NIL money keeps star quarterbacks in college. Here’s a glimpse at what it took to keep Cam Rising at Utah.

Fending off Power Five challengers and the NFL, Utah’s donors had enough to keep the seventh-year veteran in Salt Lake City.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah quarterback Cam Rising poses for photos with students at Eastmont Middle School in Sandy on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023.

Sandy • The mob collapsed around Cam Rising’s 6-foot-2 frame until all you could see was a black Utah baseball cap sticking out from among the masses.

A mixture of middle schoolers, teachers and administrators stretched their arms with mini-helmets to sign and phones to take selfies with. At the center of it, Utah’s seventh-year quarterback obliged every request, grinning as more than a few people quipped, “So glad you’re back.”

Rising’s return to Utah instantly elevates the Utes back into college football’s playoff picture. Everyone in the room knew that. But maybe they weren’t as used to the other reality at play.

Paid name, image and likeness events like this are exactly how you keep a veteran quarterback away from the transfer portal these days. Even Rising, when he is off to the side of the crowd at Eastmont Middle School, freely admits that without NIL he’d be playing in some NFL city right now.

Worse still, he could be in another college town.

“Probably I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t a thing, right?” he said. “I probably would have been gone last year. It is just kind of how football is.”

But major NIL deals have kept him in Salt Lake City for a sixth and seventh year. While NIL contracts are not currently publicly available, The Salt Lake Tribune has learned that Rising will earn at least $500,000 next season and could bring in a haul worth upward of $1.5 million, according to sources with knowledge of his NIL deals. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

That’s why he’s at a middle school on a Tuesday morning in the dead of winter at an event paid for by a trucking company, settling in for a few hours of talking to Utah fans. It used to be that the star quarterback spent his offseason working out every morning. Now, the workouts will have to wait. This is what really fuels wins on fall Saturdays.

What does a million in NIL deals look like?

A year ago, after Rising led the Utes to a second Rose Bowl and a Pac-12 title over USC, faithful Utah donors in Salt Lake City knew what was coming.

Their fifth-year quarterback would have choices: He could come back for a sixth season of college football, go to another Power Five school or try his hand at the NFL.

“There were options everywhere,” Rising said, noting schools from the SEC, Pac-12 and other football power conferences came calling.

In order to keep Rising, Utah boosters needed to raise a competitive NIL figure. But what exactly would it be and how would Utah raise the funds?

Occasionally a coach will throw out ballpark numbers — mostly in an effort to get their own fan bases to pony up — but for the most part, NIL deals are made with bottom lines purposefully kept out of the limelight.

Nebraska head coach Matt Rhule was one of the first to actually throw a number into the ether, saying that “a good quarterback in the portal costs $1 million, $1.5, $2 million.”

And Rising is certainly a good quarterback.

He’s won back-to-back Pac-12 titles. He threw for more than 5,500 yards. In an NIL market that values experience and accolades, Rising’s figure should be near the top of the sport.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah quarterback Cam Rising poses for photos with faculty and students at Eastmont Middle School in Sandy on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023.

But then came the hard part. Could Utah’s donor base get Rising to seven figures like the other schools?

“I was initially concerned whether we’d be able to compete with some of the major markets and universities for player interest,” said TJ England, the legal officer of the CR England trucking company and a longtime Utah booster. “And so far, it appears like we’ve been able to compete and I hope it can continue that way. But we certainly need supporters.”

Rising knew other schools could offer big paydays.

Iowa quarterback Cade McNamara got a job making $600 an hour through NIL. Oregon quarterback Bo Nix signed lucrative deals through 7-Eleven. Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy signed on with Beats by Dre.

On the whole, schools like Texas were raising $15 million a year through collectives for their athletes. Texas Tech raised almost $8 million.

For Rising, Utah’s deal was sweet enough.

“There are always a plethora,” of NIL offers out there, Rising said. “... But nothing that I thought was worth leaving the University of Utah.”

Rising has received funds from Utah’s officially endorsed NIL collective, the Crimson Collective. Nextiva underwrote a conversation with Rising and former Utah quarterback Alex Smith. C.W. Urban, a design and real estate firm, paid Rising for social media posts and a local Toyota dealership had him film commercials for their latest pickup trucks.

Mountain American Credit Union paid him to be the Utah representative for their Utah-BYU ad campaign (right alongside BYU receivers Puka Nacua and Kody Epps). Les Olson sponsored Utah’s defense and used Rising as the face in commercials.

Another chunk of his NIL bill was footed by local trucking company CR England — owned by generations of Utah donors.

It’s the reason Rising was at a Sandy middle school three days after the regular season ended. In exchange for his NIL paycheck, Rising is the new face of the company’s One Initiative, aimed to fight childhood hunger.

He films commercials to help raise donations for local food banks.

One of the offshoots of the initiative was several local elementary and middle schools had food drives to donate to the cause. Whichever school raised the most donations received a visit from Rising, where he would come in to sign autographs and do a question and answer session in an assembly.

It is innocuous, with Rising answering questions about his love for pepperoni pizza, California roots or why he grew up wanting to be Kobe Bryant.

He signs a few footballs for the school’s trophy case and a few more for CR England. The company sells them for around $150 a piece to the public, with the proceeds going to the food drive.

“I loved the idea,” Rising said. “... NIL gives you an opportunity to continue to play and make decent money doing it. It just makes sense to stay in that situation and you take advantage of it. If it doesn’t, then you do the opposite and go to the NFL.”

In Rising’s case: “[I had some] great options.”

The significance of the deal

While keeping Rising was an important piece for Utah’s immediate future, there was also a sense among donors that it was bigger than just Rising.

In a way, Rising was an early litmus test with the rest of the college football world watching. Could Utah keep its biggest star home, or would this become a breeding ground in the future for poachers?

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah quarterback Cam Rising answers questions from students at Eastmont Middle School in Sandy on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023.

Yet, even with the stakes, donors still had reservations. Even the most steadfast ones — like the England family — were apprehensive about getting into the NIL game at first.

“We were very hesitant to initially get involved,” TJ England said. “But we also recognized that the state of play in college football had changed. And that the university and its players needed NIL deals in order to compete.”

In the Englands’ case, they were unsure if NIL would be, “here to stay” in the college football landscape. They were also unaware, because of the clandestine nature of it, how much money Utah needed to keep high-level players around and how much more they needed.

For answers, they talked to head coach Kyle Whittingham and others at the university. England said Whittingham never got into specifics about numbers — although privately Whittingham’s said Utah needs around $7 million a year to fund a championship-level roster, sources said — but he did stress that NIL is a non-negotiable to winning.

“We never got into that type of specificity with anybody at university,” England said. “Just simply that NIL deals were going to be important and that players were expressing interest.”

Even when the Englands got onboard, they wanted to make sure everything was legal.

They were inexperienced in how to implement the deals. Utah sent them to a website called Inflcr, an NIL platform where companies can directly reach out to more than 70,000 college athletes.

From there, the Englands negotiated either with players or agents. TJ England said he’d never dealt with an agent before. Even things like knowing a fair market price, and what a competitive offer would be to make a player like Rising stay, was unclear.

Ultimately it worked out. Rising stayed with seven figures worth of NIL deals last year. He sat out with a knee injury in 2023 and then came back to Utah for more money in 2024, sources said.

“I love being a Ute. Unless there was something too good to turn down, I pretty much was planning on coming back,” Rising said. “I looked at every possible outcome. ... If I wanted to go to the NFL, [here’s] what it looks like. If I wanted to go somewhere else [in college], what it would be and how would that situation be? Move in, do all that. But it was never something I really wanted to do.”

NIL money proved to be a tipping point and the Utes proved they could be competitive in that space.

“It’s impressive and promising that despite a lot of competition, that we’re able to retain Cam,” England said. “I think he’s one of the best remaining quarterbacks out there — upperclassmen, especially. And I think it is very promising that the U. was able to retain him and the supporters stepped up to enter into deals with Cam to help keep them in this market.”

As Rising left the middle school, he joked that he could finally go work out. He left knowing there are more than a million reasons why Utah’s 2024 season rests on his knees and shoulders.