-century into the existence of car dealerships. And a football coach already knew a guy.

So – for as long as anyone living can remember – the car dealer has been an explicit or implicit part of the college athletics process. Until recently, it’s an element that existed outside of the guardrails, at least relative to the NCAA guidebook. But when we put history on auto-focus, it’s easy to argue that those programs that swerved around the rules weren’t renegades. They’re mostly the unlucky few to hit a pothole.

In early 1976, Michigan State football received three years probation and bowl ban after an NCAA investigation resulted in 70 charges, including one player purchasing a car under a special payment deal arranged by boosters and another player’s car loan promissory note being signed by “an MSU representative” – which a booster was, by the NCAA’s definition.

In 1989, an Oklahoma State football scandal included a recruit being offered a Nissan 300ZX upon enrollment; a player receiving a car “provided at no cost by representatives of the university’s athletics interests;” a coach arranging for a prospect to be employed at a booster’s car dealership before graduation; and a booster guaranteeing a $7,000-plus loan for a player to “in order for the young man to purchase an automobile from the representative’s car dealership.”

Eric Dickerson’s gold Trans Am, which became an emblem of the excess that earned SMU football the so-called “death penalty” from the NCAA in 1987, was arranged with a dealership by a Texas A&M booster – a livestock feed store owner trying to woo Dickerson to College Station, according to the autobiography “Watch My Smoke: The Eric Dickerson Story.”

“I had my pick of a Corvette and three Trans Ams: black, silver, and gold,” Dickerson wrote. “I liked the gold one.”

In 2006, Oklahoma dismissed football players Rhett Bomar and J.D. Quinn after it was revealed they accepted payment for more work than they completed as employees at Big Red Sports and Imports, a local dealership. Jack Maxton Chevrolet and Auto Direct in Columbus, Ohio, was at the center of an investigation into Ohio State players and families purchasing cars at below-market rates, sparked in part by then-quarterback Terrelle Pryor driving a car from the dealership during three traffic stops in three years. (The Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles cleared the dealership of any illicit deals in 2011.)

Lest anyone assume the shenanigans are all football-related, the NCAA banned Kansas from its men’s basketball tournament in 1961 and 1962 because it discovered boosters had financed a car for a Jayhawks player. The star driving the 1956 Oldsmobile convertible in question? Wilt Chamberlain.

Unsurprisingly, the archetype became pop culture fodder decades on from Depression-era cinema.

A booster for fictional Western University gifts basketball prospect Neon Boudeaux – played by Shaquille O’Neal – a car in the 1994 film “Blue Chips.” The most ubiquitous and sympathetic specimen may be Buddy Garrity, the former star quarterback-turned-car dealership owner and rabid president of the Dillon High booster club in the “Friday Night Lights” television series. Over the arc of 73 episode appearances, actor Brad Leland plays Garrity less as a one-dimensional schemer and more like a local who’s a little too devoted, often to his (and others’) detriment.

“This was a guy that really cared about the community and really cared about his family and just has weaknesses just like all of us do,” Leland told D Magazine in a 2011 interview.

What viewers thought of Buddy Garrity varied. But there was one constant: So many people had their own Buddy Garrity experience. “One thing that we’ve learned about our show is that Canadians will come up to me and say, ‘Oh, I knew a Buddy Garrity in Canada,’ except it was hockey,’” Leland said. “And in the Midwest it was basketball, and in England it was soccer, and we’ve had people from Australia who watch our show and talk about rugby.”

Now those relationships, and the people who make them, have shifted into the very public domain. The freedoms of NIL have unshackled theoretical restraints from the men and women who roam car lots but also often double as highly invested college football fans. The math is simple: a car lease for 12 months in exchange for marketing to the hundreds of thousands — and sometimes millions — of followers athletes have on their various social media platforms. About all the player is responsible for is the car insurance.

Three weeks after NIL first took flight in July 2021, Parker Jones, the general manager at the Jones Auto Centers in the Phoenix area, received a text from his wife. It was a photo of former LSU quarterback Myles Brennan standing in front of a white Ford F-250 truck in the first known NIL car deal of its kind.

LSU quarterback Myles Brennan inked the first known NIL deal of its kind with a dealership in 2021, as the floodgates opened for college athletes. (Chris Graythen / Getty Images)

An Arizona State alum, Jones floored it in his attempt to replicate the deal on a local level. He found an email in the Instagram bio of then-Sun Devils quarterback Jayden Daniels and fired off an inquiry. Less than a month after Brennan’s landmark deal was announced, Jones and Daniels stood in the parking lot outside of Sun Devil Stadium, next to a black 2020 Ford Mustang GT Premium. That partnership didn’t last long – Daniels transferred to LSU in March 2022, eventually becoming a Heisman Trophy winner and No. 2 pick in the NFL Draft – but Jones has continued to strike NIL deals with Sun Devil football players.

Most importantly, he estimates his dealerships have sold at least 20 cars tied to this venture. He knows this because his staff takes notes when prospective buyers mention the Arizona State connection they’ve seen on social media or on online message boards. “It’s now generating a (return on investment),” Jones says. “Is it the absolute No. 1 most successful ROI of any advertising campaign that we’ve ever had? No. But it’s in the black and it’s not a losing-money venture for us.”

The ripple effect has been more like a rogue wave everyone is comfortably riding.

Martin McKinley, a Clemson alum and general manager at Fred Caldwell Chevrolet in Clover, S.C., saw Ohio State players posing in front of cars on the lot. Soon after, he struck a deal with former Clemson defensive end Bryan Bresee. After Bresee graduated in the spring of 2023, McKinley had an opening – he says he has more modest aims for one partnership per year as an “image thing” – and partnered with starting quarterback Cade Klubnik.

“I just went with the most recognizable person on Clemson campus because it’s always going to be quarterback,” McKinley says. “My demographic historically is not 18-to-22. We’re selling $90,000 cars. But the branding works. These guys all have 100,000 followers on social media. I’m also careful not to alienate fan bases. I didn’t really do it to sell cars. Now I know we’ve sold some because of it.”

Ricart and his team study the social media histories of potential collaborators to gauge whether their reach is worth a key to a car. Players deeper down the Ohio State depth chart have reached out directly to Ricart to introduce themselves in hopes of landing a deal.

If the player’s social media presence is lacking in audience and transparency in their own lives, Ricart advises players to utilize their platform to be more marketable. He’ll also check in with sources in the Ohio State football complex to gauge if a player may be a starter in a year or two. “You’ve got to be able to quantify it and make sure it’s the players that people know,” Ricart says.

It is, naturally, no coincidence that the players who earn deals tool around in something a little more noticeable than a sensible family sedan.

When assigning Klubnik a vehicle, McKinley says he handed over the keys to “about the nicest truck we had in stock.”

It’s a black Chevrolet Silverado ZR2. Price tag starts at about $71,000.

Angel Reese’s birthday present to herself was a stunner: A black Mercedes-Benz with a red bow on the hood.


BIG BODY BENZ BARBIE! 👀💖Why not get a new car when it’s your 21st birthday week??? 🥳Thank you @mercedesbenzofbatonrouge for helping me purchase my NEW CAR!! This is a gift to myself for everything that I’ve accomplished in 1 YEAR but I wouldn’t be the Bayou Barbie without @bayoutraditions & @matchpoint_connection ! Appreciate you guys so much!! BIG EQS580😘 #BAYOUBARBIETURNS21 #GODDID

♬ Originalton – tonic

Along with four pictures in a May 2023 post on X, she thanked both the Baton Rouge dealership and LSU’s NIL collective, Bayou Traditions. That Reese would get into a luxury ride while still in college was no surprise; she was an All-American and national champion with millions of social media followers (not to mention a year away from attending the Met Gala).

Nor was it shocking that, the previous spring, Oklahoma softball star Jocelyn Alo – the NCAA’s all-time leader in career home runs – posed inside a car she’d be driving as part of a deal with Fowler Toyota in Norman. Of course, the stars among stars of women’s sports would be first in line in the NIL era, too.

But a Boise State volleyball player and golfer?

After initially balking at the concept of NIL deals entirely – more on that in a bit – Jim Sterk tiptoed into the waters by agreeing to partner with Riley Smith, then a tight end with the Broncos football team. The general manager at Lithia Ford in Boise simultaneously decided he should add a female athlete to the mix, too. He asked the school to suggest candidates. His first interview was with Paige Bartsch, a volleyball star. “I just looked at our ad agency and I was like, ‘I don’t know about you, but I don’t need to talk to anybody else,’” Sterk says.

Brooke Patterson, meanwhile, took different inroads: Sterk knew the Patterson family, and Brooke asked to visit with him to discuss NIL opportunities before she left to play golf at Cincinnati. What Sterk thought would be an advice session turned into a direct business pitch he couldn’t turn down. “I said, ‘Your deal has to sell cars instantly for me,’” Sterk recalls. “And she says, ‘Well, this is who follows me.’ She showed me her phone and it’s all 35- to 65-year-old males that drive Ford F-150s. She’s like, ‘We don’t want to reach out to these people?’”

Bartsch took home Mountain West player of the year honors in 2023, and the sport’s visibility is spiking. Both are undeniable pluses. Patterson won’t take a swing for the Broncos until next season after a transfer brought her back to Boise last December, but it’s an unmistakable sign of these times that non-household names in non-revenue sports benefit, too, and that dealerships see them as worthy partners.

“Social media-wise, females are way better at presenting the product than males are,” said Sterk, who can attribute at least five car sales directly to the partnership with Patterson.

Sterk’s dealership partnered with Boise State athletics for about a decade before the new NIL rules took effect, but the only cars that left his lot bound for campus were standard courtesy automobiles for coaches. When the landscape shifted, Sterk did not initially want to embark down that road. “I was pretty negative about (NIL),” he said. Then a receptionist who was also a member of the school’s spirit squad suggested he meet with Riley Smith. Sterk agreed in part because he had confused Smith, a Florida native, with another Boise State player who was local.

The conversation nevertheless went so well that it spawned a deal for Smith. That sparked the idea to complement it with one for Bartsch. Eventually, the dealer who wanted nothing to do with giving cars to players had a half-dozen of them on the Lithia Ford roster. He’s already contemplating who will replace them after they graduate.

“It’s been super positive in the community for the dealership and with PR,” Sterk says. “It does generate business and it does generate awareness. And so now a guy that was completely against it has six athletes … It’s wild.”

(Top image: Daniel Goldfarb / The Athletic; Photos: Greg Nelson / Sports Illustrated via Getty Images; Martyn Lucy / Getty Images; iStock)

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