Every spring, football writers sink deep into the black market. They’re not bartering for controlled substances, blood diamonds or credit card numbers. The only contraband they want is the tape that leaks from colleges and is covertly passed around through a clandestine network of beat reporters.
Those writers are in search of the precious and rare “all-22” tape. It’s the bird’s-eye, uncompromised panorama that, as the name implies, captures all 22 players on a football field. Unlike the regular television broadcasts — with varied camera angles and editorial direction, all-22 footage offers an uncompromised vantage. The footage is captured by a football program’s film division, and it’s used by coaches to prepare for weekly matchups and by NFL general managers who are agonizing over what to do with their fourth-round draft picks. For those outside that insulated fraternity, it’s kept under stringent lock and key.
Ben Solak, an NFL staff writer at the Ringer, is one of the many draft junkies in search of the rarest of commodities.
“I have a buddy, Derrik Klassen at Football Outsiders, who also does quarterback charting. I don’t know how long Twitter DMs retain their history, but if you opened the annals with my DMs with Derrik over the years, you’d see some sicko stuff,” Solak said. “ ‘Yo, I cannot find Troy vs. ULM. Do you know anyone who has it?’ ” Or perhaps: “ ‘I don’t even want to watch this. This is a bad quarterback, and nobody will actually care if I don’t get the 12th game of him. But I committed to this, so do you have Tanner Lee vs. Iowa?’ ”
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Solak is not an outlier. Ask anyone who covers college football and especially the NFL draft, and they will recall the backroom deals for the unlisted YouTube videos and surreptitious Google Drive links brimming with smuggled all-22. It has become its own microeconomy, ballooning in size as the draft becomes a year-round spectacle. Leaks happen all the time. Perhaps, said Solak, someone knows a guy on a Division I school’s video team, who passes them the all-22 of the program’s most recent games. That agent puts their newly acquired wares on the trading block, which sparks a chain reaction of favors, pacts and solicitations across an entire subculture of gridiron connoisseurs.
“Once you get enough of those people, you get a market,” Solak explained. “Somebody sends a DM and says: ‘Okay, I have these four Georgia games. You have these six Boston College games. I’m going to download and send you these copies. You’re going to download and send your copies.’ That’s how this is happening.”
All-22, it should be said, can be easily obtained — no subterfuge necessary — if all you care to watch is NFL games. The league sells subscriptions to NFL Plus Premium, on which anyone can watch the all-22. (It costs $79.99 per year.) But college football is an infamously laissez-faire system; there is no centralized governing body adjudicating licensing rights — those decisions are left to a patchwork of individual conferences. When the tape does leak out, it’s an extremely finite resource. Nate Tice, who covers football for the Athletic, only managed to uncover two all-22 North Dakota State games with eventual first-round pick Trey Lance under center in the run-up to the 2021 draft.
“A month before the draft, I got a third game, and of course a week before I got like four more,” Tice said while laughing. “It didn’t matter by that point. I had already gone on record talking about how much I liked him.
“It’s funny. People tweet the same plays during the draft process because that’s the only game people have gotten access to. It’s not because it’s the best showcase of a prospect’s talent. It’s because that’s the game they can save and tweet.”
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Tice said he developed the majority of his all-22 connections by befriending other film habitues in the media. He does not hold firsthand relationships with the original leakers and has no interest in doing so. (“I don’t ask; I don’t want to know anything.”) But what Tice might not know is that the art of the underground tape trade transcends the draft media. In fact, those who are on staff at college football programs engaged in their own version of the barter system for decades until the system was formalized in 2020. Adam Niemeyer, director of football video at the University of Cincinnati, said that he was instructed to share all-22 footage of Bearcats games with the other schools in the American Athletic Conference. But for programs outside the division? Those negotiations were strictly off the books, and yet they still happened all the time.
“I sent out our games to Temple, UCF, USF and all the other teams in the conference, but they weren’t allowed to turn around and send my stuff out to whoever. That being said, every single video coordinator in America was doing it,” Niemeyer said. “After the season coaches would come in and say: ‘Hey, we want to study USC’s offense. Can you go get it?’ I’d have to call someone in the Pac-12 that wasn’t USC and say, ‘Hey, can you send us USC’s film?’ That was all through connections you had built. We’ve got Facebook groups and all sorts of stuff.”
The practice that Niemeyer is describing has largely gone extinct in 2022. Mike Ortiz, vice president of film operations at the Pac-12, and Tony Buyniski, senior director of officiating technology and services at the Big Ten, did the impossible and brokered consensus in college football. The pair wanted to legitimize the tape trade, and they took the stage at a yearly Las Vegas convention for college video staffers in 2020 with a simple pitch: Every program would make its all-22 available, using a sports-analytics firm called Catapult, for any university staff that wants to take a look.
“We said, ‘Let’s stop the backroom dealings, and let’s hit you with the statistics of what you’d get by opting in,’ ” Ortiz said. If everyone participated, the pair argued, all of the schools would have access to much more tape than they did in the past. Miraculously, Ortiz and Buyniski managed to get all 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams on board — after hammering out a few details.
But like so many esteemed, exclusive institutions, the proprietors of the all-22 footage tend to be punitive when their treasures trickle into the possession of those who aren’t in the club. Nobody faces any serious consequences for hoarding game tape, but if it’s published on social media — by someone who is not associated with a school — you might be facing a quick, efficient Digital Millennium Copyright Act complaint. In fact, those are the exact marching orders given to people such as Niemeyer.
“Everyone wants to break down draft film. Those people have a job to do. So however they’re getting their hands on the film is great. I can’t stop you,” he said. “But if I see some of that stuff in the wild, a lot of us are instructed to copy the link of whatever you see and send it into Catapult.”
Tice was one of those victims. In early May, he tweeted out a few all-22 clips and was swiftly reprimanded with a suspension from the platform. Tice was caught completely off guard; he reached out to Catapult, the two parties sorted out the dispute, and he asked a company representative why something as inconsequential as wide-angle college football tape was punished with a social media blackout. Is it a media rights issue? Something to do with the conference trademarks?
No, not really. “He goes, ‘Some coaches are just weird,’ ” Tice said.
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It’s a refrain you hear all the time in the bizarre world of the NCAA; coaches have a lot of power, and if they’re maniacal about keeping their schemes under wraps, they gladly will muster their legal forces against anyone in possession of that precious cargo. This is vexing for someone such as Solak, who has built a career on his incisive prospect breakdowns. Shouldn’t it be easier?
Ortiz doesn’t think Solak’s dream is out of the question. After all, he just managed to mediate a pledge with the entire FBS ecosystem. The impossible already has happened.
“It’d be something that’d be a little more formalized,” Ortiz said when asked whether he could envision a future where more laymen were granted passage into the college football tape repository. “We’d come through the front door and say, ‘Here’s how the film is going to be used,’ and hash through any monetization and gray areas that come from that.”
Until then, Solak, Tice and everyone else on the outside looking in will be satiating their debilitating football addictions with an overflowing diet of pilfered film. The season is underway, and second-round quarterback prospect Devin Leary of North Carolina State played against Charleston Southern on Saturday. The game tape certainly will be tough to track down, but the draft junkies have learned to rely on each other, in lieu of anyone else. Solidarity forever.
“We’re in this brotherhood,” Solak said. “If you need something, ask for something.”