Antwan Owens’s hair isn’t necessarily anything special.
He used to grow it out, a miniature afro standing atop his head. He’s older now, a fifth-year senior in college whose hair style matches the stage of his career.It’s trimmed somewhat short, edged around the front, back and sides. There’s no party in the back with Owens—he’s all business..
And now it quite literally is his business.
Owens, a defensive end at Jackson State, made history on Thursday, becoming what is believed to be the first college athlete to sign an endorsement deal on a seismic day in college athletics. In a midnight ceremony from a New York City hotel, Owens inked with 3 Kings Grooming, a black-owned hair product business that made the first splash of what is expected to be a historic, tide-turning date for athletes across the country.
“Somebody pinch me!” Owens told Sports Illustrated. “This is something that’s going to be life changing, generationally life changing.”
ICON Source, a digital marketplace connecting brands with athletes, facilitated the deal with the two parties. Financial terms were not released. The company also struck similar deals with four other players at Jackson State, a historically Black college in Mississippi whose head coach’s fame makes its players a target for such deals. Deion Sanders enters his second year leading the JSU Tigers.
On the first day college athletes can profit from their name, image and likeness (NIL), ICON Source is holding a day-long celebration in Manhattan, with live pairings of college athletes and brands. In fact, while Owens is the first to sign, he’ll hardly be the last.
ICON also helped arrange deals with women’s basketball twin sisters Hanna and Haley Cavinder of Fresno State. The sisters are some of the most marketable college athletes, having hundreds of thousands of followers on TikTok and Instagram. They are scheduled to hold several media appearances on Thursday, even with a live outing on Times Square.
These specific contracts are built around Owens and the Cavinders using social media to endorse products—a video on Instagram, a post on Twitter, a story on TikTok. Industry experts expect most college athletes to earn the majority of their money from social media ventures. Though rates are impossible to calculate in such a new space, one advertising standard puts the annual income rate at 80 cents per follower.
Owens isn’t a social media maven like the Cavinder sisters. But he is one of the new spokesmen for a company, something just minutes before was illegal under NCAA rules.
“We’re making history,” says Michael Nwankwo, one of three brothers who runs the Cincinnati-based company that sells luxury hair products and equipment. “We’ve gone through the roster on JSU’s team. We saw Antwan. He fit the mold of what our brand is. We have an image of our brand.”
The deals with JSU players bring a spotlight to the HBCU and black community, says Eric Nwankwo.
“For us, HBCUs are very important,” he says. “The main colleges get the credit and no one really pays attention to the HBCUs. What Deion is trying to do to get these athletes paid and recognized, that’s why this was our first choice.”
It’s only the beginning, both for 3 Kings Grooming and hundreds of brands ready to enter this new space. Some believe thousands of athletes will enter NIL deals on Thursday. Many will enter into small, single bookings through digital marketplaces. But some—star athletes and those with large social media followings—will make big bucks.
The Cavinder twins are proof and so is LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne, who is expected to earn more compensation than, maybe, any other college athlete. She has more than 1 million followers on Instagram.
“Social media has really taken over,” Michael Nwankwo says. “Women have these big followings. These athletes can bring people to the game.”
Brands and businesses swarmed into the marketplace at the 11th hour on Thursday, a rush of activity that had schools scrambling to finalize their NIL rules.
“We knew NIL was going to be a big deal, but I don’t think we truly realized the magnitude until today,” says Peter Schoenthal, the CEO of Athliance, an NIL management and compliance software that works with several college athletic programs. “All over social media student-athletes are ‘hinting’ at deals and posting they are ready to capitalize off of their name, image, and likeness. However, many schools are not prepared. Many did not think we would be starting July 1 and they certainly thought there would be more guidance from the national level. That is why the first couple of months could get hectic.”
Hectic or not, here comes NIL.
And Owens can say he was the first—or at least one of the firsts. The Tallahassee native transferred to Jackson State this year after graduating from Georgia Tech, where he was a part-time starter for the Yellow Jackets. As a senior, his days of profiting from NIL in college are nearly over just as they started. But have no fear, he says—there’s another Owens behind him. His 17-year-old brother is getting interest from Division I schools.
“This is a gigantic and historical moment, not just for NIL but the landscape of college football.
It’s something bigger than ourselves,” he says. “It’s eye opening for me that my brother will be able to properly reap the benefits of it.”
More NIL Coverage:
• As July 1 Nears, Congress Making Critical Progress on NIL
• States Jockey to One-Up Each Other in Chaotic Race for NIL Laws
• In Stunning Change, Florida Pushes to Delay Its State NIL Law Until 2022
• NCAA Leaders Still Divided on NIL Legislation as Solution Set to Pass Wednesday