The Transfer Portal is a MASSIVE topic in NCAA sports – volleyball and otherwise. Having now become immersed in it thanks to my time at Radford (definitely a much bigger thing in Division I than Division III), I’ve been forced to think more about it than I had prior. In this post I want to share some observations.
What is the Portal?
Let me start with an explanation. The NCAA Transfer Portal is basically the clearinghouse for college athletes who have declared that they want to change schools. While in Division III an athlete can self-declare without going through Compliance at their current school, in Division I and II coaches cannot communicate with prospective transfers who want to transfer until that happens.
The introduction of the Portal changed how transfers work. In the old days, while coaches and schools couldn’t ultimately prevent someone from transferring, there was a fair bit of friction to the process. The school had to provide a transfer release to allow for contact between transfers and their prospective new colleges. On top of that, schools could essentially force athletes to sit out a year at their new school, though this mainly applied only to in-conference transfers.
Nowadays, all an athlete has to do is tell the school’s Compliance person they want to enter the Portal. They don’t need to talk to the coach about it (though obviously the coach will hear). Once they’re in the Portal, any interested school can contact them. Essentially, the result is a kind of college athlete free agency.
Now, the NCAA this year put in windows for non-graduate transfers. The bigger one is immediately after the end of the regular season for 45 days. The second, smaller one, is near the end of the academic year (for the women). Athletes can only enter the Portal in those periods, unless there’s a coaching change. On top of this, the NCAA said that schools bringing an undergraduate transfer in on scholarship have to honor that scholarship for as long as that athlete remains at the school (up to graduation). That means cut players still get their money. Clearly, this is meant to slow down the transfers because it disincentivizes coaches from bringing in scholarship transfers who might be a risk.
To give you a sense of how big the Portal is, in Division I there were about 200 new undergraduate entrants in basically the first 2.5 days of the open window period this year. Then it was another 100 or so in the next couple of weeks.
And this is on top of the large number of JUCO transfers in the market each year.
The Portal was already a topic of discussion before COVID, and it’s only blown up since then. We’re currently in the 3rd recruiting cycle of athletes who can get an extra year because of the pandemic. That’s keeping a bunch of extra players in the Portal (and college volleyball) who wouldn’t be there otherwise. In Division I, about 250 grads entered the Portal during and after the Fall season. That, of course, influences both the “normal” transfers – since there are basically twice as many athletes in the Portal as there would be otherwise – and high school recruits. There’s one more year of this to come, so the Portal is going to remain a big issue in the immediate term.
What’s really going to be interesting there is how different schools deal with scholarships. As noted in this article about Ohio State having five seniors enter the Portal, the NCAA waiver on scholarship limits is expiring. They decided to give those scholarships to incoming players rather than retain the seniors. How many others will do the same?
We should note that COVID years aren’t just impacting recruiting. They also have had a clear influence on the caliber of competition in the college game. There’s no way around that when you have players getting a 5th season. An extra year of training and experience matters! On top of that, you see grad student transfers having a big influence on programs at all levels. Who knows what this year’s NCAA Division I final four would have looked like without them!
The interesting thing will be if there’s a long-term impact of having those more experienced players around. Will they drive a sustained higher level of play from those coming along behind them? Only time will tell.
There’s no doubt lack of playing time is a motivating factor in many transfer situations. Ditto wanting to get a scholarship. The problem we have in the system is that I doubt average roster sizes have ever been larger. When you have 20 players on a team, most of them probably won’t get the playing time they want. That leads to transfers. It’s not the only factor, but it’s definitely an important one.
The lack of playing time subject brings up the general concept of player mentality. It is definitely the case that there’s more of a “If I don’t like it I’ll just transfer” mindset at work nowadays. I doubt anyone will argue that athletes should be able to move if they find themselves in a bad situation, or when their experience is very different from what they were sold. The issue is with those who lack the patience, willingness, or whatever to put their head down, work hard, and earn what they want rather than simply having it given to them.
Part of the blame for this I am going to put on those who advise these athletes in the recruitment process. Are they really preparing them for the realities of being part of a college team? Of being in the current environment with COVID year athletes? Are they helping them actually find the right fit rather than the shiny object?
I also don’t think student-athletes are well-advised on the implications of transferring. There’s no real incentive in the system to do so. While the Portal may make it seem like there aren’t any rules, there definitely still are. There are also potential academic ramifications for changing schools. That’s on top of burning bridges and other reputational risk. And ultimately, moving to a new school is no guarantee that one’s playing situation improves.
Coaches who rely on transfers
An additional consideration here is the impact on programs from coaches who heavily rely on the Portal. As I noted above, transfers can definitely improve a team year-over-year. That can come, however, at the cost of developing the pipeline of players coming through the program. This is something administrators need to be aware of. There are ambitious coaches out there who will focus on short-term results as a way to become attractive candidates for better jobs. This is especially the case in the (mostly) 1-and-done situation of grad transfers. It’s all too easy to leave a program gutted in the wake of a situation like that playing out.
And for the coaches reading this, be careful. Once the COVID athletes are out of the system it won’t be nearly as easy to find quality players in the Portal – especially if you aren’t one of the upper level programs. The undergrads you see in the system are largely ones who haven’t played all that much up to now. Are they really going to help you? Will they truly be better than a freshman recruit?
The one advantage they do have is that they’ve trained in a college program. That’s worth something to be sure. The fact that they’re transferring, however, might be an indication of something unattractive (the reputational risk noted above). Then there are the new rules I mentioned above about honoring scholarships.
The whole situation with the Transfer Portal is a complicated one. It isn’t likely to become any less so in the near term. Maybe that changes after all the COVID year athletes are out of the system. More maybe there’s some new factor. We can certainly see how NIL is causing waves! Everyone has to remain flexible and adaptive as we work through all of this.
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