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VOL. 46 | NO. 5 | Friday, February 4, 2022

Top athletes finally cashing in on name, image, likeness change

Good news for big names while others wait for opportunities

By Tom Wood

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Scotty Pippen Jr., Donovan Sims and Uros Plavsic come from vastly different backgrounds but have this much in common: They all play college basketball in Tennessee and are among the hundreds of the state’s collegiate athletes – joined by thousands nationwide – that have taken advantage of the name, image, likeness (NIL) opportunities now afforded them.

Introduced into legislation a year ago, it was signed by Gov. Bill Lee in May and officially became a state law Jan. 1.

What was once prohibited by the NCAA – athletes making money off their own brand – is now the new normal as more than half of the states have either passed or have NIL laws pending.

To be certain, it’s the dawn of a new era for college athletics, with players no longer barred from profiting off their feats and features. And while many hail the financial freedom allowed athletes, others see problems.

Vanderbilt communications professor John Koch, a senior lecturer and director of debate whose areas of interest are public memory and the intersection of political culture, rhetoric and sports, puts the issue in perspective:

“The college landscape, especially in football, has just changed so very quickly with the NIL – but also the transfer portal, where athletes don’t have to wait a year (to) transfer – and it’s given these college athletes a level of autonomy that two years ago would have been unthinkable,” Koch says. “So there’s a lot happening in college sports that we’re going to have to really wait to see how it plays out.

“Your perspective on whether it’s good or bad is probably going to depend on what angle you’re coming from,’’ he adds. “If you’re a college athlete, probably good, right? You finally have an opportunity to sell your likeness and make money while you are in college.

“From the perspective of perhaps a coach, it might be not as good because the athletes have a little bit more autonomy than they have had in the past. You might have some athletes who are making money off their likeness (and) some athletes that aren’t, which might create some friction.”

A look at the basketball trio at Vandy, UT and MTSU is an example of how diverse NIL impacts players.

Pippen, a 6-3 junior guard for Vanderbilt, grew up in Los Angeles and is the son of NBA and Chicago Bulls legend Scottie Pippen, a member Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Scotty Jr. has several high-profile NIL deals and recently was listed among the top potential NIL social earners by The Action Network with more than 253,000 Instagram followers and receiving $1,014.18 per post.

Plavsic, a 7-foot junior forward/center at Tennessee, is a Serbian native here on a student visa that keeps him from profiting from an NIL agreement. But Plavsic announced on Twitter in September he can designate any NIL monies to go to charities and urged his social followers to join the cause.

And then there’s Sims, a 6-1 graduate starting guard at Middle Tennessee State University. A Murfreesboro native, Sims starred at Blackman High School before signing with the Blue Raiders. He was MTSU’s first athlete to get an NIL deal, a natural tie-in with a hometown company called Murfreesboro Made. He benefits from T-shirts sold by the company bearing his likeness.

Joe Favorito, a sports marketing professor at Columbia University, calls NIL a “regulation” that “helps kind of homogenize everything for athletes – and especially for the athletic departments. It will be great. Right now, it’s so early. And it is, frankly, the Wild West. And unfortunately, when you have the Wild West you have some people who are doing some nefarious things and some people are doing some very entrepreneurial things.

“Eventually – when it becomes a little more normalized in a year to 18 months and there’s more regulations put toward what you can do and what you shouldn’t be doing – then it will be a positive thing for athletics,” Favorito adds.

Murfreesboro Made owners Mickey and Jennifer Brooks and MTSU’s Donovan Sims.

-- Photo Provided

“And not just for the biggest names, but for some of the people who are younger and smaller and entrepreneurial. But right now, I think you’re seeing the good, the bad and the ugly, which is kind of what was expected from something that was not very well regulated.”

Here’s a deeper look at the athletes, schools, issues and the art of the NIL business deals:

NIL 101: How we got here

For decades, college athletics has been a money-making machine for the NCAA, universities, coaches, television networks and others – except the athletes.

But that slowly changed during the past decade. The two most significant court rulings against the NCAA were 2014’s O’Bannon v. NCAA, a class-action lawsuit filed by former UCA star Ed O’Bannon, and the 2021 NCAA v. Alston heard by the Supreme Court.

After the O’Bannon ruling, former West Virginia running back Shawne Alston filed antitrust action against the NCAA. Following the June 2021 Supreme Court verdict – of which Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote that the “NCAA’s business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America’’ – the NCAA stated that effective July 1, 2021, all incoming and current student-athletes should follow their state’s laws, university policies or NCAA guidance.

Knoxville corporate counsel Campbell D. Cox, who wrote about the NIL issue last fall for the Knoxville Bar Association’s monthly magazine DICTA, says that forced states and schools to quickly adapt.

“It’s really a weird kind of hectic Wild West kind of area right now,” Cox explains. “After the Supreme Court laid down their decision NCAA v. Alston, the NCAA stepped back and kind of punted the issue and left it to the states.

“States have kind of all come up with their own versions with slight variations of what they are gonna allow students to do with their (NIL).”

Melia Jones, executive vice president and general counsel of Nashville’s Athlete Licensing Company – also a licensed lawyer with a MBA from Texas Tech – explains how NIL laws vary from state to state.

“The (Supreme Court) ruling makes it very hard for the NCAA to really be able to make any restrictions because of the antitrust (ramifications) that came from the decision Alston,” Jones says.

“Tennessee states that any compensation must be fair market value. Alabama states it must be market value. So as individuals and people in the industry are trying to figure out – what is the market, what is fair market value, who is determining that (and) how do we determine it – it has been very tough to this point where Alabama (in mid-January) voted to repeal their state law because they’re finding it too restrictive.”

Jones says the lack of federal legislation has put college athletics “in a little bit of a pickle,” adding, “I like to call it all patchwork. We’re very patchwork at this point, but it makes it tough for the coaches, all the student-athletes – everyone – to kind of be able to play in this sand box that is different in different states.”

Tennessee’s NIL law is better than some states’ because it specifically prohibits NIL deals “that promote gambling, tobacco, alcohol or adult entertainment in Tennessee.’ Not all states have that requirement,” Cox points out.

“Tennessee’s (law) actually is pretty robust in terms of the language it uses for which activities are prohibited and what students are to do. And one of those I think is interesting is that in Tennessee, athletes have to take a financial literacy workshop during their first full semester.

“I think that’s good because that will help teach the players how to manage that and work with money and things like that. A lot of states have different (laws) and that’s one that I’ve seen is limited. Tennessee is one of the only ones I’ve seen that has the financial literacy workshop part.”

Schools caught in the middle

MTSU’s Donovan Sims with a young fan at Blackman High Basketball Camp, where he gave away Murfreesboro Made shirts.

-- Photograph Provided

To be clear, NIL isn’t pay-for-play. Athletes are not salaried state employees with benefits and bonuses. NIL is more an after-school job.

Universities play no role in the procurement of NIL deals but are notified of them and may advise athletes on certain aspects, explains Daryl Simpson, MTSU’s associate AD for compliance and operations.

“We can’t be involved in doing the deal itself but we can certainly look over contracts. We can look over any deals before they happen. And we can certainly point out areas that student-athletes may want to look into before they make a decision to go down the NIL path,” Simpson says.

“We have to adhere to the state law and make sure that students-athletes are following those procedures before they enter in the deal. It’s kind of a 180 (degree) transition from the old rules where students could not use their name, image and likeness and profit off that without it impacting their eligibility.”

MTSU director of athletics Chris Massaro calls Tennessee’s NIL law “something that could really help out a number of student-athletes,” while joining the chorus for national guidance.

“We would like to have more national clarity on it where the rules are more uniform across the country than they are state-by-state,” Massaro says.

“But I’d really like to see those rules be uniform across the United States so that the state of Tennessee is not operating differently than the state of Kentucky – which is different from the state Alabama. Which is what we have now with all the different state laws in effect. We need a national law.”

The NIL genie is out of the bottle and “here to stay,” says MTSU football coach Rick Stockstill, adding, “As coaches, administrations and universities, we have to embrace it. My philosophy is I want to do anything I can – everything I can – to help these players develop their brand (and) market themselves,” Stockstill says.

“If they can put a few extra bucks in their pocket, I’m happy for them. I think this first year has been a learning experience for everybody – for athletes, for universities. for everybody and how to understand it, how to deal with it. “The big thing is how to market yourself. It’s here to stay, and we’re just going to do everything we can to help our athletes develop their brand.”

Cottage industries spring up

There are plenty of entrepreneurs and businesses out there with the same idea as Stockstill, to help and serve the athletes.

Two notable Tennessee companies that work together are ALC in Nashville and Spyre Sports Group in Knoxville. Think of ALC as the office pencil-pushers and accountants who keep tabs on the deals racked up by the field sales representatives.

“(ALC isn’t) so much an agency or firm as we consider ourselves a software and service, or a SAS platform, for which we can provide back-office accounting. We are a clear and transparent reporting and statements to any player in the ecosystem,” Jones explains.

“We’re just making sure that the accounting is correct. Our core competency is this back-office accounting making sure taxes are getting paid – the stuff, to be really frank with you, that 18- or 20-year-olds do not find that fun. They do not.”

James Clawson, co-founder and head of marketing for Spyre Sports Group, calls his company “the unofficial marketing agency of Tennessee athletics,” and it’s easy to see why. While Spyre works one-on-one with athletes, the main focus is on tailgate parties that allow fans to interact with athletes in a casual, festive atmosphere.

Sims represents Murfreesboro Made in his NIL deal, the first for an MTSU athlete.

-- Photograph Provided

“We took a little bit of a different approach than going and just trying to represent the individual athletes,” Clawson says of the tailgate series. “We don’t represent anybody exclusive. We look at all the athletes as potential clients of ours, and we’d love to be able to one day get to a point where every athlete on campus is doing something – whether it’s representing a local restaurant or whether it’s doing a national deal of some kind.

“So probably, in that time frame, we’ve worked with over 300 individual athletes across 10 different sports at Tennessee. So we’ve done a lot of deals, have been very active.

“Our first (tailgate) series was a lot of baseball players, a lot of softball players, soccer, volleyball – it was a great mix of male and female in all the different sports at Tennessee.

“We really want to do things not just with sports that are the most visible – football, basketball, baseball – but really try to figure out how to do things with every sport on campus.”

Clawson says athletes are booked for a two-hour window and receive equal appearance fees. “We tried to keep it a level playing field across the board,” he adds.

The Spyre plan goes far beyond appearances, though, with merchandise that ranges from bobbleheads, posters, socks, ball caps and keychains to T-shirts and replica jerseys. All such items must be approved by the UT licensing department.

“We’re really just scratching the surface is where our capabilities are of using a player’s name and image and then pairing it with an item that you might already see,” Clawson says.

He notes the high-quality apparel that can be pre-ordered at volshop.com for quarterback Hendon Hooker, wide receiver Cedrick Tillman and baseball players Evan Russell and Drew Gilbert.

“The jerseys are going to be part of this. The jerseys are going to be Nike authentic or replica jerseys with the player’s name and number on them. They will not be available to purchase until the summer,” Clawson says, adding a Nike authentic jersey “will probably retail somewhere between $150 and $180.”

Athletes will receive a percentage for each item sold, Clawson adds.

“Tennessee’s been great in terms of advocating for players and their ability to do stuff like this,” Clawson notes. “Tennessee is not taking as big of a cut if it involves a player.

“They’re trying to be overly player-friendly and do things that are in the best interests of the players. By them taking less of a royalty on anything with the players name, image and likeness, it gives the players a little bit more money on each item.”

Adds ALC’s Jones: “If we can get 80% in the kid’s pocket. We’re going to feel really good about what we did. And the other 20%, we’ve got deals with our partners of how we share that percentage of each other.

“So, yeah, 80% is the goal and if we can get more, we’re going to get more. And if it’s less, we’re going to show the kids why there’s less and where did that extra percentage go.”

Meanwhile, ALC is also venturing into its own branding for athletes with unique memorabilia. Besides Tennessee, ALC also works with collectives at Mississippi State and Auburn that have NIL rights for student-athletes.

At the ALC website, for example, is a signed baseball by the College World Series champion Bulldogs. It retails for $399, and royalties go to the players, Jones says.

“We are really getting into that area. I think there’s a demand from fans for certain players, I think there’s a real demand for limited edition, custom-type stuff. We’re doing some cups and bats with ALC – hand-painted art and limited edition. I think the World Series team will sign it from last year. There may only be 20 cups. The royalties and payments will go to the athletes.”

Vandy’s Pippen is a big earner

The Mississippi State memento is one of many examples of the lucrative NIL deals for athletes.

Tennessee baseball players Jorel Ortega, left, Christian Scott and Camden Sewell at tailgate party.

-- Photograph Provided

Alabama quarterback Bryce Young reportedly has 14 NIL deals worth more than $1 million, which Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban addressed at last summer’s SEC Media Days by noting that while he favors NIL deals, he’s concerned about positional imbalance of deals.

“(In the past) everybody’s had equal scholarship, equal opportunity. Now that’s probably not going to be the case. Some positions, some players will have more opportunities than others.

“How that’s going to impact your team, our team, the players on the team, I really can’t answer because we don’t have any precedent for it.”

At Vanderbilt, Pippen and football quarterback Ken Seals have the most prominent NIL deals. It was announced in August that Seals had become the first college athlete to represent cryptocurrency company FTX.

Pippen also has a cryptocurrency deal and he represents Raising Cane’s chicken restaurants through social media posts. The Baton Rouge, Louisiana, chain plans to open restaurants in the Nashville area in the next year.

In a statement, the company called Pippen a great Caniac ambassador, saying, “Raising Cane’s is always looking for enthusiastic Caniacs to partner with, including high-profile college athletes. Given our anticipated growth in Nashville and it is a key new market for Cane’s this year, it made sense to work with Scotty Pippen Jr. We are looking forward to serving so many new Nashville Caniacs!”

Social media is how many athletes make their money. A report by The Action Network states athletes earn $0.04 per post per follower. With more than 253,000 followers, each Pippen post earns him $1,014.18. So a single post a day for a month could be worth more than $30,000.

That’s not chicken feed.

Murfreesboro Made, proud

MTSU’s Sims was a natural fit to promote his product line, says Murfreesboro Made owner Micky Brooks.

“When this NIL deal thing opened up, his dad approached me and it just seemed like a great match with Donovan,” Brooks says. “He grew up here in Murfreesboro. He went to high school (Blackman) in Murfreesboro and he stayed and played his college ball here in Murfreesboro.

“So it just seemed like a great match for our little local brand here for him to connect with us. And we were able to do a little deal.”

Brooks says they’ve sold about 50 T-shirts with Sims’ likeness, and that Sims has received monthly stipends over the course of the contract that will end when MTSU’s season ends.

“It feels pretty cool (being) one of the first athletes at Middle to get a deal like this, to get a sponsorship especially with the NIL eligibility being so new in college athletics,” Sims says. “It means a lot to me.

“I mean, it’s not one of these huge ones that you see really get paid thousands of dollars or anything like that, but it’s pretty cool to have that acknowledgement that I am a sponsored athlete by Mufreesboro Made,” Sims adds. “And I am from Murfreesboro, so it’s cool that that they sponsor me pretty much, and I get to represent them in the same way that they’re representing me at the same time.”

MTSU has only a handful of athletes with NIL deals and Brooks says he’d like to do NIL deals with more athletes who are “Murfreesboro-made.”

“It’s allowed us to get a little more exposure out there to our brand as far as having Donovan on board to post things on his Instagram story or retweet things. Or just to wear our brand around town,” he says.

Boost for Knoxville charities

Although Plavsic can’t personally profit off his name because of his visa status, he is helping Knoxville’s less fortunate do so.

In a September post, he wrote in part that he can have an NIL deal “as long as all the funds are transferred directly from the sponsor/partner to an educational or charitable nonprofit entity. In other words, I can’t receive any money, but I can help raise money for worthy causes.”

Clawson says Spyre Sports Group is helping the Serb and UT’s other foreign athletes.

“We’re talking to a couple of the Tennessee basketball players that are not from the United States. And they may have some specialty-designed items with their name and likeness on it. Any royalties that they earn on the sale of these items would be paid to a charity,” Clawson says.

Enough on their plate

On the eve of spring practice, legendary Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin was asked his thoughts on NIL. As with many in his profession, he pointed out the positives and potential negatives, calling “Wild West” labels “kind of an anticipatory statement on what might happen with it.”

He says NIL’s impact on his program as “minimal,” adding, “We’ve had some players that have had some opportunities. They’re not grand in nature.

“Will that change? I think the Alston (Supreme Court decision) has a chance to affect our players more so than NIL. I think once you go through the cycle for a year or two, then you’ll start to figure out what you need to do that way.”

One concern of Corbin is that time players may devote to their NIL duties could cut into time spent academics and athletics.

“We deal with it minimally, which is good because I just don’t think these kids should have a lot on their plate at 18- and 19-, 20-years-old,” Corbin says. “Navigating an academic schedule – certainly, here – and navigating growing on the field is probably all they need to do. They don’t need to be … If they build a bank account in a small way, great.

“But I don’t think their mind and efforts need to be moving toward work and finances right now. These should be the best times of their lives and part of that is because they don’t have a lot on their plate to eat.”

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