With Happy Valley United, Penn State aims for NIL improvement

On3 imageby:Nate Bauer06/08/23


In the first two years of permissible name, image, and likeness use for college athletes, Penn State has wrangled with how to address the issue. And it has amounted to two years of twists, turns, and internal competition.

From Sandy Barbour’s initial ‘STATEment’ program, purporting to educate student-athletes and encourage entrepreneurship, to football head coach James Franklin’s pleas for NIL embrace, to the departure of men’s basketball coach Micah Shrewsberry, at least partly due to NIL shortcomings, and Patrick Kraft’s attempts to organize and streamline the operation, Penn State has tried to work through its NIL challenges.

Thursday, the proposed solution comes into focus. 

Announcing the formation of Happy Valley United, Penn State is taking its first steps toward a cohesive NIL strategy with a singular, consolidated collective. And the news could not come at a more important time, which Franklin has spent much of the spring detailing, encapsulating the discord permeating the Nittany Lions’ NIL efforts since its inception.

“We’re at a similar crossroads now with NIL,” Franklin told BWI last month. “Whatever industry you’re in, if you want to be as competitive or as successful as you possibly can within that industry, you have to change and be bold and aggressive in your changing. 

“And we have been resistant. It’s been a little bit resistant from a historical perspective. It’s been a little bit resistant internally.”

More: Franklin talks Penn State’s NIL direction with BWI’s Nate Bauer

Through the initiative of Kraft, and NIL partnerships with Doug Fillis of Accelerate Sports Ventures and Rob Sine, co-founder and CEO of Blueprint Sports, Happy Valley United is intended to be Penn State’s solution to that resistance.

And it specifically serves to address longstanding consternation with previous NIL efforts.

Within the Happy Valley United umbrella, Penn State football will be served by the Lions Legacy Club brand. It will utilize a paid, dedicated staff specific to Penn State’s needs, and have resources working exclusively toward generating NIL investment for the Nittany Lion football program. The same will be true for men’s basketball, with a yet-to-be-named branding for its silo. 

At the top of that operation, with a proposed 10 to 12 employees working in development and marketing to help recruit and maintain donor relations, Happy Valley United will also name a paid CEO, which is expected soon. 

Optimism growing in Penn State’s NIL space

Speaking with BWI last week, new Penn State basketball coach Mike Rhoades indicated satisfaction with the current status of the program’s NIL as well as optimism for where it is going. 

“It’s good. I would not be here if it wouldn’t be good, because it’s a part of our landscape now,” Rhoades said. “I don’t want it to be the best, I don’t want it to be the number one thing in our program. And I don’t want kids if that’s number one on their list. But, it’s part of the competitive landscape, and we’re gonna compete in that part of it too, just like we’re gonna compete in the game. 

“I appreciate so many people are coming to bat for Penn State basketball in NIL so we could do some cool things to help our guys in name, image, and likeness. And what I love about it is we’re going to do it the right way and people want us to do it the right way.”

For Franklin and the Penn State football program, meanwhile, the intimations made in May have picked up speed. 

Lamenting time and momentum lost toward one of the crucial ingredients of the competitive college football landscape, the Nittany Lions will aim to rectify their NIL issues.

“In the beginning, we didn’t embrace it as an athletic department. And then externally, trying to get people bought into it,” Franklin said. “To me, that’s the challenge. If it’s just the coaches out pounding the drum, it’s gonna be difficult to get done. That’s where, when the AD is pounding the same drum as the coaches, whether it’s for facilities or whether it’s NIL, I think more people are open to listening. Because they’re hearing it from multiple sources. So, that’s just the reality. 

“If you say, ‘What do we need to do to stay at this level or higher year in and year out?’ we’re still behind in that area.”

In Happy Valley United, Penn State is making a formidable investment and organizational restructure toward catching up.

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