Skip to main content

In the NIL Arms Race, Some Schools Are Going the Extra Mile to Help Their Athletes

As college sports enters uncharted territory, Nebraska, Colorado, Florida State, Arkansas, Duquesne and St. John's are among those providing their athletes with essential and unique tools and education.

The athlete compensation era of college sports is officially underway.

With the NCAA’s approval of an interim policy Wednesday afternoon and several state laws now in effect, athletes at universities across the country have, for the first time, the right to profit off their own name, image and likeness (NIL).

Knowing this day was an inevitability, athletic departments have spent recent months—many even years—planning different versions of NIL programming in an effort to give their athletes any sort of possible edge in this uncharted territory.

Out of the 65 Power 5 universities, 53 have already announced some sort of NIL-related initiative. For most athletic departments, these consist of signing a standard partnership with an external company, such as Opendorse, INFLCR or Altius Sports, often accompanied by a catchy name with a hashtag and vague wording that leaves much hanging in the air. It’s the modern recruiting push.

But for a small number of schools, this week’s changes are being used as an opportunity to do something much more impactful. Some have launched partnerships with academic colleges on their campuses, others have started NIL-focused classes that count toward credit and a few have created new positions on their staff.

These select universities view this as a way to innovate and empower their athletes, to give them the tools to think beyond autographs and clicks on social media and into the world of business and entrepreneurship. Every college athlete, regardless of their popularity or accolades, has the opportunity to take advantage of NIL in some way, and these schools don’t want to leave a stone unturned.

“I think it comes down to, from a school perspective, do you actually care about your athletes, or do you just want to be able to say you care about them?” says Jordon Rooney, who was hired by Duquesne as the first Division I personal brand coach. “Because if you actually care about them, you will be empowering them so that they can be as successful as possible, even after they leave the school.”

The Nebraska athletic department prides itself on a history of innovation. The Cornhuskers were the first football program to appoint a full-time strength and conditioning coach back in 1969. They also launched one of the first nutrition departments in collegiate athletics, and Memorial Stadium was the first college venue to install video replay boards. So when it came to name, image and likeness programming, interim athletic director Garrett Klassy says it was important for Nebraska to once again be ahead of the curve.

The athletic department sent shockwaves through the world of college sports in March 2020 when it announced it was expanding its partnership with Opendorse, based just blocks away from campus and run by football alumni Blake Lawrence and Adi Kunalic, to launch the Ready Now program and become the first college to invest in NIL preparation programming.

But that was just the first part of the school’s comprehensive #NILbraska initiative, which was announced in full June 3. The three-prong plan includes Accelerate and Husker Advantage in-house programs in addition to Ready Now, which meshes education, marketing and compliance components within an easy-to-use app.

#NILBraska initiative graphic

All 650 Nebraska athletes will participate in the Husker Advantage portion, which is an expansion of the department’s life-skills program. This will include lessons on networking and communication, brand building, financial literacy and compliance. Each athlete will also take a test that identifies their “talent DNA” and five to 10 best entrepreneurial attributes.

Klassy joined forces with Joe Petsick, an “executive in residence” who runs the entrepreneurship program at the Nebraska College of Business, to form the Accelerate prong. If athletes are interested in taking things a step further, they can participate in this entrepreneurial-based programming created in partnerships with the business, journalism and law schools on campus.

Perhaps what makes the Accelerate part of the Cornhuskers’ initiative so unique, though, is how it involves students in the campus community. There will be one-credit pop-up classes available to any Nebraska student on evolving topics such as brand building, financial literacy and content creation, which will be taught by industry professionals and feature hands-on workshops. For instance, an athlete hoping to start a podcast could take the content creation class, where they’d receive access to recording equipment and be guided through the process.

Older students from the business school who are well-versed in financial literacy, marketing and other relevant topics can choose to serve as “NIL advisers.” Law students can help athletes create LLCs, and students in the journalism school’s advertising agency can assist on the marketing side of things.

“It's really a win-win between campus and athletics because it's allowing the students in those schools to be able to work in real-life business scenarios, and it gives our student athletes the support they need to help monetize their name, image and likeness,” Klassy says.

Additionally, if an athlete wants to take advantage of their NIL rights to create their own business, they can pitch it to the Husker Venture Fund, which was introduced on campus last year. If an athlete’s business idea gets the green light, they will receive funding that can be used during or after their eligibility.

“We want to be innovative, we want to be out in front of [NIL] and, most importantly, we want to do what’s right for our student-athletes,” Klassy says. He believes the combination of their unique programming and having no other Division I schools or professional teams to compete with in the area gives Nebraska athletes a prime opportunity to thrive in this new space."

Colorado athletic director Rick George was one of 18 members appointed to serve on the original NCAA Board of Governors Federal and State Legislation Working Group to explore the issue back in May 2019, and has been a vocal supporter of his athletes being able to take advantage of NIL rights. So, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that his athletic department started having serious internal discussions about developing a program earlier than most.

Lauren Unrein, the assistant director of the department’s SCRIPPS Leadership and Career Development Program, began planning Buffs With a Brand toward the end of 2019. She says her main focus, even more so than anything specific to NIL, was finding a way to help their athletes learn about the ins and outs of business and entrepreneurship. She joined forces with Erick Mueller, director of the Deming Center for Entrepreneurship in Colorado’s Leeds School of Business, to construct the program.

Any athlete has the option to participate in Buffs With a Brand, which was officially announced in June 2020 and began last August. The nearly 20 Buffs who took part in the pilot year met for sessions—over Zoom because of COVID-19 restrictions—for around two hours each month. The first hour was often spent on lessons in business fundamentals from Mueller, followed by entrepreneurship group sessions and workshops highlighted by guest speakers. Jeremy Darlow, a brand consultant, author and former director of marketing for Adidas, frequently spoke with the group to share his brand management expertise and it participated in his “The Darlow Rules” online seminar program as well.

Athletes were also paired with venture coaches based on their entrepreneurial interests. These professional mentors, who were industry partners and entrepreneurs from the surrounding Boulder area—including some players in the tech and outdoor scene, the founder of Noosa Yoghurt and the president of a commercial real estate company—helped guide the Buffs through the process of creating their own mock businesses.

Though no actual money was involved due to the status of NIL legislation at the time, the program culminated with a Shark Tank–style venture night in May, during which athletes presented their business plans and profit-loss statements to a small group of some of their fellow Buffs, venture coaches, head coaches and members of the athletic department.

“It was really just a fun culminating session for them to show what they've learned, showcase their idea and their mock venture and get that real-time feedback so they can take that into the world,” Unrein says. “Especially with pending name, image and likeness legislation, they're a step ahead of that already.”

Unrein and Jill Keegan, Colorado’s senior associate athletic director for compliance, say they look forward to continuing the program, which will be revamped as Buffs With a Brand 2.0 for the 2021–22 academic year once they have more clarity on the specific NIL framework they have to follow.

In the months following the announcement of Nebraska’s Opendorse partnership, several other schools began to follow suit, signing up for their own version of the Ready Now program or aligning with other emerging name, image and likeness platforms.

After spending well over a year exploring NIL in a working group with other members of his staff and campus faculty, observing the approaches other schools were taking in the process, Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek knew he wanted to go in a different direction. The deep dive into the complexities of NIL made him realize how much education would be required to prepare college athletes to successfully navigate this new territory.

“I didn't want to turn that over to a third party or an external entity to do that,” Yurachek says. “Where they had thousands of other athletes across several other schools that they were working with, I wanted to have one person on our campus within our athletic department footprint that was solely devoted to helping our student-athletes in this area.”

Arkansas became the first college sports department in the country to hire a senior staff position specifically focused on NIL when it appointed Terry Prentice as senior associate athletics director for athlete brand development and inclusive excellence on March 16.

Yurachek had wanted to hire a former college athlete who could relate to the experience of current players, so Prentice, who ran in the Arkansas track and field program from 2009 to ’12 and also had experience fundraising for the Razorback Foundation, was the perfect fit. Before taking the position, Prentice served as an associate athletics director and chief diversity and inclusion officer at Kansas.

Though some initial planning was underway thanks to the efforts of the working group, once he was hired, Prentice began spearheading the launch of Flagship, an all-encompassing NIL program under the athletic department’s newly created office of Athlete Brand Development. The initiative, announced May 13, is highlighted by campus partnerships with the Sam M. Walton College of Business and Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, which offer resources for students to start business ventures.

Arkansas also became the first university to partner with Captiv8, a global influencer marketing company. The recently launched Captiv8 Collegiate platform provides social media analytics and marketing campaign tools that allow athletes to assess their brand.

Flagship officially kicked off with a five-week pilot starting in late May. A group of 25 returning athletes, namely football and men’s and women’s basketball players who were already on campus for summer classes, took part.

The program, which met weekly for up to 90 minutes, hit on everything from what it means to be an entrepreneur, to the ins and outs of NIL legislation, to business fundamentals (with accounts from former Razorback athletes on their professional careers), to lessons on LLCs, S corps and taxes. Speakers included faculty from the business and entrepreneurship schools as well as members of the Captiv8 team.

The final week was focused on pitching. Athletes broke out into small groups and brainstormed how they wanted to share their individual stories, even working with an improv specialist on how to elevator-pitch their personal brand, which they presented to the group.

Other groups of Razorback athletes on campus, including those from the gymnastics, volleyball and softball teams, will participate in a condensed two-day format of the program throughout the rest of the summer. And in anticipation of July 1, Prentice said some athletes have already created their own LLCs and many have received messages from local, regional and national companies inquiring about NIL deals. He’s seen a lot of excitement across the board.

“We've got a lot of athletes who are already ready to take advantage of NIL and then several that will surprise some folks across the board in different sports,” Prentice says. “It's not just the student-athlete that's high profile that can take advantage of this, I mean, really, it's just about anyone on the roster who can come up with a creative idea or has a unique story to tell. So it'll be fun.”

Having everything done in house allows Arkansas to continuously adapt its programming to its athletes’ interests as they arise as legislation goes into effect. Prentice says the department will offer optional boot camps throughout the summer so every athlete that wants to take advantage of their rights will be prepared, and, moving forward, he plans to have more speakers and workshops based on live feedback. “That’s what fun about this all being brand new,” Prentice says. “We’ll go in the direction that our student-athletes want to go.”

The Duquesne athletic department feels it has a similar advantage, as it also created an entirely new position to adapt to impending NIL legislation, naming Rooney as personal brand coach for the men’s basketball program on May 3.

A former Division III football player, Rooney has developed a niche in the social media and brand content space over the last six years. He is the CEO of a brand agency, Built Different Creative, and also founded one of the first nonprofit social media marketing agencies run by high school students. Eager to get involved in the NIL movement over the past year, he started Slash Athlete, a program that provides college athletic departments with one-on-one brand consulting for players.

In hopes of finding a school to partner with, he reached out to Duquesne men’s basketball director of operations Steve McNees, whom he had a prior connection with.

From there, Rooney had meetings with coach Keith Dambrot and athletic director Dave Harper. Seeing they were eager to set themselves apart in the NIL space, he proposed the groundbreaking position in addition to the partnership with Slash Athlete.

“I think they were in a position to innovate because they’re a smaller D-I, they’re looking to make a splash,” Rooney says. “So for them, it was more of, we don't want to just do what everybody else is doing, we don’t want to just have a maintenance mindset, we want to innovate.”

As personal brand coach, Rooney consistently communicates with players and provides individualized guidance on establishing an authentic personal brand, how to market themselves and what type of content they should be creating. He also meets with the team every few weeks to provide updates and group lessons.

In the beginning stages of this partnership, Rooney has also focused a lot on educating the Duquesne players about the platform available to them. Instead of waiting around for companies to reach out to them, he wants these athletes to have an entrepreneurial mindset.

“What I’m really trying to get these athletes to understand is the power is in their hands,” Rooney says. “In my first month of doing this, it’s less about like, ‘Hey, go make money from endorsements.’ It's more, ‘Understand the impact you can have. Understand the shift where you can create ownership, you can create generational wealth.’ Because for so long, they've been told, ‘Hey, you’re just an athlete. Just focus on your sport.’ ”

Though he runs a major collegiate program in the Big East, St. John’s University athletic director Mike Cragg says he views himself first and foremost as an educator. So when he and his executive team started thinking about how they wanted to approach name, image and likeness last summer, academic curriculum was at the forefront.

Cragg reached out to Norean Sharpe, dean of the Tobin College of Business, in late August, and they began discussing the best way to approach a collaboration. By mid-October, with help from the Lesley H. and William L. Collins College of Professional Studies, they had developed a concept paper with a full plan of courses for a distinct program specifically tailored for NIL: a sports leadership and branding minor.

"I think it really points out that colleges today should not be siloed, that they should be looking to collaborate with faculty across disciplines to really stay at the top of their game and launch innovative programs,” Sharpe says. “This is one example of how we're trying to do that."

The 13-credit minor, the main feature of the St. John’s UNLIMITED NIL program—which also includes a partnership with INFLCR—is the first of its kind across the country and is available to any student, regardless of major. The curriculum includes a one-credit course in consumer protection law tailored specifically to NIL regulations, along with three-credit courses in sports marketing and media, strategic leadership and digital marketing. For the final three credits, students will have the choice between a class on entrepreneurship or managing sports careers.

The minor was available for the first time in the spring semester, and eight athletes participated. Cragg said 18 athletes have enrolled in it for the upcoming fall semester, though he and Sharpe expect that number to rise once they market the program more heavily this summer.

Cragg and Sharpe hope to grow the program to become a signature course at St. John’s, which already offered a full sport management major program with tracks in coaching and business.

Though St. John’s is one of the first to create a brand-new minor, schools like Tennessee, Washington and Florida State have added NIL-related courses to their curriculum as well.

Florida State’s Apex initiative, which was announced April 12, features two such courses, created by a partnership with the university’s business and entrepreneurship schools. Senior associate athletic director Jim Curry says it was important to the athletic department to make the NIL curriculum count for credit because athletes already have so much on their plate. This way, they can work toward their degree instead of having to deal with even more time commitments.

Neither course is required, but athletes are encouraged to take the first, which counts for one credit hour and is intended for incoming Seminoles. The class existed previously but was retooled for NIL in the fall to include material on social media strategies, wealth management and brand building. The completely new second course, which counts for two credit hours and is intended for upperclassmen, covers things like professional readiness, networking and business formation.

The Apex program also includes a partnership with INFLCR, whose CEO, Jim Cavale, visited the Florida State campus a few weeks ago to meet with coaches, athletes and other members of the athletic department. He walked everyone through the platform’s latest updates and shared general insight on personal branding and how best to approach NIL. There was also an open floor for anyone to ask questions, which provided Curry with valuable insight into where everyone’s understanding lies.

If there is one thing he and those working in athletic departments across the country have learned through this planning process, it’s how multifaceted an issue name, image and likeness is.

There is a lot of excitement among athletes that they’re finally able to take advantage of basic rights and opportunities they’ve been denied for far too long. But at the same time, there’s also a natural trepidation of the unknown. College athletes, most of whom are living away from home for the first time, have never navigated financial agreements like this and there are lots of little nuances and rules they have to adhere to—and many of those are subject to change in the coming months.

“There’s a lot of different layers you have to address to be comprehensive and successful in this space,” Curry says.

Though well over a year of planning has gone into most of these programs, a clear consensus among the athletic departments that spoke with Sports Illustrated was how much uncertainty lies ahead. The legislation passed by the NCAA was a temporary solution serving as a Band-Aid of sorts due to its inability to reach a consensus before the first state bills were set to go into effect on July 1. Bipartisan disagreements stall a federal law, and many believe there will be legal issues for the foreseeable future.

That’s part of why these athletic departments have put so much time and effort into creating detailed NIL programming. Regardless of what happens regulation-wise, they believe they are providing essential education and skills that will benefit their athletes long after they hang up their uniforms. Still, they know their strongest asset will be their ability to adapt and evolve their approach as college sports ventures into this new era. 

More NIL Coverage:

NIL Landscape Is Already Quelling the Naysayers
Behind the Scenes With the Faces of NIL Day 1
Jackson State DE Signs Historic Endorsement at Midnight