PHOENIX – The clock is ticking.
The annual “Read to the Final Four” event began the countdown to the Men’s Final Four at Gateway School Monday, as Phoenix Local Organizing Committee CEO Jay Parry and NCAA president Charlie Baker received a roaring applause from kids sitting on the elementary school’s gym floor. Moments after their respective introductions, Baker read to third graders to kick-start the annual event.
His mind took a rest from the long week ahead in the pages of his book as this week marks the beginning of a busy stretch from now until April 5-8, when college basketball’s men’s championship weekend takes over the Valley. Baker, who is preparing for the NCAA annual meetings and events at the Phoenix Convention Center from Wednesday through Saturday, gave some insight into what he expects will be some of the main conversations.
“Well, I think the biggest thing that will happen at the convention is that we’re going to have a pretty robust discussion about putting some consumer protections in place for student-athletes,” he said.
He was right. On Wednesday, the NCAA approved a package of rules that call for creation of a database of NIL deals that could be accessed by athletes and universities, and a registry of companies that want to work with athletes, the Associated Press reported.
The move was inspired by the need for more transparency and clarity.
Collegiate athletes are reaping the benefits of name, image and likeness deals, but it is still a fickle subject due to laws and bills continually being passed. Initially, in 2019, the Federal Trade Commission implemented regulations for social media influencers.
Some of those regulations include making honest statements about the brand or product of service. The athlete must have personally used the endorsed product and they must disclose the relationship with the product to social media that they are posting a paid advertisement. These are only a handful of the requirements made by the FTC.
Baker hasn’t shied away from his criticism of the NCAA’s handling of NIL matters. He issued a letter to athletes in December about his plan for maximizing success of NILs. Baker emphasized that will be a key discussion point during the four days of meetings in Phoenix.
“I would argue that NIL is important and positive and the NCAA made a mistake,” Baker said, referencing an equity analysis among the discrepancies of men’s and women’s NIL deals. “I said this before publicly, by not making a framework around how the state could operate before it got started … I’m hoping the membership is going to take this week to create a uniform standard contract to create some rules around what kind of information needs to be available.”
At Gateway School in central Phoenix, the next generation of potential college students sat on the floor Monday, listening to Baker tell his favorite story. Gateway School principal Andy Gutierrez certainly took a memory away from the NCAA’s presence on the campus. The moment was something Gutierrez strived towards, as he detailed his role to help his students receive special guests and speakers like Baker and Parry.
“Even though sometimes we may have barriers, I just always wanted to be what I call ‘the gatekeeper’ to give students more opportunities and open those gates,” Gutierrez said. “Allow them to go and be successful in any direction, whether it be academically, socially, wherever they choose.”
Gutierrez, who stood with Parry throughout the event, described working with her on planning this event since before Gateway’s holiday break in late December. The planning included how to target the kids’ attention, their interests and how they would remember this event.
Gutierrez understood the significance of the campaign appearing at his school. Although his students might not have understood the NCAA’s role or intricacies, he gave a comparison to ensure that everyone would remember who was reading to them.
“We talked a little bit about the NCAA and obviously president Baker because so many of our kids don’t quite know what a president of an NCAA is,” Gutierrez said. “So I kind of gave them the analogy … ‘It’s kind of like the principal of college athletics.’”
Parry has made her mark throughout Arizona, serving in the WNBA’s front office, as well as with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and the NBA’s Phoenix Suns. Parry made sure this event was possible with the help of the 2024 Men’s Final Four Host Committee. From hosting the 2023 Super Bowl, the World Series and now to the Men’s Final Four, Parry credits the design of Arizona and the blueprint to navigate various events.
“We have a fantastic road map that all of our stakeholders have taken part in,” Parry said. “It’s not just one small group of people. Whether it’s a Super Bowl or a Men’s Final Four or a Women’s Final Four that (Phoenix will) host in 2026, we’ve got a fantastic blueprint that we work from and each one of those events is different, but we have so much institutional knowledge. It really comes together nicely.”
Since the NCAA’s men’s tournament was last in Arizona in 2017, the state’s population has continued to grow and surpassed 7.4 million in 2023, according to the U.S. Census. The influx of people residing in the Grand Canyon State stands out among other states. Despite that steady increase, Parry suggests that every event is an opportunity to capitalize and sell to people why they should reside in Arizona for a plethora of reasons.
“What we try to do with mega events is really put an exclamation point on what’s already happening in Arizona and really see this as an enormous commercial for telling the story of why you want to live here, why you want to do business here and why you want to come on vacation,” Parry said.
“All of these things are so special and I feel so lucky that I get to be a part of it,” Parry said. “We have a phenomenal team that makes all these events happen. I literally take a memory from each one of these events.”
An event like “Read to the Final Four” could resonate with the next generation of students. Baker is making his mark within the NIL space for college athletes. The former Massachusetts governor notices some striking similarities between his former job and his current position as the president of the NCAA. Despite the pushback on decisions by conferences and other parties, Baker remains optimistic about what the conference can achieve for athletes and the conferences as a whole.
“I think the biggest thing that’s similar is when you’re a governor, not everybody’s going to like every decision you make,” Baker said. “I fully expect that not everybody is going to like every decision I make in this job. You just have to focus on the fact that at the end of the day, you want to make it better for as many as you possibly can over time.
“This whole issue of getting to equilibrium, to some place where everybody doesn’t feel like the ground is constantly shifting underneath them, whether you’re a coach or an A.D., or a student or a family, that’s where you got to go.”
As students piled out of the Gateway gymnasium and Baker and Parry wrapped up their respective interviews, Gutierrez reflected on having his school receive a visit from the latter. He remained grateful for the experience and what his students will take from it, years from now.
“I think it’s just an opportunity for the kids to see if we wouldn’t have had this assembly,” Gutierrez said. “It would be interesting to see how many of our kids would actually pay attention to the Final Four.
“I just think an event, something of this magnitude and something of this nature, they’re going to pay extra special attention to it when it comes up. They’re going to be like, ‘Oh yeah, remember we had that assembly.’ It was a neat opportunity and it’s just going open their eyes to more opportunities.”