Aug 10, 2022 - Sports

SMU boosters revive "Pony Express" for the NIL era

Illustration fo the SMU Mustang with money in its mouth

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

SMU is famous for boosters paying athletes. Now, they'll be doing it legally.

Driving the news: The Boulevard Collective, a new NIL collective driven by Dallas business leaders and SMU alumni, will pay football and men's basketball players $36,000 each for a total of $3.5 million annually.

The backdrop: College sports' new normal raises questions about the present, the future and — particularly in the case of SMU — the past.

  • The NCAA famously gave the Dallas-based school the death penalty in 1987 for illegal payments made to athletes through a booster slush fund, shutting down the program for years and setting it back decades.
  • Now that boosters can pay athletes through collectives — which aren't just permitted but quickly becoming table stakes — the "Pony Express" is back.

Between the lines: The age of NIL has led some at SMU to feel more comfortable embracing the death penalty era.

  • This spring, the football team tweeted a recruiting graphic featuring a gold TransAm — a nod to the flashy car synonymous with 1980s star Eric Dickerson.
  • "I always thought it was fair for players to get whatever they could get," Dickerson told The Athletic (subscription). "I'm really happy it's finally playing out like it always should have."

The big picture: The impact of Pony Express 2.0 remains to be seen.

  • 40 years ago, SMU was in the Southwest Conference alongside in-state rivals like Texas and Texas A&M, and its football team was contending for national titles.
  • Now, the Mustangs are in the American Athletic Conference. NIL money may help them stand out in the Group of 5, but the Power 5 — and the financial benefits that come with such status — is still a world away.

The bottom line: SMU athletes will soon be earning money off their fame. And this time, it's all out in the open.

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