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Transfer Portal, Rule Changes Shake Up Transfer Market

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Beginning this summer Division I college baseball players who are not receiving scholarship money are now eligible to transfer to another school without having to sit out a year.

That change as well as the opening of the online transfer portal has created the most significant changes to college baseball’s transfer market in more than a decade.

First, in April, the NCAA’s Division I Council passed a few pieces of legislation aimed at reforming the transfer process. One change allows any player who is not (and has not previously been) on an athletic scholarship can transfer and be immediately eligible. That change has shaken up this summer’s transfer market and have many coaches wondering how they should handle the new policy going forward.

In addition, this is the first summer with the NCAA’s transfer portal open, allowing players an easier way to declare their intent to transfer and subsequently talk to coaches at other schools. There were about 1,500 baseball players in Divisions I and II in the portal, an average of about three players per team in the two divisions.

The combination of the two changes has led to some confusion and at least the feeling among many coaches that this summer has had a more robust transfer market.

Transfers have long been a hot topic around college baseball. Baseball’s one-time transfer exception for players moving from one Division I school to another was eliminated in 2008 and players were required to sit out a year in those instances. That led to some significant problems as some coaches would effectively recruit summer leagues and baseball’s Academic Progress Rate suffered. Transfer reform has been a hot-button issue in recent years, and baseball coaches have kept a close on eye on the progress of the NCAA's working group.

Florida Atlantic Coach John McCormack, the American Baseball Coaches Association Division I chairman, said his preference would have been to keep the rules the way they were a year ago. But he understands the NCAA has made transfer reform a priority and would now like to see the rules made easier to understand and more education about the transfer rules for players.

“I would like it to stay the way it was,” McCormack said. “I know that’s an idealistic way to look at things. That made it a better game and the gentlemen portion (of coaching) stayed intact. If we’re going to go down this path, I’d like everything explained a little bit clearer for both the schools and the student-athletes. There are sometimes it’s necessary (to transfer) – someone’s worn out their welcome or they got blocked out of their position. We as coaches and compliance on campus need to do a better job with the portal. Just because you get in doesn’t mean free transfer and just because you’re in it doesn’t mean scholarship for you on the other side. There is some risk involved.”

UCLA coach John Savage believes that increased research from both the coach and player during the recruitment period could help put players in better situations initially and thereby reduce transfers.

“If it’s a coaching change, I can see it,” he said. “But we need to dig in deeper about the disgruntled player. I believe more in-depth research should be done in the recruitment of a player and that player choosing a college or university.”

This spring’s rule change to allow players not on athletic scholarship to transfer and be immediately eligible was proposed by the NCAA’s Transfer Working Group. It amends bylaw 14.5.5.2 to provide a waiver exemption to the requirement for transfers in baseball, basketball, football and hockey to sit out a year if “the student-athlete’s previous institution provides athletically related financial aid in the sport and no athletically related financial aid was received by the student-athlete.”

In basketball and football, which are headcount sports with every player on a full scholarship, the rule really just releases true walk-ons to freely transfer once to another school to play immediately. For baseball, however, its effect is much greater. Because baseball teams are capped at 11.7 scholarships to be divided between a maximum of 27 players (with a minimum of a 25 percent scholarship), but their roster is capped at 35 players, there are usually at least eight walk-ons on every roster who receive no money. Further, because so few players are on full athletic scholarships, there are many talented players taking advantage of academic aid or other forms of institutional aid, sometimes to the point where they don’t receive any athletic scholarship money at all. They also qualify to transfer freely under this new rule.

“To me, if you sit down with a coach and a financial aid director and they make it so you get some money through different avenues that aren’t athletic, you have money,” McCormack said. “But according to NCAA, if it’s not athletic money, you can move.

“But there isn’t a published list of 'these guys are in the portal and they didn’t get money.' ”

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Adding to the complexity in baseball is that it is not uncommon for schools to backload or frontload scholarships as they look to make the most of their 11.7 scholarships and whatever academic or institutional aid opportunities are available. A school and player may agree to a scholarship where the player gets zero money in his freshman year, but will receive a larger amount than he would otherwise in future years in return. The rules about how a scholarship can be spread out vary by conference, from the Big Ten’s tight restrictions that require schools to sign players to a four-year guarantee to the SEC’s policy that any player on an athletic scholarship must receive some money in his first year to the more laissez-faire regulations employed by the ACC and Pac-12.

The rule undeniably gives walk-ons more freedom and a chance to transfer to a school that may be better for them financially without sitting out a season. Ever since baseball’s transfer rules were changed and players were made to sit out a year – joining basketball, football and hockey – many around the game have wanted to find a way to make it possible for players to move to a better financial situation without having to go to junior college or sitting out a season. After all, baseball unlike the headcount sports asks most of its players to pay a significant portion of their college costs.

“I think that’s the right thing to do for kids,” Louisville coach Dan McDonnell said. “That’s been the most frustrating thing for me. We have the haves and the have nots, the have nots – the kids not on baseball scholarship – I never liked tying their hands. I think that’s ridiculous.”

The creation of the transfer portal and tweaking the rules to enable walk-ons to transfer without having to sit out a year are understandable moves in an effort to provide more freedom to players. Some of the confusion the rule changes have wrought will be cleared up as everyone gets more familiar with the rule. But, at least for this summer, there has been plenty of confusion. The long-term impact of the rule changes remains to be seen, but college baseball will have to adjust moving forward.

“There’s a financial piece that’s not in other sports that is in baseball,” McDonnell said. “Who’s to say a kid didn’t go to a dream school out of state, invested a lot of money. So now he can transfer back to an in-state school where they have a scholarship and its in-state tuition, way cheaper.

“You have to study this over the next few years, look at who the transfers are. Are the in-state kids, are they on scholarship, are they this or are they that?”

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