The Florida Panthers looked at Miami quarterback D’Eriq King and saw a 23-year-old with the persona, on-field talent and social influence they felt could bolster their brand through a groundbreaking endorsement deal.
The NIL deal made King the first active college athlete to partner with a pro franchise. This will not be a one-off: More deals between pro teams and active college athletes soon will be coming to a market near you.
Expect a “handful” of other pro teams this fall to follow in the Panthers’ footsteps in securing deals with prominent and popular local athletes, said Blake Lawrence, CEO and founder of Opendorse. His company provides athletes with technology to assist with endorsements.
Lawrence told On3 that he discussed the concept with an official from another NHL team this week and with one of the major sports leagues last week. The league, he said, was trying to understand what it is legally permitted to do in the NIL space. Lawrence expects pro teams signing college athletes to become a much broader initiative in 2022 as they seek athletes who, among other qualities, possess local influence and appeal.
In addition to appearing at some Panthers games and engaging with fans on social media as the team’s first “FLA Athlete,” King will work with the franchise to develop a merchandise collection, co-branded art and his own concession menu. Since the NIL era began July 1, King has been among the most popular athletes in the eyes of brands, signing at least six deals in less than two months.
The industry still is contemplating the potential with unique partnerships between pro teams and current college athletes.
“What I’m most interested in is the first NFL team that will sign an NFL deal with an NCAA college football player,” Lawrence said. “What does that even mean, you know? Or imagine the Dallas Mavericks signing a TCU basketball player to an ambassador deal. Like, how does that even work? Getting a TCU (star) a deal where he gets to sit in a suite and watch the game with other TCU players. It’s not like they get to pick what pro team. It’s not recruiting, but what is it?”
An eye on Learfield
Dr Pepper is one of the few marquee national brands that has stepped into the NIL space, reaching a deal with new Clemson starting quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei to appear in their national ad campaign and be featured in the company’s “Fansville” commercials.
To date, most major brands have taken a patient, deliberate approach to testing NIL waters. What is a notable brand to watch? Lawrence has his eye on the dominant marketing organization Learfield.
The Plano, Texas-based company’s suite of services is vast, including access to licensing and multimedia sponsorship management, fan engagement, ticket sales and branding. It has exclusive multimedia rights with conferences and nearly 200 Division I programs. It also helps universities with school marks and intellectual property, in-venue signage and venue naming rights. In June, Learfield raised $242 million from a trio of its investors — Endeavor, Silver Lake and Atairos — as the industry navigates a fast-evolving landscape that now includes NIL.
“There’s a billion dollars in college sports sponsorship that flows through that company every year,” Lawrence said. “Those sports sponsors are the same entities and individuals that are going to want to directly support student-athletes. Learfield has a tremendous control over where dollars go and flow in college sports, and they have yet to reveal what their plan is for NIL. When that happens, you’re talking about floodgates that could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Uhhh, where’s the NCAA on NIL?
More on the NCAA abdicating responsibility, leaving the entire NIL burden on the shoulders of athletic departments: Lawrence said 95 percent of athletic directors and compliance officers expected the NCAA to provide all of the guidance, legislation and even a disclosure process and technology for every athlete.
“So, in one week, the entire athletics industry went from having all their guidance from the NCAA to having no guidance from the NCAA and a figure-it-out challenge,” Lawrence said. “Some of those schools were well-prepared and they’re excelling, and others are scrambling.
“I would say that if you jump outside of the Power 5 schools, most compliance officers, most athletic directors and most coaches are struggling to understand what they can and cannot do and what resources they need now that they’re not being provided resources from the NCAA. That is where the confusion is coming from, like, ‘We weren’t expecting to have to do all of this on our own.’ ”
NIL providing ‘extra scholarships’
One important note from an innovative corner of the NIL space: Built Brands, a Utah-based manufacturer and distributor of protein and energy products, has a multiyear agreement that includes compensation for all 123 BYU football players. For 36 walk-ons, the compensation will cover the cost of tuition for the academic year.
The deal is sound, Kansas City-based college sports law attorney Mit Winter said, as long as the walk-ons actually are performing a service on behalf of the company. They will: All players will wear Built branding on practice helmets. Walk-ons will also engage in social media promotions for the company.
“People are getting creative,” Winter said. “Now they have 36 extra scholarships.”
More NIL-related insights . . .
- Indiana has drawn strong praise among prominent sources in the NIL space for having a buttoned-up, sophisticated strategy. To that point, IU unveiled what it hailed as a first-of-its-kind athlete directory for NIL deals. Available to companies looking to contact athletes for endorsements, the directory includes multiple ways in which they can contact athletes. It’s fair to expect that this type of directory soon will be the standard across the country.
- Louisville is “advising” all its athletes to cease involvement in Barstool Sports because the school says it does not comply with school policy or criteria outlined in the Kentucky Governor’s Executive Order. Penn National Gaming, which owns and operates casinos, purchased 36 percent of Barstool last year. Winter expects other schools to follow Louisville’s lead because ”it’s a gray area whether Barstool is a gambling company or not, so it’s easier for the schools just to say, ‘You can’t do deals with Barstool’ and just kind of eliminate the problem.”
- In light of Overtime Elite signing the No. 2 point guard in the nation, Jazian Gortman of Columbia (S.C.) Keenan, for what Jeff Goodman reports is $650,000, it amplifies the question of which route offers the most money potential for elite high school basketball players: college and NIL or Overtime Elite/NBA G-League? Lawrence, whose Opendorse is a partner of Overtime, said that the Overtime brand possesses valuable advertisers in sports and media that already are spending heavily with them. One of the value propositions that Overtime Elite provides, he said, is that unlike college athletics, there are no state laws that restrict Overtime from assisting athletes in finding, signing, securing, executing and managing NIL opportunities. “I can imagine (CEO) Dan Porter or Zack (Weiner, Overtime’s co-founder and president) in a pitch with a student-athlete saying, ‘If you come here, we already have most of the advertisers you want to work with,’ ” Lawrence said. “ ‘We can provide you hands-on services to maximize your ROI opportunities. That’s different is you go to a college basketball program.’ ”