Gopher Athletes Build Brands, Business Amid NIL Changes
Friday, April 8, 2022
BY WADE RUPARD
Thanks to a recent change to the NCAA rulebook, the first generation of student-athletes are building brands, businesses—and bank accounts.
Wearing a pink, cropped sweatshirt with “Carpe Diem” written across the front, Lexy Ramler, ’21 BSB, ’22 MHRIR, steps in front of her phone camera.
As the video starts, she steps back, smiles, and gently tugs the sweater down, giving the viewer another look at the message.
Once she posts the one-second video on Instagram for her nearly 8,000 followers, it marks the start of her work as an ambassador for Ozone Leotards. It’s the latest partnership for Ramler, a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) all-around silver medalist in gymnastics, who also previously signed with hat company Love Your Melon. It’s just one example of the types of projects student-athletes nationwide are pursuing under the NCAA’s new Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) rules.
Prior to July 2021, the NCAA prevented student-athletes from accepting outside money. If athletes violated the rules, they could face suspension or lose their athletic eligibility altogether. Colleges and universities were also at risk of forfeiting games or expulsion from postseason tournaments.
But the new rules allow student-athletes to make money off themselves. They can appear in advertisements, charge for signing autographs, and post about products on social media.
Changes in NIL rules began to take shape in 2019 when states—California first among them—began passing “Fair Pay to Play” laws, which made it illegal for state schools to prohibit athletes from making money off their name, image, and likeness. The laws overrode NCAA rules.
The NCAA then reversed course on its long-standing “amateurism” concept and now allows college athletes to earn money.
“I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect when the new rules were announced,” Ramler says. “This wasn’t something I was able to do a year ago, so I’m definitely grateful for the opportunity. I know how fortunate I am to be able to be a student-athlete at this time.”
Navigating the Unknown
To help student-athletes navigate the changes, the UMN Athletics Department has created the MINDset program, which educates athletes about NIL. Part of that program is providing student-athletes with photos and videos they can use for content creation on their social media channels or to help grow their brand.
The other side is a partnership with Team Altemus, a consulting company that helps educate and equip athletes on NIL deals. Together with Team Altemus, the University provides training sessions for athletes on financial literacy, contracts, taxes, and other nitty-gritty aspects of NIL.
“We’re really proud of what we’ve come up with so far,” says Mike Wierzbicki, senior associate athletics director for external affairs. “We don’t want to be in the middle of these independent deals, but we want to educate our student-athletes and make sure they have as much information about the positives and negatives that come with this type of entrepreneurial opportunity.”
Former Carlson School student Blaise Andries, ’22 MABA, an offensive lineman for the Gophers football team, says despite all of this being so new, he felt well-prepared for navigating NIL, thanks to these resources.
“Obviously, this is all so new and there is so much to think about, whether that’s tax implications or what have you,” Andries says. “It was a great learning experience for me and the rest of the guys on the team.”
Periodically, Wierzbicki and others in the athletics department meet with Carlson School professors to explore NIL from a business perspective. The group has discussed how they could potentially expand MINDset and structure opportunities for more advanced opportunities for student-athletes.
One potential way of doing this could be for athletes to participate in some of the Carlson School’s experiential learning classes where students are building businesses from the ground up.
“It’s so great to sit around the table and get input from someone with a financial services background or someone from a marketing background,” Wierzbicki says. “Having Carlson School professors there has been vital for us to bounce ideas off of and try to understand what this space might look like in another six, 12, or 18 months.”
The opportunity to partner with companies for monetary gain isn’t one weighed lightly by student-athletes.
With offers sliding into her social media direct messages, Ramler says she considers working with each brand individually and endorses those she can support and bring energy to. Ramler’s two current sponsorships are largely social-media-based. Her agreement with Love Your Melon was for one post, while her deal with Ozone Leotards is more expansive and involves other gymnasts from across the country.
“I think probably the coolest part myself and other athletes have had is companies come to us, reach out, and ask if you want to be part of it,” she says. “Ozone reached out, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is so cool.’ Basically, everybody wears their apparel, so being a part of that was pretty special.”
A large majority of the NIL deals signed by athletes are on a similar scale to Ramler’s, with athletes posting on social media for hundreds to thousands of dollars. But some of the biggest college stars have already signed to partner with some of the most well-known corporations in sports. University of Connecticut basketball player and Hopkins, Minnesota-native Paige Bueckers signed with Gatorade—becoming the first collegiate player ever to partner with the sports drink company—and sneaker and apparel marketplace StockX. Combined, those endorsements could earn the national player of the year more than $1 million, according to Forbes.
And shortly after winning a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics, Minnesota wrestler Gable Steveson inked a deal with the WWE, the first-ever such contract between the wrestling organization and a current collegiate wrestler.
For former athletes, such as Andre Hollins, the new rules come too late.
Hollins, ’22 MBA, was a four-year starter for the Gophers men’s basketball team and is the sixth-leading scorer in program history.
“I was a little jealous, a little unhappy that I missed that opportunity,” Hollins says with a laugh. “But in all seriousness, I thought it was about time that they passed that. I was happy for the student-athletes to be able to monetize themselves like they should have been able to do the entire time.”
After playing at Minnesota from 2011-15, Hollins played professionally in Europe. Following an injury, he retired and returned to the Gophers’ basketball program as a graduate assistant.
Hollins is now enrolled in the Carlson School’s Full-Time MBA program. Though he’s only had a few conversations with players on the current roster, he’s already starting to see how this could be a game-changer for athletes, especially those wearing maroon-and-gold, given the campus’s location in a major metropolitan area.
“It’s one of the biggest markets in the Big Ten and has all of these big corporations, and it’s also the only major university in the state. There is a big opportunity there.”
For Ramler, the opportunity to monetize herself isn’t just about profit. When the new NIL rules were passed, her first thought was that she could pay it forward by teaching young gymnasts floor routines through camps or private lessons. And ultimately, she sees that as the biggest benefit.
“I’ve gotten this intrinsic feeling about how I’m able to help young fans and young athletes, and that is huge,” she says. “This has made a big impact on me.”
This article appeared in the Spring 2022 alumni magazine
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