The Ball Is In Collegiate Athletes’ Court

College athletes have been able to capitalize on their names, images, and likenesses (NIL) for less than a month, as the NCAA, on July 1, suspended its NIL rules. They are quickly taking advantage of the new opportunities.

The process of getting to this point began back in 2009 when former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon filed a lawsuit against the NCAA alleging unlawful use of his likeness (although not his name) in an EA Sports video game and other products. It became a class-action lawsuit. In 2016, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, leaving the issue of collegiate amateurism unresolved. A separate court filing, the Alston case, meanwhile, held that education-related compensation for athletes should not be limited just to Division I schools. In June of this year, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and against the NCAA in that case, which did not address NIL but dealt with similar issues of payment to athletes.

Meanwhile, in the past couple of years a number of states have introduced NIL laws, starting with California’s Fair Play to Pay Act, which passed in 2019 and will go into effect this fall, giving athletes rights over what they do with their own names and likenesses. As of this writing, 24 states have passed similar laws—seven of them, including Florida, went into effect on July 1—and most of the others have introduced legislation or are at least considering doing so. The first federal NIL bill, meanwhile, was introduced in the U.S. Congress in 2019 and the issue remains on the radar, although nothing has been enacted at the federal level yet. Many observers believe a federal law is essential now that the floodgates have opened, with different rules for different states at present.

All of these developments helped convince the NCAA to reconsider its stance on NIL and, after several steps along the way, in essence waive its rules entirely as of July 1, with a staggered rollout depending on individual state laws. In doing so, it paved a path for a wide variety of commercial deals involving student athletes.

Here are just some of the recently announced initiatives, which range from the signing of group and individual licensing deals to the launch of platforms that can help students capitalize on licensing and other commercial opportunities:

  • The University of North Carolina and The Brandr Group announced last week that they are launching a group licensing program for current athletes, following a similar effort for alumni introduced in April. Through the program, student athletes can sign up to be included in co-branded licensing and marketing programs in groups of three or more within their own sport or six or more across multiple sports. The Brandr Group will identify apparel and non-apparel opportunities, in communication with UNC’s licensing agent, IMG College/Collegiate Licensing Company (CLC). Students can still negotiate individual deals beyond the group licensing effort.
  • Trading card and collectibles marketer Panini has signed an agreement with One Team Partners, an athlete group-licensing agency, to produce trading cards featuring the men’s and women’s athletes who have opted in to One Team’s collegiate athlete licensing program. These include traditional trading cards and digital trading card formats, such as NFTs and Panini Instant (on-demand collectibles of sports events as they happen). Panini will also offer co-branded cards featuring athletes and their universities, for many of which it already holds licensing rights. One Team has partnerships with two athlete-marketing platforms, INFLCR and Opendorse, to provide full services for student athletes who are new to licensing and other commercial ventures.
  • Fifty University of Michigan football players to date have partnered with The M Den, the school’s officially licensed retailer, to offer fans player-identified football jerseys. Valiant Management, a division of the Valiant brand that is offered exclusively at the M Den, is a partner in the venture. The jerseys, which are customized on demand, cost between $120 and $180, with players getting more than $10 from each unit sold, according to the store. As a licensee of the school as well as the players, the M Den is positioned to market jerseys with both the university’s trademarks and the students’ names and likenesses. Separately, two members of the UM football team also forged a deal with Yoke Gaming, which allows fans to play video games with celebrities, for a fee, and has signed deals with other collegiate athletes as well.
  • University of North Texas soccer player Sarah Fuller, who is notable for being the first female to play Power 5 conference football, serving as the placekicker for Vanderbilt, set up an apparel store on the print-on-demand platform Represent, which sells t-shirts featuring graphics of her in (non-university-identified) football gear and the phrase “Be the First.”
  • The small College of Charleston partnered with INFLCR for a program called The Charleston Edge, with 13 of its student athletes having signed deals as of mid-July. Eight are from the women’s softball and volleyball teams. (One is a podcast producer rather than an athlete.) INFLCR is an app launched in 2017 that assists students with brand deals through access to education, social media insights and metrics, digital content, and monetization opportunities. The universities—several are on board so far—pay an annual license fee for the use of the software.
  • Northern Illinois University partnered with COMPASS, a digital NIL management platform that helps students educate themselves on licensing through e-learning modules, comply with regulations and royalty reporting requirements, and handle other facets of licensing and commercial uses of their likenesses. COMPASS was developed by agency CLC with Game Plan, an athlete-education specialist.
  • The University of Arkansas launched Flagship, a solution to allow athletes to capitalize on NIL licensing. (Arkansas’ NIL legislation goes into effect on January 1, 2022.) The platform is a partnership among Arkansas Athletics, Walton College of Business and Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, influencer marketing company Captiv8, and NIL platform NOCAP Sports. The Athletic department also has a relationship with INFLCR for student brand-building. Through Flagship, housed within the school’s new Office of Athlete Brand Development, returning student athletes will participate in a five-week program on entrepreneurship and business basics, NIL legislation, influencer marketing and personal branding, and storytelling and pitching.
  • Texas A&M launched a NIL program it called Amplify, the goal of which is to give student athletes the training and tools to maximize their brand. The program includes education and resources on personal branding, finance, networking, media training, and the like. The school has a relationship with INFLCR, and its services are integrated into the Amplify program, while COMPASS will deliver compliance, legal, and best-practices education. Texas A&M is represented by CLC for licensing.

These and many other programs like them in colleges and universities across the country could earn the most popular players hundreds of thousands of dollars or more. Bryce Young, the soon-to-be starting quarterback at the University of Alabama, has reportedly signed NIL deals worth nearly $1 million (at least according to his coach). But all athletes can earn some money, from a few hundred dollars for a local shop appearance on up.

Proponents and opponents of this new normal have put forth many valid arguments on each side. While opportunities abound for athletes to generate some revenue from the fame they have built through their athletic pursuits, it also seems that there could be many complications, hiccups, and unintended consequences along the way.

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