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An NIL First: Clemson Quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei to Star in Dr Pepper National Ad Campaign

In the new world of name, image and likeness, Dr Pepper is the first household brand to partner with a major college football player.

Through the first six weeks of the NIL Era in college sports, something has noticeably been missing: big brands and big football players.

That skid is over now.

As the first household brand to partner with a major college football player for a national ad campaign, Dr Pepper has struck a deal with Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei to feature the sophomore in television commercials that will air across the country.

Uiagalelei, the heir apparent to Trevor Lawrence, has started just two games in his college career. Yet he’s become the face of a national ad campaign for a giant American brand.

Welcome to the world of NIL.

“Every time I turn on the TV every Saturday, I always see a commercial with Dr Pepper,” Uiagalelei said in an interview with Sports Illustrated earlier this week. “When they reached out to me, it was a no-brainer.”

Uiagalelei, a 6' 4", 250-pound California native with a rocket arm, will play himself in Dr Pepper’s latest version of a long-running ad campaign built around a fictitious college football town called Fansville. Uiagalelei filmed the commercial during a two-hour shoot in the lobby of a Clemson-area hotel while wearing a nondescript, logo-less orange jersey—a sign that Clemson did not grant him the rights to use its school marks. The school operates under the state NIL law of South Carolina, which prohibits athletes to use school marks and logos in NIL ventures. 

In photos supplied to SI, the QB is posing in front of a green screen with a football in his clutches and, for the first time in his 20 years on the planet, foundation and powder on his face.

Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei

“They put makeup on me. I had never put on makeup before,” he says. “That was crazy.”

This is Dr Pepper’s first such agreement with a college athlete since the NCAA granted athletes the right to profit from their name, image and likeness

But it’s the third such deal for Uiagalelei, who had previously launched campaigns with the chicken restaurant chain Bojangles and Candy Digital, an NFT platform.

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In the more grand scheme, the marriage between Dr Pepper, which did more than $11 billion in sales last year, and Uiagalelei is the first in what is sure to be a long line of big businesses partnering with college football’s stars.

Uiagalelei’s agreement, the financial details of which were not disclosed, may spark other brand giants to dive into the NIL pool. In fact, big brands have been gearing up to enter the space, industry experts say. They include companies like Pepsi, Degree, McDonald’s and Gatorade, all poised to enter a marketplace that is projected by some to quickly barrel through the $1 billion mark.

Insiders expect a surge of transactions from these household brands through the fall as businesses capitalize on athletes’ play. Maybe it’s a game-winning touchdown catch, a last-second field goal or a game-securing sack.

“The big brands, taking a wait-and-see approach so far, will start to creep in,” says Casey Schwab, an ex-NFL Players Association executive and the CEO of Altius, a consulting company in the NIL space.

“What I’m excited about is the balance of national advertisers that are going to be supporting student athletes in a big way as NIL unfolds,” says Blake Lawrence, the CEO and founder of Opendorse, one of the largest sports tech companies in the name, image and likeness space. “A lot of people are planning on doing cool things. There are a lot of dollars in the market.”

Uiagalelei, pronounced ooh-ee-AHN-guh-luh-lay, isn’t the only high-profile athlete making big bucks, of course. Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, despite not starting a single college game, is approaching $1 million in endorsement deals, according to coach Nick Saban. Nike agreed to a reported six-figure memorabilia deal with Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, and Fresno State basketball twins Hanna and Haley Cavinder entered into a lucrative campaign with cell phone giant Boost Mobile.

Like a handful of other star college athletes, Uiagalelei relies on a team of marketing representatives to arrange his NIL ventures while he focuses on school and football, he says. He signed on with VaynerSports, a multisport brand and talent sports agency led by Gary and AJ Vaynerchuk.

Clemson QB D.J. Uiagalelei

So, why Dr Pepper? During a Zoom interview with SI, Uiagalelei smiles into the camera and chuckles, knowing full well that a carbonated, sugar-loaded soda isn’t necessarily on his dietary plan as a major college football player.

“I drink Dr Pepper here and there,” he says. “I mean, I don’t think you need Dr Pepper every single day, but I love Dr Pepper. I drank it as a kid. It’s a great drink. I drink it now.”

And soon he’ll be consuming it in a commercial, not as an NFL quarterback but as a 20-year-old college sophomore.

“It’s going to be super cool, get to see myself on TV!” he says.

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