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Underdog Dynasty’s staff discusses the first week of the NIL era

What lessons have we learned from watching the NCAA’s NIL rules be adopted?

University of Colorado vs Arizona State University Set Number: X158668 TK1

It’s been a week since the NCAA’s new guidelines permitting players to profit off of their names, images, and likeness has been enacted. While the proverbial sky hasn’t fallen for college athletics like some predicted, it’s certainly been an interesting week of change and new experiences for college athletes and fans alike. Personally, I’m still a little taken back when I see news of college athletes signing six-figure deals hit my Twitter timeline.

The staff at Underdog Dynasty got together to discuss our observations from the first week of the NIL era and throw out a few predictions on what the future might hold.

What is the most interesting endorsement deal you’ve seen from a student-athlete since NIL went into effect?

Eric Henry: I’m going take my answer in a completely opposite direction than I believe most will. Fresno State women’s basketball players Hanna and Haley Cavinder signed multiple endorsement deals within hours of NIL rule changes taking effect. Why is it the most interesting? The Cavinder twins have the potential based on their substantial social media following to earn triple the amount of their head coach’s salary. NIL, at its core was meant to allow student-athletes to earn off of their likeness. However, the Cavinders have an opportunity to get the one thing that student-athletes have lacked for decades — and that’s power.

Fresno State Basketball Players Haley and Hanna Cavinder Announce Endorsements
Fresno State Women’s basketball stars Hanna and Haley Cavinder signed lucative NIL deals on July 1st.
Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images

Dan Morrison: There were a few that caught my eye initially. Yoke Gaming, which I hadn’t heard of before July 1st, signed a bunch of athletes. Then, there were several athletes who announced their own apparel brands. Still, the company founded by McKenzie Milton and D’Eriq King, Dreamfield, is astounding. Players can charge an hourly rate, while they’re also holding NFT auctions.

Jared Kalmus: Go Owls.

Joe Londergan: I find it interesting and exciting that the first NIL deal officially signed was by an FCS player in Jackson State’s Antwan Owens. Owens signed an endorsement deal with 3 Kings Grooming, a hair product business based out of Cincinnati. You have to respect the hustle for having this deal ready to go literally the first minute that these rules went into effect.

Have you seen an athlete from your alma mater or the team you cover take advantage of NIL yet? If so what are the details?

Eric: A group of FIU players have signed deals with First Round Management, a South Florida-based sports agency. Also, receiver Tyrese Chambers announced a deal with a Miami taco restaurant.

Dan: UCF exploded out of the gates with NIL. Dillon Gabriel has his own apparel line, while several players signed up with McKenzie Milton’s Dreamfield, as well as Yoke Gaming. Now, a lot of these are smaller deals, but just the amount of deals being added has been surprising.

Jared: I’ve seen a surprisingly large number of NIL deals from UTSA student-athletes so far, including deals from players I didn’t expect to receive endorsement opportunities. My favorite example is the first deal I saw publicized on July 1st. A group of students made “RUN 3MC” t-shirts last year as an homage to Sincere McCormick’s great season at UTSA. The Roadrunners’ compliance department sent them a cease-and-desist letter as it put McCormick’s eligibility into question. On July 1st the student group re-listed the t-shirt, now with Sincere listed by name in the product description. McCormick also posted a link to the t-shirt on his Twitter account. In a few years we’re going to look back and laugh at how draconian the NCAA’s rules used to be.

Joe: Western Kentucky has a program in place called CLIMB, which they have defined as “a comprehensive program designed to help student-athletes grow and capitalize on their brands as NIL moves to the forefront of collegiate athletics nationally.” It doesn’t look like any Tops football players have announced any deals yet, but given that the state of Kentucky has been pretty proactive in the whole NIL situation, I would not be surprised if that changes soon.

Central Florida v South Florida
Dillon Gabriel has set himself apart as an NIL trailblazer at the G5 level.
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Which Group of 5 football player do you anticipate making the most money off of NIL deals?

Eric: I think Dillion Gabriel has an opportunity to really market himself well. When you take into account level of G5 program in conjunction with market size (Orlando is the 18th-ranked DMA in America), there’s plenty of earnings potential. If we’re just speaking of one year, I think Malik Willis’ ceiling is high. While Liberty technically isn't a G5, I’ll take Willis.

Dan: Your best bet is going to be a quarterback in a market that is already big, as far as the G5 is concerned. That tends to point to Dillon Gabriel, who puts up monster numbers, is in the Orlando market, and has already made his presence felt in the world of NIL with his new brand-Dedicated to Greatness. If not Gabriel, you have to think players like Tanner Mordecai, Hank Bachmeier, and Grayson McCall will all do well.

Jared: If Malik Willis holds up his current first round NFL Draft projection then it’ll have to be him. The apparel companies will want to get a head start on securing his long-term endorsement at the next level.

Joe: Given that Nevada QB Carson Strong has the potential to the first overall pick in the 2022 NFL draft, it would not surprise me to know that he has some big options on the table...especially with a market like Las Vegas not too far away. Malik Willis has some big money potential as well.

Any particular brands or types of brands that you think could do very well utilizing the new NIL rules to market themselves?

Eric: This is going to vary by market and region. Some of the smaller markets will get local car dealers and businesses. However, it’s only a matter of time before we see players at Arizona State or UCF signing deals to market the local student hangout — and by hangout, I mean bar (cough cough Knight Library). I think those will do very well. Here’s where things get dicey, in my opinion. If you’re in a Miami, Las Vegas or Tampa — and I’m asking this in all seriousness — what’s to stop an adult establishment from getting in on the action?

Dan: I think we’re going to see a lot fewer local car dealership or restaurant type deals than we initially expected. Not none, but fewer. More importantly for athletes are going to be new technologies, like Yoke Gaming. Even something like Cameo, which lets consumers buy personalized messages from minor celebrities. Either way, these are ways to connect athletes to fans, and they can be done remotely.

Jared: I think all the big deals will be from brands that already invest heavily in athletic endorsement at the professional level i.e. Gatorade, Adidas, Nike, etc. But you know who’s really going to use NIL to the max? College club promoters! I can’t wait to see G5 star athletes’ faces all over gauche club flyers.

Joe: In addition to the categories that my colleagues have already named, we’re already seeing podcast networks and media companies taking advantage of these new rules. I personally feel like down the road, we’re going to get some further guidelines/rules that will dial this back a bit due to concerns of journalistic integrity and the like. Also, debate on whether BYU is a G5 school all you want, but I’d be shocked if we didn’t see a BYU football or basketball player get a Coca-Cola scholarship given that school’s affinity for the brand.

Houston v Tulane
Could former Houston quarterback D’Eriq King have had the same NIL success with the Cougars as he’s had in Miami?
Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Two former “Group of Five” players, McKenzie Milton and D’Eriq King were among the first to sign endorsement deals. Do you believe that this could encourage G5 players to transfer to Power Five programs?

Eric: I think this will be something worth watching. Of course, the entire “Group of Five” structure is on shaky ground with the potential of playoff expansion. But within the current situation, it’s worth examining just how much players like Milton and King’s market value were increased by playing for “traditional” college football powerhouses. Both King and Milton’s current homes are in smaller cities than their Group of Five programs. However, there’s no denying the brand-name recognition that comes with being at Florida State and Miami.

Dan: The short answer is no. Both of those guys could have done what they’re doing at their AAC school. If a player transfers to a Power Five school they still need to play and for that team to have a market to make this type of thing possible. That’s before you consider that plenty of Power Five players may look at the Group of Five as a great landing spot if they want to be a big fish in a smaller pond as far as NIL is concerned.

Jared: I certainly think it’s possible. But on the flipside I think there’s more money to be made if you’re a 4-star athlete making waves at a G5 program than riding the bench at Blue Blood University. Big-time recruits will probably sign a few NIL deals when they first get to campus but that will drop off if they don’t see the field. Knowing that they can transfer to UCF or Boise and make a few grand each semester could be enticing. I think it’s the same argument we’ve been having over whether or not the transfer portal and immediate eligibility helps or hurts the G5.

Joe: In the short term, yes. What I also think will inevitably happen is it presents an opportunity for a G5 program with a significant following and substantial resources, like a UCF or a Boise State or a Houston, to up their game in order to draw top talent. Create a position on staff whose job it is to help your players find the right kinds of opportunities in this realm. If a player feels like they can grow as young professionals in addition to playing football, that can only help your cause.

If you were in charge of a program, how would you approach NIL with student-athletes?

Eric: The biggest point of emphasis for me would be making sure each student-athlete knows market value, especially their own. The third-string linebacker isn’t going to have offers knocking at their door. That can be used as a learning tool to understand that while they may not offer value as a football player based on their on-field credentials, spending four or five years as a member of a program can be a great way to set yourself up for success in a career. From an operational point of view, NIL is here and athletic departments shouldn’t run from it or act like it doesn’t exist. Those that are proactive and are quick to embrace the change in rules will benefit the most. There are a lot of potential pitfalls for student-athletes and athletic departments can prevent them.

Dan: I would, of course, fully support athletes NIL rights and set up a program to make sure they’re in a position to succeed with NIL. That program would include how to market oneself, how to manage money, and spotting scams that might be a waste of their time. I’d also invest in an extra compliance officer to specialize in NIL-related issues. When I hit the road, this program would be a recruiting tool, as would earning potential, though I’d want to be careful in promising figures of money that they can make. That’s a good way to get players to transfer out of the program who think you purposefully lied to them.

Jared: I’d go heavy on the education route. I wouldn’t spend my time telling my recruits about how Player X made Y amount of money in NIL deals. I’d instead tell my recruits about how Player Z learned how to run his own business by finding ways to partner with local small businesses to drive foot and web traffic to their door and is now running a highly successful marketing firm.

Very, very few student-athletes (especially Underdogs) are going to make more than a couple hundred bucks from NIL contracts. But having the opportunity to learn about marketing, negotiation, branding, etc. will pay off in a major way as kids move into their careers. After all, we are supposed to be educating kids and preparing them for their careers anyways, right?

Joe: Be smart and be authentic. Don’t go for the fast cash hocking knives on the home shopping network, if that even still exists. Find partnerships that fit who you are, what you like, and fit your values, whatever those are. Jokes aside, most consumers aren’t stupid and can smell b.s. It’s a skill/philosophy that’s going to serve these young men and women extremely well, no matter what route they go once they leave school.