The College Football Transfer Portal Explained: 2023
5-minute read on the Transfer Portal
The NCAA Transfer Portal has established itself as a crucial component of college athletics, particularly in football. Despite its growing significance, the history and format of the portal can be difficult for even insiders to comprehend. This is an effort to shed light on the connection between the Transfer Portal, college football, and its potential future.
The Parties Involved
The story of the NCAA Transfer Portal involves three parties: the NCAA, collegiate football programs, and college football players.
- The NCAA: The National Collegiate Athletic Association is a non-profit organization responsible for governing college sports in the United States. It sets and enforces rules and regulations for college athletics programs, including college football, through fines, sanctions, and other penalties.
- Collegiate football programs: These are the schools that participate in the NCAA and have football programs. There are four divisions (D1-FBS, D1, Division 2, and Division 3), each with its own unique characteristics and operations.
- College football players: The athletes who make up the teams run by the collegiate football programs, overseen by the NCAA. These are the individuals who enter the transfer portal in search of a change in program.
A Brief History of Transfers in College Football
1869-2018: The College Football Transfer Portal Explained
College football saw its’ inception in 1869, and over the years, the sport has undergone many changes in rules, equipment, strategy, and other advancements. Traditionally, teams would build their programs solely by recruiting the most talented high school players. This required substantial investment of program resources.
Fast forward over a century later, the recruitment of high school players remained the primary method of team building. However, players leaving one institution to transfer to and enroll at a new school was becoming a more common occurrence. Notable pre-portal transfers include Deacon Jones, Troy Aikman, Randy Moss, Russell Wilson, JJ Watt, Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, and Joe Burrow.
In nearly all cases, student-athletes who made the decision to transfer were subsequently discouraged or punished by the NCAA through the loss of a year of athletic eligibility. However, in 2006, the NCAA approved a ruling to allow graduate transfers who had earned their undergraduate degree to transfer to another school and be immediately eligible to play. This was as long as they enrolled in a graduate program not offered by the institution they transferred from. Though this did not truly come into effect until 2011.
Learn more about the history of transferring before the portal with our deep dive timeline.
The Arrival of the Transfer Portal
Late 2018: The College Football Transfer Portal Explained
In October 2018, the NCAA Transfer Portal was established with the purpose of increasing transparency in the transfer process. This allowed student-athletes to publicly declare their intent to transfer. The creation of the portal was largely influenced by the growing concerns surrounding the freedoms of college football players. This included the financial benefits they bring to their programs and universities, of which the student-athletes received no share. It was also to assist universities, specifically compliance departments, in the transfer process.
The transfer portal is a database that both the NCAA and staff members of college football programs can access. It contains information about active transfers, including their date of entry, name, university, conference, and other relevant NCAA data. To enter their name into the portal, a student-athlete needs only to request it through their school’s NCAA compliance officer. This allows other college football programs to be put on notice that the student-athlete is open to transferring.
It is important to note that restrictions on transfer eligibility still existed. Many student-athletes were still forced to sit out a full year unless they were a graduate transfer. From the end of 2018 to the start of 2020, over 1,000 student-athletes entered the portal. Less than 40% were successful in finding a new program. This low transfer success rate would become a core criticism of the transfer portal. The world of transfers and college football was further impacted when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early 2020.
Learn more about what the transfer portal is and why it was created in our in-depth look.
The Pandemic & The Portal
Early 2020: The College Football Transfer Portal Explained
COVID-19 hit the United States in early 2020 and quickly spread across the country, leading to disruptions to many aspects of daily life. One notable event that was cancelled because of the pandemic was the annual NCAA March Madness basketball tournament. Collegiate athletics, including college football, were also impacted, and faced significant challenges approaching the 2020-2021 football season.
There was pressure from all parties involved, including players, coaches, universities, and the NCAA, to decide whether to attempt a season. Ultimately, the decision was made to allow players an extra year of eligibility. Also, it was to permit them to freely transfer to another university to play in the 2020-2021 season. This decision was largely motivated by concerns about player safety.
The relaxed restrictions on transferring did not end with the 2020-2021 season. Instead, supporters of free movement for student-athletes continued to advocate for further changes. Eventually, legislation was passed in April 2021 that allowed players to transfer one time with no eligibility restrictions. There was no need for a waiver as long as the transfer took place prior to a certain date before the season. This change resulted in a surge of transfers, with the 2021-2022 portal cycle seeing over 6,000 entries. However, the success rate for these transfers remained relatively low.
Learn more about the impact of COVID-19 on college football and the transfer portal.
Winter & Spring Windows
Mid-2022: The College Football Transfer Portal Explained
By the end of the 2021-2022 season, the transfer portal had become an integral part of the college football landscape. The portal saw a continued increase in attention, particularly the entry of several high-profile transfers in early 2022 that included eventual Heisman winner Caleb Williams. Teams became increasingly focused on securing transfers and the 2022-2023 cycle was projected to see close to 8,000 total entries. As a result, the NCAA was forced to begin to consider ways to regulate the transfer process to aid in the management rosters.
On August 31, 2022, the NCAA announced the introduction of transfer windows. This was a 45-day period in winter and a 15-day period in spring for student-athletes to enter the transfer portal. The start and end dates of these windows varied by division. They were designed to provide a structured and controlled environment for transferring to take place. It allowed college programs to manage their rosters more effectively. It also gave players a clearer timeline for when it was appropriate to enter the portal. The December 2022 window saw over 5,000 players enter the portal. Though the April 2023 window still looms, it appears that the implementation of transfer windows has been successful in slowing the year-to-year increase in portal entries.
NIL & Tampering
Late 2023: The College Football Transfer Portal Explained
The Name, Image, & Likeness (NIL) era of college sports began in June 2021 and represents a major shift in the way student-athletes are compensated for their involvement in college sports. NIL has had a significant impact on the transfer portal. Players are now able to receive compensation for use of their on-field and off-field likeness. This is inherently linked to their commitment to a team. However, this has also led to concerns about tampering, with accusations that players are being offered payment for their commitment without ever entering the portal.
These accusations were arguably validated by the spate of transfers that took place during the December 2022 window, with many players entering the portal and quickly committing to a new team within hours of entry or even immediately. This highlights the potential for players to be swayed by financial incentives and raises questions about the impact that NIL may have on the transfer portal and the future of college sports. While NIL offers new opportunities for players, it also illuminates the need for increased regulation and oversight to ensure the integrity of the transfer process.
The Effects & The Future
2023: The College Football Transfer Portal Explained
The Transfer Portal has made a significant impact on college athletics. It has proven to be a valuable tool for college programs looking to improve their rosters. Programs such as USC, TCU, and Jackson State have recently utilized the portal to bring in talented players. However, this newfound freedom for players has also been met with criticism.
One of the main concerns is that the portal can disincentivize young athletes from pushing through adversity and remaining loyal to their commitments. In addition, the pursuit of transfers can be damaging for high school athletes, junior college athletes, and smaller college programs who may act as feeder programs for larger programs. These athletes may be less likely to stick with their original commitment, to the detriment of their original institution, if they believe they can transfer to a bigger or better program without penalty.
Despite the criticisms, the trend of player freedom and the overall use of the transfer portal does not appear to be slowing down. Historically, increased freedom and less restriction have been the norm in college athletics, and it seems unlikely that this will see much change in the future. While the NCAA may introduce measures such as transfer windows to ease the negative consequences of the portal, it seems clear that the transfer portal is here to stay and will continue to have a significant influence on college athletics.
Looking ahead, it will be imperative for the NCAA and college programs to find a workable balance between player freedom and ensuring that all student-athletes are given a fair opportunity to develop and succeed. The transfer portal has the potential to greatly benefit college programs and players. However, it is important to address the criticisms and find solutions that will benefit all parties involved.