The Transfer Portal and College Football’s Version of Free Agency
On December 5, 2022, the transfer portal officially opened for college football. Players have the option to enter into the portal, which unconditionally releases them from their national letters of intent with their current institutions and allows them to be contacted by coaches from other NCAA programs. In other words, the transfer portal creates the NCAA version of free agency. While fans everywhere are eagerly waiting to see if their favorite players will be on the move during this offseason, questions remain about the transfer portal’s impact on college athletics as a whole, and on college football specifically.
The NCAA created the transfer portal in 2018 as a compliance tool to help make the transfer process for student-athletes easier and more transparent. Prior to the creation of the portal, much of the transfer process was relatively clunky, with players needing their current coach’s signature to begin the transfer, and all communication had to go through the players’ current coach. Now, when a student-athlete enters the portal, their name and contact information is entered into a database and they can be contacted directly by recruiting coaches throughout the NCAA. Additionally, the process is considered more ethical because it restricts universities “from withholding aid from athletes considering transferring and requires regular conference rule reviews."
Three years later, in April 2021 the NCAA adjusted the transfer process further, ratifying its “one-time transfer” rule and eliminating the longstanding one-year residency requirement for transferring student-athletes. The one-year residency requirement previously forced transferring athletes to sit out, or “red shirt”, for a full academic year at their new school before they could play. This “red shirt” requirement prevented many athletes from transferring schools. With the advent of the one-time transfer rule, all NCAA athletes can now transfer and make immediate impacts on the courts and fields at their new institutions in the same academic year.
Even though all NCAA athletes are eligible to utilize the transfer portal, Division I football programs use the portal unlike any other sport. In the 2019-20 year, a reported 1,695 FBS players entered the portal. In the 2021-22 cycle, the number jumped to 3,085 student-athletes. This year, the transfer portal opened to football student-athletes on Monday, December 5 and reports state that by the evening of December 8, there were already 1,328 players entered in the portal, with more than 850 entering from an FBS program. This number has likely increased in the past few weeks, but the names of athletes in the portal are not public - only NCAA administrators and coaches can access the information of potential transferring student-athletes. The transfer portal will remain open for 45 days, closing on Wednesday, January 18, 2023.
With a new recruiting tool at their fingertips, many NCAA football coaches use the transfer portal to adjust their rosters for upcoming season. On December 3, NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders was named the next head coach at the University of Colorado. Shortly after his hire, he publicly explained how he already had a few players who he knew the team needed from the transfer portal, and he quickly started to rebuild his roster for the 2022-23 season. As of December 28, CU’s transfer class is ranked the third best in the country, only behind Florida State and Michigan. Namely, cornerback/receiver Travis Hunter, the top-rated prep recruit in the 2022 class and Shedeur Sanders, a two-year starting quarterback, signed with Colorado, following Coach Prime from his last head coaching job at Jackson State. Like Sanders, college football coaches throughout the NCAA will continue to update and rearranged their rosters until the portal closes on January 18.
Undoubtedly, the transfer portal and implementation of the one-time transfer rule ushered in a new era for college football, likening it to a free agency model where top players can move about much more freely during their time as student-athletes. Compounding these major changes, the NCAA’s approval of student-athletes to earn money based on their Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) in July 2021 changed the landscape of the NCAA even further. With 2023 around the corner, the future of the next college football season will shake out dramatically over the next few weeks.
References:  Photo Credit. Chip Patterson, 2022 CBS Sports college football awards: Caleb Williams, Sonny Dykes headline honorees (Dec. 7, 2022) https://www.cbssports.com/college-football/news/2022-cbs-sports-college-football-awards-caleb-williams-sonny-dykes-headline-honorees/  Todderick Hunt, College football’s transfer portal is officially open: What it means, NJ.com (Dec. 5, 2022) https://www.nj.com/rutgers/2022/12/college-footballs-transfer-portal-is-officially-open-what-it-means.html  Id.  Liz Clark, Free agency has come to college football. Not everyone is winning., The Washington Post (Oct. 29, 2022) https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2022/10/29/free-agency-has-come-college-football-not-everyone-is-winning/  see generally Id.  Julia Elbaba, NCAA transfer portal: What it is, how it works, (June 29, 2020) https://www.nbcsports.com/boston/ncaa-transfer-portal-what-it-how-it-works-0  Id.  Nauria Diaz, NCAA’s transfer portal, explained (Apr. 25, 2022) https://www.gwhatchet.com/2022/04/25/ncaas-transfer-portal-explained/  David Cobb, NCAA Board of Directors ratifies one-time transfer legislation allowing athletes immediate eligibility (Apr. 28, 2021) https://www.cbssports.com/college-football/news/ncaa-board-of-directors-ratifies-one-time-transfer-legislation-allowing-athletes-immediate-eligibility/  see generally Id.  Clark, supra  Tom VanHaaren, College football’s new transfer portal windows, explained (Nov. 9, 2022) https://www.espn.com/college-football/story/_/id/34967085/college-football-new-transfer-portal-windows-explained  Id.  Id.  Scotty Jenkins, Transfer Portal: Does Every Athlete Who Transfers Find A New College To Play For? https://gmtm.com/articles/how-does-the-ncaa-transfer-portal-work  VanHaaren, Supra.  Kasey Richardson, Deion Sanders officially arrives in Boulder after being hired to become head football coach (Dec. 4, 2022) https://www.cbsnews.com/colorado/news/deion-sanders-officially-arrives-boulder-after-being-hired-become-head-football-coach/  Gionet, Supra.  247Sports, 2023 College Football Transfer Portal, accessed Dec. 28, 2022 https://247sports.com/Season/2023-Football/TransferPortal/  Brian Howell, Signing day notes: CU Buffs make major impact in transfer portal (Dec. 21, 2022) https://www.buffzone.com/2022/12/21/signing-day-notes-cu-buffs-make-impact-in-transfer-portal/