How does the NCAA transfer portal work?

July 24, 2023
Today, we’re swimming through your Summer School Qs about another major force joining NIL and conference realignment in shaping college sports: the NCAA’s transfer portal.
How does the NCAA transfer portal work?

✏️ The history

Blockbuster transfers in college athletics aren’t new, but they used to be way less common. Pre-2018, athletes who wanted to transfer had to jump through tons of regulatory hoops, and those in revenue-generating sports, like Division I (DI) football and basketball, had to spend a season on the bench before suiting up for their new squad.

  • As a result, transfers usually only occurred in extreme circumstances, like head coaching changes or significant scholarship loss.

Then in October 2018, the NCAA launched the transfer portal as a way to manage and facilitate student-athlete transfers. Suddenly, players could simply notify their school’s compliance office of their intent to transfer, and their name would appear in the new online database (“the portal”) within 48 hours. Easy peasy.

  • Coaches and administrators scour this database for new talent to court, à la pro leagues’ free agency — unless an athlete adds a “do not contact” tag to their profile, indicating they already know where they intend to play.
  • This portal granted student-athletes more control over their collegiate careers, ushering in a new era of athlete empowerment. And then another massive change quickly accelerated it from zero to 100mph.

The NCAA adopted legislation allowing one-time DI transfers without the mandatory year on the sidelines in April 2021. Under the new rule, athletes are competition-eligible right away — and now, it seems like everyone’s seeking a change of scenery, from the court to the gridiron to the mat to the diamond.

⚖️ The rules

The portal isn’t a lawless free-for-all, though, especially since the NCAA recently tried to tamp down on the transfer-palooza. The org limited undergraduates to one “free” transfer, with additional moves requiring a waiver (more on that below) to avoid the redshirt-year penalty, like Utah-to-Kentucky-to-Baylor hooper Dre’Una Edwards infamously faced.

  • Notably, this rule doesn’t apply to student-athletes shifting from undergrad to grad school: They can transfer penalty-free, regardless of if they’ve done so before, allowing them to choose the right grad program for their career goals.

When it rains transfer announcements, it pours because athletes have a limited window following the end of their seasons to enter the portal. Those who compete in the spring or fall have 45 days (plus an additional two weeks later in the year) to enter, while winter athletes have 60 days — at least until the NCAA potentially amends the rule to a 30-day window for all.

  • Once in the portal, an athlete can be recruited and complete a transfer at any time, though the original school can also rescind their roster spot and/or scholarship. If they change their mind, the player can withdraw and hope their old team will have them back.

But rules are made to be broken. Undergraduate waivers for immediate eligibility can be granted for second transfers in circumstances where students face obstacles to their physical or mental health, struggle academically due to a diagnosed learning disability, or contend with other issues outside their control, like discrimination.

  • But beginning this fall, the NCAA ruled that the elimination of an athlete’s scholarship or “participation opportunity” (aka playing time), as well as changes in coaching staff, are no longer valid reasons for a waiver.

💰 The concerns

Although the portal’s given athletes considerable freedom, it created new challenges for coaches, who must now worry about players bolting and balancing traditional recruiting with portal pick-ups. Add in the delicate dance of impermissible contact, tampering, and inducements, and roster management has become a massive undertaking.

Coaches cannot recruit other schools’ athletes before they hit the transfer portal. Such communication is called impermissible contact, and if that contact results in a transfer, it becomes a more serious violation called tampering. Since athletes can easily jump ship now, restricting this behavior is more important than ever.

Schools are also barred from tempting new players — high school recruits or transfers — with benefits like cash or gifts. That’s called inducement, though it’s become extremely murky and hard to enforce since NIL hit the scene.

  • Elite athletes transferring in pursuit of more NIL money is now common — and perfectly legal. But the rise of NIL collectives could create a pay-to-play scheme benefitting the wealthiest programs.
  • It’s a fine line between suggesting an athlete could see NIL success and straight-up offering them money to switch schools. But it’s crucial to hold that line if the NCAA aims to seriously combat inducements.

🔍 Zooming out

The transfer portal has a lot of critics, and pay-to-play situations aren’t the only concern. Both coaches and players are incentivized to constantly seek the next best thing, which could mean they fail to invest in the team they already have. As Texas women’s basketball director of player development Sydney Carter says, “Transferring is not always the answer.”

  • “[Having] discipline and perseverance through times when you’ve reached adversity is only gonna build that character up for you later on in life,” she explained. “Don’t run from things being hard, and learn how to handle hard because life is hard.”

Many also worry about the creation of superteams, evidenced by the reigning women’s basketball national champs, LSU. The aforementioned Mulkey’s roster was pieced together via the transfer portal, including its star, former Maryland standout Angel Reese. When LSU met instant success, some felt it was unearned.

Portal defenders point out that allowing players to hunt the best available team, competition, and opportunity to snag a ’ship isn’t inherently bad. Sometimes, athletes who didn’t have elite options out of high school can develop enough that their dream team later comes knocking — and who’s to say they shouldn’t level up?

  • Take men’s hooper Darrion Trammell, who turned his single DI offer to a then-struggling Seattle University into a superstar transfer run with San Diego State during this year’s March Madness — all thanks to determination, hard work, and the portal.

And although it feels like everyone’s transferring these days, that’s not actually true: Less than 21K DI players hit the portal in the 2021–22 athletic year, which isn’t even 11% of DI’s 192K athletes.

Like it or not, the portal’s granted athletes unprecedented freedom — and college sports are infinitely spicier with it in the mix.