Student athletes control their name, image and likeness. Olin’s sports biz summit asks: What now?

  • November 29, 2021
  • By WashU Olin Business School
  • 3 minute read

College athletes and sports teams are navigating complex issues around gender and compensation in the wake of new state laws and NCAA rules increasing athletes’ control over their name, image and likeness (NIL).

That’s one of the issues panelists explored as part of the seventh annual WashU Olin Sports Business Summit, held virtually on Friday, November 12. In this segment of the daylong program, six panelists spoke about their work on name, image and likeness, and what new NCAA rules mean for the industry.

In the few months since 500,000 college athletes became available for partnerships practically overnight, there has been an explosion of new opportunities, with a handful of college athletes set to eclipse $1 million in revenue before the end of the year, and, with that growth, a matching urgency for education for students, schools and many more stakeholders to navigate the new NIL space.

Patrick Rishe, director of Olin’s sports business program and professor of practice in sports business, moderated the panel.

Boosting the power of college sports?

The panel was incredibly timely. New laws and rules went into effect July 1, giving college athletes increased control over their NIL. This allows the players to profit from sponsorships and promotions while still in school.

One key takeaway was that the college sports scene is now being treated as seriously as the professional one.

As Darren Heitner, founder of Heitner Legal and an adjunct professor of sports law at the University of Florida, explained, of the companies reaching out to college athletes he represents, “some I think will surprise and shock quite a few—we’re talking about publicly traded companies.”

Interestingly, this excitement has not been limited to basketball and football. Jim Cavale, founder and CEO of sports content platform INFLCR, shared that more than half of the transactions on his platform come from non-revenue sports—including sports such as tennis, golf, gymnastics and track & field.

This suggests a drastic widening of the sports industry; the deals are not just limited to the big players on the court and the market.

While some critics argued the amateur status of college athletes was essential to the integrity and enjoyment of college sports, most stakeholders celebrated these changes as a step forward in compensating student athletes for their earned celebrity status and restoring some control over their brand to their families.

And no one can dispute that the NCAA decision has rocked the sports industry, creating new challenges and business opportunities.

Equity for women’s sports?

In addition to Heitner and Cavale, the panelists included Joe Fields, senior associate athletics director at Texas A&M University; Rachel Maruno, director of operations at The Brandr Group; Carly Tower, an account executive at Altius Sports Partners; and Jason Belzer, founder and CEO of Student Athlete NIL. They spoke from across the country, and each brought a unique perspective on NIL issues.

One other development the discussion explored was that NIL rights have improved college women’s equity and opportunity.

Belzer drew a distinction between the real market of athletes using their own likeness to build businesses, and the market around businesses and donors paying athletes to come play at their institutions. While the latter has always been dominated by males, the former is now open to and favoring females, who tend to have a much stronger social media presence. Tower said many companies have made offers to entire women’s teams, in addition to specific players.

Heitner revealed some of the chaos around his clients Hanna and Haley Cavinder, twins who play basketball at Fresno State and who had a combined 4 million TikTok followers before July 1. The twins have been offered not just regular compensation for sponsorships but also royalties and even equity in large companies.

Finally, several of the panelists discussed the importance of education initiatives to navigate the growing NIL space. Fields hosted an Amplify conference directed not just to student athletes but also to the compliance team, coaches, administrators, parents and high school coaches, all of whom can have an impact.

“Everyone can win if we structure it properly,” Fields said.

Photo at top: Patrick Rishe, director of Olin’s sports business program and professor of practice in sports.

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