A new era of college athletics begins Thursday, and rather than a seismic shift on the field or court or in the pool, the opening salvo will likely look like a steady stream of tweets, posts on Instagram and TikTok, and announcements about endorsement deals.
For the first time, college athletes are going to be able to profit off of their own name, image and likeness. We have some ideas about what that landscape is going to look like — video games and car dealerships generate a lot of conversation, but social media will be perhaps the single largest driver of deals — but there are still so many unknowns.
Everybody will begin learning at least some of the answers Thursday.
The University of Nebraska has been preparing for this moment for well more than a year. It announced a partnership deal with Lincoln-based Opendorse, a power player in athlete branding and marketing world and, as such, now a power player in the NIL world founded by former Husker football players Blake Lawrence and Adi Kunalic, in March of 2020.
The school provided its first player-specific logo even a month before that, for defensive back Cam Taylor-Britt, and has rolled out many since then, for football players like Adrian Martinez, Cam Jurgens, Deontai Williams and many more.
“We’ve been working on this — I’ve been in Nebraska for 22 months, and I’d say we’ve been working on this for 20 months,” said NU interim athletic director Garrett Klassy, who headed up external operations as a senior associate under former athletic director Bill Moos. “When we first heard this was a possibility, we were the first school to partner with Opendorse to really educate and assess our student athletes’ social media accounts. (That) was the first step, but we’ve been working behind the scenes for a long time.
“I’m excited for it to launch at midnight and I just think Nebraska is so uniquely positioned and our athletes are uniquely positioned to take advantage of monetizing their name, image and likeness being the premier brand in the state. I think this is really going to be an advantage for Nebraska moving forward.”
Klassy said he expects several updates on Thursday from NU athletes, including podcasts and likely a few endorsement deals.
NU has leaned into the NIL changes hard. There are classes currently available and being developed to help sharpen skills around entrepreneurship and brand building. The relationship with Opendorse is a strong one.
NU's social media accounts have published lists comparing Husker athletes’ social media presence to other athletes around the country. On the Big Red Blitz tour in mid-June, NU representatives asked crowds around the state to make sure they’re following athletes on social media.
Social media audience size and engagement rates will determine much about how valuable an athlete is to prospective advertising clients.
"I think at Nebraska we'll be able to capitalize on it as well or better than anybody in the country because we have fans like you guys, we have businesses that are going to want to use our guys to collaborate and in advertising,” coach Scott Frost said in North Platte. “There are going to be a lot of opportunities for our guys."
There are also more developments coming. Nebraska thinks bringing its multimedia rights operation in-house will expand content-creating and sharing opportunities in the future. Football recruits are already being pitched on how the new $155 million North Stadium expansion project will cater to NIL and brand-building opportunities. Exactly what those areas and resources will look like? That’s being played close to the vest.
The great unknown
The NCAA, which pushed back against athletes profiting off of NIL for years, only this week released very general guidance for schools on how to govern this new frontier. It had hoped that the United States Congress would pass federal legislation that provided a single, national framework for college athletes and schools, but that has not happened. Most states now have rushed to pass legislation or put executive orders in place effective July 1, lest they be left behind.
“It’s going to be kind of the Wild West for this summer while you wait on some kind of federal law, if there is one,” said Tom McMillen, the president and CEO of LEAD 1 Association, a group that represents athletic directors and athletic departments around the country. “The irony of this is that this could launch and, initially, I thought that would mean more pressure for a federal law. But with the NCAA giving (decision-making) to the institutions, it may kind of relieve some of the pressure on the federal government.”
Nebraska has had a state law in place since last year.
Among the few assurances at this point is that the regulatory landscape will continue to evolve well beyond July 1.
“It’s going to be tricky,” McMillen said. “There’s potential conflicts down the road. … Can the university protect its contracts against conflicts? I don’t know. What a kid does away from the school, can the university dictate that? I don’t know. I think this is all being driven by potential litigation and finding safe harbors.”
With all of the uncertainty around how the rules will form, Klassy said Nebraska plans to be aggressive. For now, NU is planning on directly being able to assist athletes with at least parts of the deal-making process.
“We’re hopeful that we can work directly with our student-athletes,” Klassy said. “We feel strongly that we as an institution can help them vet deals and vet any marketing agents that may be out there, because we want to make sure they’re not being taken advantage of and that they get fair market value for any of their deals. As we speak right now, having institutional involvement is part of it.”
Those rules could change, of course. They could change with the DI Council approval, they could change with updated state or federal legislation, and they could change for other, reasons, too. In the meantime, Nebraska plans to be aggressive.
“Quite honestly, we’re still formulating our policy, because the NCAA put out some guidelines earlier in the week, but it still has to be voted on by the Division I council (on Wednesday afternoon),” Klassy said. “So, our work on our policy is really fluid. …
“We’re going to start with the most aggressive policy that gives our student-athletes the most rights, and based on what comes out of the NCAA, we can pare it back from there. We think it’s going to be a great benefit not just for student-athletes, but for the University of Nebraska. As you’re recruiting 16- and 17-year-old kids, they’re going to want to go to places where they know it’s a premier brand in that state and they can take advantage of NIL. We think it’s going to be a win-win for everyone.”