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As new game-changing rules approach their one-year anniversary on July 1 with huge questions remaining, a look back to the beginning sheds light on the most tumultuous and impactful year ever in college sports.
On the night of June 30, 2021, sports attorney Darren Heitner sat in his home office in Fort Lauderdale. The peaceful third-floor waterside view belied the stress of the moment as he tried to manage “a logistical nightmare.”
His clients, twin sisters Haley and Hanna Cavinder, basketball players at Fresno State, were on a flight from Michigan, where they were visiting family, to New York. The next day they would become two of the faces of name, image and likeness by unveiling commercial deals with Boost Mobile and Six Star Pro Nutrition.
In the race to be first with NIL deals on July 1, the historic first day college athletes could sign commercial deals, the Cavinders were determined to set the pace. So were Boost and Six Star. The lights of Times Square would never again shine so brightly on them, and they wanted to take full advantage of this chance to make history.
Being first — or among the first — in the chase for NIL riches looked a lot different last June than it does now. NIL has veered from its intended course into a pay-for-play model where boosters form businesses called collectives as a means to funnel payments to recruits or current players. The vast majority of NIL money being paid to athletes flows through collectives now.
“The collective concept has dominated the NIL conversation for the last six months,” said Opendorse CEO and co-founder Blake Lawrence. “For the first six months, it was geared toward student-athlete monetization of NIL in its purest form, where they were acting entrepreneurially. They were creating their own products and setting up their own clinics and monetizing their merchandise. More recently, it’s been all about donors and fan bases taking advantage of NIL. That whole conversation has shifted.”
As NIL approaches its first anniversary, its impact cannot be overstated. College leaders have called this controversial new model of athlete compensation the single greatest change to intercollegiate athletics in their lifetime.
With any dynamic that creates wholesale change, it comes with a lot of heartburn as schools, coaches, athletic directors and the athletes try to adapt, some more successfully than others.
But at its birth on July 1, 2021, the NIL model was about Miami quarterback D’Eriq King starting his own business, Syracuse basketball sharpshooter Buddy Boeheim introducing his line of “Buddy Buckets” wear and Jacksonville State volleyball athlete Adelaide Halverson becoming the first college athlete to sign with Barstool Sports, a conversation Halverson initiated.
The Cavinder twins set the bar high.
“Let’s make this the model of how these deals are supposed to get done,” Heitner typed in a text to the sisters.
A full-on media blitz was planned for July 1 in New York, where the twins appeared on the three major networks, ESPN and sat for an interview with Time. A lot of people learning about NIL for the first time were hearing it from Haley and Hanna.
Getting them to their first appearance in Times Square, however, was the source of Heitner’s logistical nightmare. The weather was not cooperating on the night of June 30, forcing the Cavinders’ flight to divert to a Pennsylvania regional airport. For all of the planning Heitner had done in the week leading up to July 1, he couldn’t predict the storms around New York that shut down air travel.
While he worked the phone to stay in touch with Brooke Cavinder, an older sister who managed Haley and Hanna at the time, Heitner had tricky contractual issues that he needed to navigate.
Fresno State required its athletes to report their commercial deals to the school in advance of activating them. And with the Cavinder twins scrambling to find a rideshare from Pennsylvania to New York that evening, that left Heitner with a small window to submit the contracts to Fresno State’s athletic department in time for their first scheduled appearance the following morning.
There also were some final touches on the Boost contract that required Icon Source, which brokered the deal, to sign off on.
Not only that, but Six Star had to get its protein product in the Cavinders’ hands that morning so that they’d have it for media appearances and photo shoots around the city.
Gopuff and several other brands reached out to Heitner in the early morning hours of July 1 to inquire about opportunities to work with the twins.
“Three deals in one day seemed like too much,” Heitner said. “We pushed the Gopuff deal to July 2.”
After arriving in New York around 2 a.m. — completing a 17-hour day — the twins slept for two hours. And then it was time to go to work.
NIL had arrived.
Will it lead to athletes becoming employees? Will the NCAA be able to create guardrails so that NIL isn’t just a recruiting inducement? Can donor-led collectives continue to disrupt this space by facilitating deals?
What follows are the reactions and recollections in interviews with Sports Business Journal from those who have had a front-row seat for the birth of NIL and watched it quickly evolve, for better or worse, over the past year:
Jim Cavale, CEO, INFLCR: What we all saw was that student athletes believed there was going to be this big payday. The media had written about it for two years, using examples like Zion Williamson and Trevor Lawrence, and what NIL would have been for them if they were still in college. Those examples were used so often with such big numbers that the student athletes thought offers were going to be coming in from all directions.
Drew Butler, executive VP/collegiate, Icon Source: There was a lot of excitement, but there also was a lot of uncertainty because there was zero guidance coming from the NCAA. Some states had pushed bills forward that would allow student athletes to capitalize on their NIL. Those were protective measures. Then at the 11th hour, the NCAA came out with interim guidelines and the frenzy was on July 1. Here we are a year later, still with tons of questions and a lot of it up in the air.
John Raleigh, chief legal officer, Learfield: The NCAA saw the Wild West coming, and they threw their hands up. Especially after the Supreme Court decision, I think the NCAA thought its hands were tied as to what they could legislate and enforce.
Cory Moss, CEO, CLC: Leading up to July 1, we were answering a lot of questions and just trying to make sure the schools, whether they had decided to let student athletes use the marks, understood the guidelines and the royalty rates for use of their IP.
Blake Lawrence, CEO, Opendorse: June 30 was a big travel day. I went from Gainesville to Charlotte to Chicago to Madison, Wis. That’s when we had our first in-person session at Wisconsin with the student athletes. I had to step out of one session to take a phone call because we were trying to get a deal done with Gopuff and the Cavinder twins. I was pacing so much, it felt like I was doing laps around the Kohl Center. … Then I was off to Los Angeles. I spent the first day of NIL, July 1, at the Elite 11 quarterback camp, providing educational sessions.
Casey Schwab, CEO, Altius Sports Partners: In the weeks leading up to July 1, we were talking a lot to the student athletes about how you talk to a marketing agent, how you talk to an attorney, how you talk to a tax adviser. At that point, we had about a dozen schools we were working with and we tried to hit every one of them. On July 1, I was at South Carolina for a session on, “OK, this thing is live, what does it mean?”
Jake Duhaime, communications lead, Iovate Health Services: Six Star’s initial target was (UConn women’s basketball player) Paige Bueckers. Paige would eventually choose Gatorade, though we were proud to bring an offer of financial equivalence. Gatorade had built up a ton of brand equity, and we are just getting our foot in the door. … We figured that athletes like Paige wouldn’t be among the first movers. They would weigh potential agencies who could monetize them responsibly. To be a first mover, we had to think outside the box.
Darren Heitner, founder, Heitner Legal: As I watched the deals come across during the first few days of NIL, I was excited for the numerosity of opportunities and that athletes were finally cashing in on their fame. At the same time, I started to become concerned about athletes “selling out” and not doing any diligence on the brands they were associating with, focusing on quantity over quality, not reading the fine print on the contracts. There were issues with regard to the length of the grant of rights, and issues concerning use of school marks without consent. I remember having concerns with deals like the myriad of players associating with Barstool Sports and Yoke gaming on the use of IP.
Butler: We’re really proud of the Boost Mobile deal. That activation did 3.2 billion impressions worldwide. It was phenomenal. That was a meaningful, true NIL activation. … A lot of those big, endemic brands already had their yearly budgets thought out and those sports marketing dollars were already baked into other deals. They were going to sit back and see what happens. But we also saw some brands who wanted to get involved with creating opportunities for the student athletes, who are the ultimate micro-influencers.
Schwab: The primary concern for athletic directors was making sure that their athletes had resources and tools to navigate this without getting burnt. At the time, it wasn’t as much of a recruiting issue or a donor/development issue, it was more, “Hey, we really need to protect our athletes to make sure they don’t get taken advantage of. A lot of schools did that really well and a lot of schools didn’t do it as well. Either way, that concern has now been replaced a year later with more existential concerns around the very existence of amateurism in college sports, or the role of boosters and donors and how they interact with athletes or recruits, which has just heightened the angst.
Raleigh: It certainly seems like sponsors are somewhat reluctant to do big-dollar deals with student athletes, for whatever reason. Whether it is that the student athletes are not generally well known, there’s reputational risk or whatever, the student athletes are just not as involved as I thought they’d be in these big-dollar deals. Those are being driven by the collectives, which we did not foresee. I just wonder how up to speed the athletes are on understanding their worth and their value.
Lyle Adams, CEO, Spry: The biggest surprise to me has been the rapid adoption of the collectives. I’m surprised at how quickly they’ve been able to roll out these businesses.
Cavale: The big, overarching reality is that NIL is supposed to bring any activity into the light because it requires any commercial activity to be reported. But people know that the success rate of reporting transactions is clearly not 100%. They are student athletes, and it is an undertaking to get them to report anything, fill out forms, especially forms that require detailed information and a contract. Every school probably has a hot list of deals they are trying to track down.
Duhaime: We knew bigger brands with extensive relationships like Nike and Gatorade wouldn’t act on Day 1. The whole situation unraveled so quickly where they needed to play politics with their conference and institutional partners, so this was a day for the outsiders. … What has been surprising was just how slow they were to activate. I would have figured that by March Madness, many of the major players — Chet Holmgren, Paige, Paolo Banchero — would have been integrated into an ad buy to complement the CBS and Turner coverage. This is probably the most expected shift for Year 2 of NIL, especially on the hoops side.
Adams: For a lot of athletes, unfortunately, the narrative was, “Hey, everyone’s going to make a ton of money.” But that wasn’t the case. That’s where the education piece has to kick in. For a lot of student athletes, the question is “How do I get started?” They’re looking around saying, “I’m the same as this guy. Why is he making so much more money?” That’s part of the allure of the collectives. They find the deals.
Heitner: From July 1 of last year through the end of May, it was incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to know whether, on a case-by-case basis, something was a violation of these very basic, vague NCAA rules on NIL. And I say that from personal experience, because I reached out numerous times to the NCAA for clarification on various questions. Whether it be what agents can or can not do; whether loans can be provided, and if so, what has to be in place; what constitutes an inducement or quid pro quo or pay for play. And the answer was always: Read the rule.
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SBJ I Factor, presented by Allied Sports, features an interview with NFL CRO and Executive VP Renie Anderson, one of the most connected leaders in the sports business. Anderson talks about her personal and professional journeys, from growing up in Kentucky to her almost accidental entry into the industry and becoming one of the top executives at the NFL. Anderson is a member of the Sports Business Journal Forty Under 40 Hall of Fame, having been an honoree in 2013, 2014 and 2015. SBJ I Factor is a monthly podcast offering interviews with sports executives who have been recipients of one of the publication’s awards.
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