‘Champaign is going to benefit greatly from it’
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Close to 100 people filed inside the team room of the Smith Center on Tuesday night, most of them representing a business around the community, to gather as much information as they could before the tides of change became official in college sports.
Just five hours prior, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker in the State Farm Center and signed a bill into law that would allow college student-athletes to profit off of their name, image and likeness. Just 36 or so hours after that, on July 1, businesses would have access to a whole new pool of people to endorse their products, a first and a sizable shift to the norm. In between Pritzker signing a state bill into law and the official July 1 start date of college athletics’ brave new world, the NCAA effectively punted their rules on NIL, allowing all athletes to profit off their fame, regardless of state law.
Business representatives in the Champaign-Urbana community wanted to make sure they had a grasp of the rules before the market was officially open. Illini athletic director Josh Whitman, head men’s basketball coach Brad Underwood, Illinois senior associate athletic director for sports administration and student-athlete development Brian Russell and director of digital media Grace Duggan explained how all of this would work.
Opendorse is the conduit between student-athlete and businesses. They detailed the state laws, the requirement for student-athletes to disclose their endorsements and fielded questions. For the first time, a flood of more than 500 student-athletes were available for hire to endorse a company. On Thursday afternoon, Illini star point guard Andre Curbelo announced a partnership with the U of I Credit Union and several Illini student-athletes announced various endorsements, mostly using social media as their channel.
“What wasn’t appealing, I don’t know,” Chris Harlan, president and CEO of U of I Credit Union told Illini Inquirer. “It was one of those really perfect storms, great situations where we’re partners with Illinois Athletics, and Andre kind of put it out there earlier this week that this day was coming and to reach out to him if there was any interest, so I did that.
“We had a conversation. I felt like the energy and excitement that he brings on the court, he carries out through everything that he does. We kind of felt like this was a great opportunity and we didn’t want to miss being early to the playing field.”
Harlan said both parties are still determining exactly what the partnership will include, but it could range from in-person autograph signings to product endorsements. He said there is still a possibility the business will partner with other Illini student-athletes. What he was sure of was that he wanted to jump on the opportunity to work with a player whose stock is on the upswing and may well end up one of the brightest stars in college basketball in terms of his play and his NIL market.
“It means a lot to us as a local, community-based organization,” Harlan said. “I feel like Illinois sports are a huge part of this community. To take somebody who is a point guard, the face of the program, somebody who I think has a huge future in college and professional basketball and put our support behind him, to me it was a really easy decision. He’s a leader. As a freshman, he’s helping the team to recruit players to come join him and he’s got a vision. That’s the type of player that a lot of people are going to want to support.”
When the NIL bill in the state of Illinois passed in both the Senate and House of Representatives earlier this year, some businesses started looking more seriously at the possibility of partnering with student-athletes. It wasn’t that there was a lack of an appetite for that kind of partnership up to this point, but creating a deal with a student-athlete simply didn’t exist within the realm of possibilities. That is until July 1 came and went.
Gameday Spirit, an apparel store in Champaign-Urbana, partnered pretty quickly with former Illini men’s basketball player Giorgi Bezhanishvili after he announced his intention to pursue a professional career and knew that there was an interest in the community for student-athlete-inspired apparel.
“I wouldn’t say we had an appetite going into it,” said Maclaine Stahl, director of marketing for Gameday Spirit. “I think once the bill passed and all these things started getting moving that we started realizing all of these opportunities were going to start coming up. I wouldn’t say we had any thought appetite going into it, but once we realized this was something that was going to be viable here sooner rather than later then we started looking at how we would approach it.”
Fourth and Kirby, another apparel company that exists only online, was founded by four former designers in the Illinois athletic department. They’ve worked with former Illini men’s basketball player Cory Bradford on creating shirts in the past, an experience that provided them with plenty of ideas about a collaborative creative process between business and athlete.
They, too, are in the market to partner with Illinois student-athletes and had long considered the idea but two of the four co-founders, Will Wyss and Justin Stribel, say they wanted to make the partnership equitable for both sides. The new NIL laws make that possible. They’ve not announced a specific partnership with any student-athlete, but a tweet on Friday afternoon from Vederian Lowe, an offensive tackle on the football team, indicated future partnerships could be on the horizon.
“I think this was something we kind of pegged as this would be a cool opportunity,” Wyss said. “We’ve always kind of tried to support the student-athletes and we tried not to do that fine line of ripping them off; like the Ayo [Dosunmu] mask t-shirts and whatnot that were loosely associated with him, but he wasn’t getting any profit. I think once we found out how legit this was and we knew it could be a real thing, we kind of jumped at the bit.”
Endorsements can range from apparel — though without Illinois logos — to social media posts, to autograph signings, commercials, radio spots, and more. Former Illini defensive lineman Jay Ramshaw, now the vice president of Ramshaw Realty, knows the types of endorsements and ways student-athletes will profit off their name, image, and likeness will only grow because, as he puts it, kids are creative enough to try different things.
The athletic department has been educating its student-athletes in preparation for the new era of college athletics and on Tuesday — then again in a separate Zoom call later in the week — continued to educate local businesses on the dos and don’ts of NIL. Ramshaw is, at least partially, concerned about a potential corruption of college athletics, but on the whole, is embracing the new world order. He said he’ll explore getting involved in the market but hasn’t necessarily had a longing for that because of his history in the sport.
“I could be in a different position than some people having played here and knowing players,” Ramshaw said. “They’re more like colleagues to me than they might be stars to other people in the community. Knowing people that aren’t involved with the program and how starstruck they get seeing [the players] out in the community, Champaign is going to benefit greatly from it. The athletes are no longer at risk of getting a free cheeseburger and losing their scholarship, which was the biggest piece that was total BS through the past 50 years.”
The first day of the NIL era for Illini student-athletes was full of endorsement opportunities including U of I Credit Union, various football and basketball players partnering with Yoke, an online gaming platform; Cameo; or GoPuff, a delivery service for food, drink and household items.
How this all evolves will be fascinating to watch. Fourth and Kirby has plans in place, particularly as the full semester ramps up. At long last, companies can enter an agreement with Illini student-athletes.
“Interest is going to be very high,” Wyss said. “I think being on campus and going through and seeing how students get attracted to our student-athletes, you see shirts pop up that are not legit. I think the market is out there for this thing and especially with the team that we’ve had. You see these personalities like a Curbelo, I think our campus is going to jump at the bit to get a Curbelo t-shirt or a Da’Monte [Williams] t-shirt or a Trent [Frazier] t-shirt. The fact that they are now profiting off that instead of seeing knock-offs, I think is huge for them and will make people a little more confident in that purchase. Beforehand, they were getting an off-market thing from some guy on campus, you know it’s not going to them so you might hang off a little bit.”
Said Harlan: “I have no idea what will come. My expectation is that we would have a featured partnership and several other partnerships as well because we want to support athletes of all tiers, not just those who might become professional athletes one day but also those who make up the fabric of this community.”