Mark Wharton has always understood the competition his programs are up against.
The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletic director knows that his programs don't recruit against so-called Power Five schools. So when the NCAA passed the Name, Image and Likeness rule that now allows collegiate athletes to profit off their own identity, it wasn't as if UTC was suddenly going to have the opportunity to steal athletes from the likes of Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama.
For Mocs programs, the competition has always been mid-major, Division I teams in basketball and Group of Five/Football Championship Subdivision schools in football. Most schools at UTC's level don't have the resources to provide "cost of attendance" - a recently instituted NCAA rule that allows schools to provide more dollars for college athletes - and that's where NIL can benefit the school trying to bring in prep athletes or transfers.
And that's where Wharton feels like UTC is trending to be ahead of the game. The school has partnered with Opendorse, a NIL company that "provides technology to the athlete endorsement industry.
"We serve the full life-cycle of supporting athletes: educating, assessing, planning, sharing, creating, measuring, tracking, disclosing, regulating, listing, browsing, booking and more," the company states on its website. Treating NIL like a marketplace of sorts, athletes enter their name into the database and can be contacted by any one of over 3,000 sports marketers for prospective deals.
"I think this is having the opportunity that we are a leader in our league," Wharton says. "We can point these people in the right directions monetarily. Is it the Power Five level? Absolutely not, but we have resources to be able to point them to opportunities to capitalize on some sort on NIL."
Is it a slow process? Sure. According to UTC, there were about 90 athletes that disclosed deals in the first season of NIL. Those deals totaled $6,000, a number that was buoyed by athletes such as basketball player David Jean-Baptiste - who had a deal with Wilson and had built a following from six years at the school - and track athlete Mackenzie Jones. Both athletes have created opportunities for themselves primarily off their social media following.
Next year, the school is expecting the number of athletes with deals to soar to over 200, with athletes standing to gain from $25,000 to $30,000 (total) from NIL deals. The school is also looking into a partnership with a collective.
All of it helps with the recruiting of high school athletes, but will really stand to benefit the school in an area it has truly seized on - the transfer portal. Both the football and men's basketball programs have used the engine that allows athletes to transfer once without penalty, with football leader Rusty Wright's Mocs bringing in over 10 transfers in this past cycle alone and new men's basketball coach Dan Earl bringing in five players that suited up for other Division I college programs last season.
"Right now I think we have a market that we can compete at the FCS level, the Southern Conference level," Wharton says. " I think we have an opportunity to be elite in our league and be highly competitive."