Home » One on One: Playing NIL with 50 Sets of Rules

One on One: Playing NIL with 50 Sets of Rules

University of Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart steers 17 coaches, 23 programs, 600 athletes and a budget that sends millions to the school.

By Mark Green

Josh Allen, Mitch Barnhart
The UK Football team beat Penn State 27-24 in the Citrus Bowl.
Photo by Michael Reaves | UK Athletics

Mark Green: The policies surrounding name/image/likeness (NIL) have only been in place a short time, but already have had a large influence on college sports. What are the main impacts you see it having now and over the next few years?
Mitch Barnhart: We’re about 16 months into the new landscape of name, image and likeness. It’s an incredible benefit for our student athletes. And it’s really complex. There are 50 different state laws right now, and that’s confusing in terms of the way that is monitored. The NCAA seems to have some confusion as to how to manage this landscape. Now the federal government is trying to weigh in. That’s caused institutions to have to go slowly to make sure we get it right. But every time the rules have changed, we’ve been able to adjust.

We’re doing everything to give athletes a chance to maximize their NIL opportunities. There’s nothing other schools are doing that we’re not doing. Our men’s basketball program has done a wonderful job building their platform and personal branding. A lot of our football players, a lot of our track student athletes have done well. Our fan base has been able to enjoy relationships with them through that NIL landscape. Fans can get a T-shirt or a hoodie with the name and number of a student-athlete on it and a piece of those proceeds goes back to them (the student-athlete).

Then we have the BBNIL exchange that allows them to connect with student-athletes and engage with local business and have our student athlete endorse them. There are three collectives we have watched come off the ground. One is through Athlete Advantage called “The 15.” One is called Charities for Kentucky, and the other one is Commonwealth Causes. All of those are places people can give money to a fund and then relationships are created with student-athletes that allow them to endorse or advertise with local companies and sometimes national companies.

Our K Fund is a separate entity from NIL and something we have to maintain to keep our program moving along. We’ve made sure there’s clear delineation so people know where their money is going and what they can expect from that.

MG: Is NIL impacting the relationship athletes have with the school, with coaches, with each other due to there being haves and have nots?
MB: I don’t think we’ll know for several years how this first 16 to 18 months has played out. There will be a molding of the landscape over time. We’re way too young in the game to say we have all the answers of what’s going to happen in the NIL space. Throw in the transfer portal and all of those things that happened all at once, and I don’t think anybody has their hand on the steering wheel yet.

Everyone wants their school to get behind NIL and support it, and we have in a lot of different ways. The collectives have gotten attention because that’s where everyone thinks there are large buckets of money. Those buckets of money are only as effective as the fan base saying we want to put money into this collective.

We put links to those out there and encourage people to be involved. Those collectives have our blessing. At the end of the day, the fan base is going to have to say it’s important and they want to be involved in those collectives.

MG: Some fans and supporters say UK sports should have alcohol sales. Do you have a role in that policy and might this change in the foreseeable future?
MB: That comes up often. I am a part of a university decision-making process. It’s important to make sure we examine all sides equally. Some are very vocal about their desire to have alcohol sales. Less vocal are the folks—many, many of whom stop me to say, “We hope you don’t sell alcohol because we won’t feel comfortable bringing our family to games.”

You try to find what serves everyone best. There are people who say you have clubs where alcohol is available and for people who desire to have a drink, that is the place they are able to purchase an opportunity to do that. There is a separation for those who don’t want that as part of the fan experience. It will continue to be a conversation at an institutional level and we’ll continue to think our way through it.

MG: The UK Athletics budget is around $167 million this year. How does that compare to other universities, how has that number changed during your tenure, and what are the financial goals over the next few years?
MB: As it relates to other universities, we generally focus on the folks within our Southeastern Conference. When I first came, we were on the lower end of that scale. The league has expanded by a couple teams; we’re now 14 and we’re going to be 16 within a couple of years. We’re going to be in the middle of the pack.

Some schools have operating budgets and a foundation that goes with it. Some have just a university budget allotment, which is where we are. We have one pool of money and that is our budget; $167 million is accurate. We’re sort of in the top half of our league; as time goes, that middle spot is probably where we’ll continue to live.

Our financial goal is to have resources meet expectations. When you come into a venue, you want to see the lights on, the scoreboard working properly and enough heat and air conditioning. It’s always about having resources meet expectations.

We are part of the university budgeting process. We’ve been about 3% to 3.5% of the university’s overarching budget since 2002. As the university’s budget is growing into the billions, our budget has grown. We’re still the same 3% to 3.5%, which is important. Our folks do a good job of working within the guidelines and at the end of the day we’ve been in the black. During the COVID year, because we are in the Southeastern Conference, we were able keep people employed and still allow our program to function and remain whole. That’s been important.

Kentucky beats South Carolina 64-62 to become SEC Champions.
Photo by Eddie Justice | UK Athletics

MG: During your tenure, revenue from sports broadcasting has exploded because live sports has a special value to advertisers. The SEC announced a 2020-21 distribution of $54.6 million per school, plus a $23 million-per -school COVID impact supplement. What issues and opportunities has this revenue growth created?
MB: All the television contracts from our live games run through Southeastern Conference. Commissioner (Greg) Sankey and the staff there work with the athletic directors and presidents and we create relationships with our television partners. For many years it was CBS; now it’s shifting as we go into 2024-‘25 with ESPN and ABC. As new contracts begin, there’s usually a growth in that cycle and we have seen our league expand throughout the footprint of our television market. It allows us to plug into sports programming for our teams.

When you think about our 23 sports teams, only two make enough money to stand on their own: football and men’s basketball. The rest of the sports programming here is based on funding that comes from those two programs. Of all our entities that pour into our budgeting process—television, concessions, multimedia rights—that television piece has allowed us to grow our other 21 sports to a level of incredible visibility, incredible successes and stories that we all follow and enjoy. It has allowed us to grow our program into an enjoyable, fan-friendly, facility-friendly kind of environment that brings people together in the name of the University of Kentucky.

MG: Many think the university and taxpayers pitch in millions of dollars a year to sports, but UK Athletics pays its way, including the tuition for all its scholarship players. Can you explain the financial relationship?
MB: We are a $160 million-plus budget that must be self-sustaining and self-creating. Some institutions have tuition waivers for athletes or they’re funded with academic scholarships that allow them to offset costs, or they’re given money from the student body. We do not receive any of those funds. We are actually contributing money to the university.

We pay the debt service on the Jacobs Science Building on campus; $65 million worth of bonds from the UK Athletic Department help pay for the academic science building. And we give $2-2.5 million annually in non-athletic scholarship dollars to the university to distribute. We have licensing monies we get for the marks we use on our jerseys. We sell polos and hats and things in the stores, and 50% of those royalties go back to the university. We’re not a taker of funds. We pay our own way on all maintenance and operations and electricity and utilities. We don’t want to be a drain on the university. We want to be an asset. We provide annually—depending on the things you include—on the low end $6 million; on the high end, in the $11-12 million range.

The number of folks who are self-sustained isn’t great. We’re thankful we’re able to do that. It’s increasingly more difficult.

MG: Being self-sufficient gives you a lot of independence. What control does the university has over athletics?
MB: We’re like every other department on campus. Our athletics committee answers to the president and the board of trustees. Our budgets run through the university’s budgeting processes. We are mandated by university guidelines, policies and rules.

MG: There’s a renovation of Memorial Coliseum coming up. What’s your vision for that and are other facilities slated for changes?
MB: Memorial Coliseum has been here since the ’50s. We want to make it as nice as we can but preserve the history. It’s an iconic building on campus. Our goal is to update the different amenities, most notably HVAC—which it does not have—and concourses, bathrooms, the seating bowl, the sound system and lighting, as well as some entertainment spaces. It’s used for many university events.

Our hope is we can begin sometime in April. We have to get our teams relocated because we have to be out of the facility for about a year and a half.

We’re in the process of building a new indoor track and field practice facility. We’ve been in the Nutter Indoor Center many years and it’s out of date. Our track program has taken such incredible leaps and bounds; they deserve a place where they can train and practice effectively. This will allow us to do wall-to-wall field turf indoor for our football program that practices there and make it safer. It will provide an opportunity for other sports that use that facility: softball, baseball, sometimes soccer. We’re set on continued renovations of anything around Memorial Coliseum as it relates to our basketball programs. We also are talking about an indoor tennis complex to help our tennis program.

MG: Being an athletic director is a complex job. UK Athletics has 23 programs, many facilities, a large budget, marketing, compliance and much more. What’s the most satisfying part of what you do?
MB: It’s the daily interaction with the young people, the ways we impact young people, competitively, to see them grow educationally to the spot they’re graduating.

The competitive pieces are certainly fun and exciting. We just celebrated our 50th competitive conference or tournament championship win during my time here. It was with our men’s soccer team. But we’ve also seen our graduation rate grow to a level that has never been experienced here before, and that’s exciting as well. And that I get to do it in a wonderful place like the University of Kentucky makes it that much better.

MG: The majority of UK’s 600 current athletes in 23 programs will complete their sports career in college then move into the private sector. How much does UK Athletics focus on that post-UK portion of their lives and what is the ongoing influence of having been part of UK Athletics?
MB: A lot of different programming goes into place when you come to the University of Kentucky. A program called “Your New Kentucky Home” is an orientation that welcomes you into the college experience. Then you’re transitioned into the “Kentucky Road” that walks you through skills necessary to transition into the real-life experiences you’re going to have with families and jobs. It has leadership initiatives, with everything from financial literacy to job preparation, career preparation, resume writing, interview skills. When you finish and walk across that stage with your degree and your experiences of four or five years of competitiveness, you’re equipped to go into whatever facet of life you have chosen.

Recently through a partnership with Fidelity, student-athletes were the first on campus to have fee-free accounts with Fidelity to invest their dollars in an organized savings plan. All students on campus will have this program available to them, but they wanted to start with a group to see if they could set the tone. It’s been remarkably well received.

It will allow them over time to see their money change into a pool of money that helps their family. We show them how if they start as freshmen putting $100 a month away out of the funds they get from their scholarship checks, it can multiply and benefit them as they become young entrepreneurs or heads of households, maybe make that into a down -payment on a house.

MG: Individual sports vary significantly, but what common characteristics do you focus on when you are hiring coaches?
MB: We have 17 head coaches; 11 have been with us longer than 10 years, which speaks to their success at the University of Kentucky. And we have ones who have been here a shorter time and done remarkable work, like Lonnie Green of our track and field program. I’m excited about the coaches we have.

The coaches who have done remarkably well have embodied the principles of our program. It starts with two things: character, the heart and integrity in the brain, and the ability to manage our program within guidelines that represent this institution at a high level. We want this university to be thought of in a classy way; that we treat people with honor and respect in the field of competition, the way you win, the way you lose, the way you honor the game. It’s important our coaches do that well.

Thirdly, I want them to be well educated at what they do. They’re supposed to be great at their craft, great learners of what they do. That’s important.

Fourth, they have to be good stewards. I want people to be givers, not takers. We want to be that department that is grateful for what we’ve been given. I want people wanting a championship pedigree and who know how to compete at a high level. If we put those pieces of the puzzle together, we generally get to the right people.

MG: You have former assistants who are now athletic directors at other SEC schools and major colleges. How satisfying is that to see?
MB: I’m happy for them. The folks I’ve been so fortunate to work with, they made me better. I never would have been able to do what I’ve done without their help. I can start with Bob De Carolis with Oregon State, Rob Mullins and then Mark Hoyle, Scott Strickland, Greg Byrne, Kevin Saal and John Cohen. They’re gifted administrators and they made me better. They poured into me as much as I hope I poured into them. We have a phrase we use around here: “We equip people to launch people.” If that’s their goal, I want to help them. If they’re happy here, this is where they want to be, where they want to live and call home, I want them here. We’ve had both.

For those who have aspired to do other things, it’s awesome to watch. It’s difficult to compete against them; they’re good at what they do and they want to win, too. But it’s rewarding. It’s wonderful at the end of the competition to walk across that field of play, shake their hand and give them a hug and have a friend. That’s what sports is supposed to be about.

MG: In 20 years, what’s been the biggest challenge you’ve had to deal with in your job?
MB: The landscape has changed dramatically. Social media has been probably the single biggest piece because that’s impacted everything that we do, how we do our work, what we have to react to, everything. But there have been so many other pieces that have changed over time. Expenses have continued to go up and trying to keep pace with that is probably the other big thing.

Change continues. College athletics is not this unique environment; all industries are changing. Everyone’s having to adapt, but you want to make sure you do it the right way and that you honor people in the process.

Kentucky beats South Carolina 64-62 to become SEC Champions.
Photo by Eddie Justice | UK Athletics

MG: Was there an action or move you made that that turned out better than expected, and is there a “do over” you would like?
MB: There are things on both sides of that coin. I’ve been given favor beyond my what I deserve. I’ve been very fortunate to have things we tried work out well on a variety of fronts. Dr. Lee Todd gave me the greatest piece of advice when I was struggling early on. He said, “Mitch, just be quiet and work. Just put your head down, do what you know to do and work. Work will take care of it.” For people who work hard with the right heart, you’ll find favor.

MG: Do you have a favorite sport or are there some programs that you would recommend to fans who are interested in expanding their horizons?
MB: I once thought about going into professional sports and focusing on one sport but I love it all. That’s why I got into athletics generally. I wanted to build a broad-based program here at UK. That was important to me. When Dr. Todd hired me, he said, “I want you to build something for everyone.” We were a great basketball program, and we had a couple of things we did well. But he said, “I want that for everybody.” That’s what I want, too.

Programs of interest? Pick one if you can. Last year we dialed up track and field in the spring and everybody watched (sprinter) Abby Steiner light up the world with what she did on the relay teams. She’s been up for every award imaginable this this fall on the heels of Sydney McLaughlin (winning gold at the Tokyo Olympics in the 400-meter hurdle) and Jasmine Camacho-Quinn and Keni Harrison (who won gold and silver in 100-meter hurdles in Tokyo). It’s exciting when you can go to the other side of campus and watch a softball program like Rachel Lawson’s. Last night I watched our men’s soccer team, which is second ranked and one of three undefeated programs in the country; they have multiple guys who are going to compete professionally. There are treasures everywhere that people would really enjoy.

MG: Are athletic directors able to just relax and watch a contest?
MB: When we have a big lead I can relax. We don’t have a big lead, I don’t relax. I want our young people and our programs to compete well. I find comfort in being at the event. The most enjoyable part of the job has two pieces for me. One is walking out of the tunnel with one of my teams, walking to the event with my teams, being in the arena with my teams. I love that. The other part is graduation. I like going to graduation and see young people walk across stage and get their degrees. Some young people have left our program with their degrees after I didn’t think they could get it done. They did and they just changed their lives. That’s what gets me fired up to come to work.

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