As Wisconsin loses Chucky Hepburn and AJ Storr, can Badgers keep up in NIL, portal era?

MADISON, Wis. — Tears streamed down Chucky Hepburn’s face in the emotional minutes after Wisconsin’s season ended with a 72-61 loss to James Madison in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Yet Hepburn, in all his agony, was trying to find a silver lining through the pain.

“Tonight wasn’t our night,” he told reporters in the locker room. “But we’re going to get back to this. This isn’t the last of us.”

Hepburn then reaffirmed he would be back for his senior season. Yes, there had been conversations during the previous offseason about schools attempting to poach Hepburn with enticing NIL offers. But he already had returned to Wisconsin for his junior season and was in position to be a senior leader and a four-year starting point guard, someone whose on-court ferociousness and program loyalty endeared him to the fan base.

That’s why the news of his decision to enter the transfer portal on Thursday felt like such a gut punch for the Badgers: If he could leave, then anyone can.

It’s not a stretch to suggest Hepburn’s move is the most jarring by a Wisconsin men’s basketball or football player during the transfer portal era. AJ Storr, the team’s leading scorer, declared for the NBA Draft but also entered the portal and is now set to play for Kansas next season. He was in Madison for less than a year and didn’t have the same deep ties to the program.

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Even the transfers of three-year starting quarterbacks Alex Hornibrook and Graham Mertz weren’t met with this much surprise because not only did their play not meet fan expectations, but neither was guaranteed to keep his starting job. Hepburn, a Gatorade Player of the Year award winner in Nebraska, had been committed to Wisconsin since early in his junior year of high school in 2019. Just one month ago, following a loss to Illinois, he had explained the importance of the Badger tattoo inked on his left arm. He discussed how proud he was to wear a Wisconsin jersey because it went beyond sports and encompassed a brotherhood and a family.

That Hepburn didn’t enter the portal immediately after the season made Thursday’s announcement even more crushing to Badgers fans. Nine days earlier, Wisconsin’s basketball X account posted images of the team’s returning players, including Hepburn, working out in the weight room with the caption: “Back.” Things clearly moved quickly from there.

Wisconsin coach Greg Gard acknowledged two points worth reiterating in the statement he issued following the news of Hepburn’s transfer:

  1. In today’s college basketball, players are making transactional decisions all over the country at every level.
  2. This is the reality of college basketball today.

That’s the crux of where we are because it would be foolish not to recognize how much NIL has changed the landscape. Gone are the days when fans could count on watching their favorite player develop with one program over four years. Not every player who transfers is doing so with more money in mind — as of Friday, nearly 1,500 Division I scholarship basketball players had entered the transfer portal this offseason, according to numbers compiled by The Athletic — but upper-tier players can leave and command top dollar.

To be clear, whatever his reasons for entering the portal, Hepburn should not be faulted for taking advantage of the system in place where there are unlimited transfers and legalized payments through NIL. For too long, players were held back by archaic NCAA rules while schools profited off their performances. Hepburn’s value as a college basketball player will never be as high, and there’s no telling what type of financial situation could arise from his pro prospects given that he’s not a surefire NBA player.

Hepburn’s father, Greg, did not respond to a text message seeking comment but did note in a reply to a user on his X account that “the numbers are astounding.” He went on to say that “I hate that young athletes are put in a position to make these choices. Love the opportunity provided to establish his future, but man, this opens undesirable & murky waters to navigate.”

Wisconsin disappointed down the stretch last season, plummeting from sixth in the AP Top 25 to a first-round NCAA Tournament exit, and Gard has to own that as head coach. But all Gard can do is provide his players with an opportunity, and two of his best players, Storr and Hepburn took advantage of theirs. Storr transferred to Wisconsin last offseason from St. John’s and nearly doubled his scoring output. Hepburn started all 103 games in which he played dating to his freshman season. Both ended up seeking opportunities elsewhere.

That leads to perhaps the key question for the future: How well positioned is Wisconsin to compete in this changing landscape?

Gard said during a radio interview earlier this month that he and assistant coach Joe Krabbenhoft started an initiative more than a year ago called the “Sixth Man Society” as part of the Varsity Collective to raise funds, noting that the Badgers had been able “to almost triple our NIL collective in terms of men’s basketball in a year.” Of course, it’s hard to know what that means in terms of an exact figure and where those numbers stand in relation to other programs. What seems clear is that there is a cap on that number and that other schools have a larger pool of resources.

Wisconsin isn’t alone in navigating this situation. Iowa basketball coach Fran McCaffery recently said point guard Tony Perkins was leaving the program because his NIL market value was “somewhere in the neighborhood of $500,000.” Perkins, a multi-year starter like Hepburn, committed to Missouri.

In the past two years, Hepburn had NIL partnerships with Degree Deodorant, Fetch Rewards, The Players Trunk, Barstool Sports and Pepsi, among others, though how much he earned from any of those relationships is unknown. His autographed basketballs were on sale at the University Bookstore for $99.99. Although Hepburn said in an Instagram statement that his decision was “not a reflection of anything lacking at Wisconsin,” it was hard for people to feel that way in the aftermath of his move.

Rob Master, the executive chair for the Varsity Collective, declined to address specifics in a conversation Friday afternoon with The Athletic when he was asked for a top-end dollar amount on what the collective was able to or willing to offer a star basketball player at Wisconsin, citing the unique financial situations of each player. But he said more work needed to be done to ensure the health of the collective’s future efforts.

“I think the sustained and I think in reality the increased support of NIL programs is really going to be vital for us to remain competitive to pursue championship athletes and teams,” Master said. “The reality is that the college sports landscape, the NIL marketplace, is evolving very rapidly. And I think while we have a good foundation, this is not static. So I think our community needs to continue to lean in and embrace NIL and the Varsity Collective as this is what college sports is becoming.”

Master described Gard as “super engaged” in discussing and pushing for NIL resources for the men’s basketball program, noting that Gard opened his door to the collective when it was in the process of forming two years ago. Master did not provide details on what percentage of the collective’s financial resources were earmarked specifically for men’s basketball and said the objective was to help Wisconsin be competitive in all its team sports.

“It’s not like we are a one-trick-sport school,” Master said. “That’s just not how we operate here. I’d much prefer that than I guess being like some of these schools who just really lean into one sport. I get that becomes maybe an inherent advantage for some of them.

“I think it’s a situation where we have so many competitive teams. But we have to look at that and say, ‘OK, there are some universities who are in different positions to take different strategies.’”

Master said that despite Thursday being a tough day for Wisconsin and its fans, he remained confident in the progress and approach the Varsity Collective was making, citing multiple revenue streams that he believed would keep the Badgers competitive with NIL. He touted a new collaboration with Potosi Brewing Co. for its Varsity Golden Ale, in which 20 percent of the sales would be donated to the Varsity Collective to support NIL efforts. The custom beer partnership had a launch scheduled at Memorial Union for Friday afternoon.



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He said the collective had grown from a smaller set of donors to a wider pool and that the collective had done programming to try to create an entry point for the average fan to contribute. That includes different membership tiers to the Camp Randall Club.

None of that changes the fact that Hepburn is gone “to explore new possibilities and continue my journey in pursuit of my dreams,” as he put it on Instagram. While his departure could be viewed as a call to action to some, it also figures to make it harder for many supporters to want to contribute to a cause in which players can and will leave for the opportunity they think is best, which is every bit their right.

This is the reality of college basketball today.

(Photo of Chucky Hepburn and AJ Storr: Kirk Irwin / Getty Images)

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