Just one month after the NCAA approved new rules that paved the way for college athletes to get paid for their name, image, and likeness (NIL), Frisco’s Keurig Dr Pepper helped break the seal on the untapped marketing sector. The beverage giant signed former Clemson turned Oregon State quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei to be the face of the popular “Fansville” TV advertisements. The following season, it signed former Alabama’s Bryce Young, now with the Carolina Panthers, to the same agreement.
The deals were made possible by the Supreme Court’s July 2021 ruling that stated college athletes were free to utilize their name, image, and likeness to sign contracts and earn money through endorsement deals. The unanimous ruling came after decades of athletes and their allies lobbied for the legalization of what Southern Methodist University’s football boosters most notably carried out illegally in the 1980s. “When you restrict wages and benefits for 100 years there is going to be fallout, but dealing with fallout today and allowing athletes to have these rights and earn their fair share is just part of this long process,” Jordan Rogers, a former Nike leader turned NIL consultant, says.
More than 30 years after SMU was handed the ‘Death Penalty’ for illegally paying football players, SMU alums Chris Kleinert, Hunt Realty Investments CEO, and Kyle Miller, Silver Hill Energy Partners CEO, have erected the Boulevard Collective to pay college athletes again—this time, legally. A collective is a network of fans, former students, and businesses pooling money together to create branding and income earning opportunities for college athletes. “If NIL can do what we think it can, SMU stands to benefit as much as, or more than, anybody,” Kleinert says of the ACC’s newest expansion university.
The collective is unwilling to disclose the capital that it has deployed, but the women’s basketball team, women’s volleyball team, men’s basketball team, and football team are all part of the pool. The collective has partnered with Dallas ISD, The Communities Foundation of Texas, the National Association on Mental Illness, and other nonprofits so that within every contract an SMU student-athlete signs, they are encouraged to participate in service opportunities. Looking ahead, a group of SMU donors came forward to get the swim teams a piece of the NIL pie and “we’ve got momentum that should carry over to other sports,” Kleinert says.
On the corporate side, Dallas-based AT&T is agreeing to deals with athletes from Gonzaga, the University of Southern California, the University of Tennessee, and Florida A&M. DFW-based Panini America, a manufacturer of sports cards with 250 employees, is very active in the NIL space, signing 25 student-athletes to deals in 2023. It recently inked Texas Longhorn quarterback Arch Manning to his first NIL deal which resulted in his first trading card selling at auction for $102,500—all the proceeds benefited St. David’s HealthCare and St. David’s Foundation in Austin. “That really opened the eyes of people to start seeing the good that NIL can do,” Jason Howarth, the senior vice president of marketing and athlete relations for Panini America, says.
Dallas-based apparel brand Mizzen + Main is also capitalizing on the NIL space by working with 20 student-athletes since 2021, utilizing trade-only contracts, informal deals, and formal, paid contracts. “We’re looking for the athletes who align with our brand,” Mizzen + Main President Ryan Kent says. “In our deal with Sam Hartman [Notre Dame’s starting quarterback], our social media engagement is up about 100 percent on certain posts.”
The Boulevard Collective and Mizzen + Main collaborated on an NIL deal to start this football season, outfitting every SMU football player with Mizzen + Main clothing.
In Fort Worth, Texas Christian University has launched NIL curriculum and workshops within the Neeley School of Business. Now, more than two years into the NIL age, “virtually 100 percent” of TCU’s more than 500 student-athletes participate in the Neeley NIL curriculum each year, according to university president and Neeley NIL co-founder Daniel Pullin.
TCU was the first Power 5 university to establish NIL curriculum. “The courses set up students for success now in understanding how to leverage their brand, and for the next 50 years after their playing career,” Pullin says. “The way we look at it is the Supreme Court ruling planted 500 entrepreneurs on our campus overnight.”
Classes encompass brand management, media magnification, social media engagement, value propositions, business formation, liability issues, taxation issues, and legal matters. As far as what NIL will look like five years down the road, Pullin says it’s anybody’s guess. “We have a lot of state-by-state legislation, but TCU would welcome a federal solution,” Pullin says. “NIL deals will be normalized with a focus on value-based propositions and ROI—they’ll become more traditional business transactions and TCU would benefit from that.”
One large question remains: Will student-athletes become employees (or contractors) of their universities, opening the door for revenue sharing, healthcare, and other benefits? Bill Hancock, the executive director of the College Football Playoff emphatically says no. “The fact is, they’re college students,” Hancock says. “And if we ever let anyone drag us into anything other than that, we will have lost the essence of college athletics. And when the essence goes, the enterprise goes.”
According to the NCAA’s latest reports, Division I athletics generated $15.8 billion in revenue in 2019—the median university generated nearly $81 million. Rogers stands on the other side of Hancock. “Do I think revenue sharing is an answer? Yes,” Rogers says. “The local car dealership or the local chicken wings place cannot compensate these athletes for what their value is to the university. NIL is a Band-Aid. Ultimately, I think we’re probably moving toward employment.”