First Mover (Dis)advantage

Why Nebraska's edge will come to NIL

“When the guns fire to start the race,” University of Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos says, “we’ll be on the blocks.” He was referring to the July 1st rule change in Nebraska (and at least five other states) that allows college athletes to cash-in on their names, images, and likenesses (shorthand: “NIL”). 

Moos was fired up about Nebraska’s “Ready Now” initiative that’s intended to help its athletes connect with brands, take a 1-credit course in entrepreneurship, and expand existing life-skills programs. “We’ll do it better than anybody,” according to Moos, and a recent Wall Street Journal article by Laine Higgins mentions Nebraska being an early adopter at incorporating weight training in the 1970s and life-skills classes in the 1980s. 

There’s something to his enthusiasm. As Confederate (degenerate) Nathan Bedford Forrest supposedly advised, it’s always good to “get there firstest with the mostest.”

But would anyone say weightlifting in sports was a durable advantage? Or life-skills courses? The forward pass was first tried in a college game in 1906, and by the next year Pop Warner’s Carlisle (Pennsylvania) Indian Industrial School had fully integrated it into the offense (well before the popular myth that Notre Dame “invented” the forward pass).

Same goes on the military field. Think back on so many “first mover” advantages that were quickly countered, co-opted, or negated: aerial bombardment, gas attack, submarine warfare, rockets, fortifications, nukes…

The real problem with Nebraska’s full-on embrace and investment in the new NIL standard is that being first to a new standard isn’t a sustainable edge. The University of Nebraska’s pursuit of momentary advantage is an opportunity cost that’ll keep them from greater gains.

There’s two test questions strategists should always ask themselves: (A) Can this action change the game?, and (B), Based on how likely that change is, how much should I invest to make this a durable advantage?

Tricky stuff. Some edges look promising but won’t ever pan out. Some edges might appear unrealistic but may be closer to fruition than they appear. That first appraisal matters.

In Nebraska’s case, I question the first proposition. It is clear from the starter’s pistol that Nebraska’s speedy NIL move is doomed to be perishable. Nebraska will rush out front with at least five other states alongside them (and forty-four more not far behind).

To clarify, imagine a business that puts serious cash into being one of the first six recreational marijuana shops on Main Street in Lincoln, Nebraska. Wouldn’t be very revolutionary, would it? Legalization of an activity spurs speedy adoption. 

Of course this will make athletes happy. No question. At least some, likely very few will make real money, so what you’ll end up with is administrators, staff, and athletic directors putting in a full-court press effort and only a handful of athletes will get extra for all this hullabaloo. That’s more likely to fracture teams into a lot of have-nots and a few haves. (Better invest in sports psychologists to hedge against that unintended consequence.)

Is this to argue Nebraska should never have moved on NIL? No. In fact, it makes some sense to do what Nebraska is doing. 

However, to invest heavily and expect the first mover advantage will pay off here in any lasting way is lunacy.

First mover advantage makes you a target. First mover advantage is almost always perishable (in this case, it’s guaranteed). Strategists don’t care much for first mover advantage. Why would anyone want to make a move when they know it can be matched by the next party?

Strategists want last mover advantage, to hold that last move and use it to clean up with a durably dominant play. 

No advantage lasts forever. But the objective is to make the advantage stand for a while, long enough to hold a real edge. If Nebraska football, say, really wanted to pursue something that might change the game for them—play every chip to pry Nick Saban out of Alabama, Bill Belichick out of New England, or find the next Great Coach to run the show in Lincoln. Run a completely new scheme, offensive or defensive, that’ll rattle the rest of college football.

N is for knowledge,” goes the joke in Nebraska, where the team’s logo sports a big red “N.” It’s self-deprecation, an aw’shucks kind of thing to say, but the joke’s on Nebraska if it thinks NIL will change much of anything. 

*Editor’s Note: What do you think? Really, what do you think? Comments and critiques are welcome here. If you enjoyed this, please flick it on to anyone you think might find it of interest. Your word-of-mouth mention matters!

All the very best & see you next week, Matt