CHAMPAIGN — College athletics will enter a new era Thursday with laws coming on the books in multiple states, Illinois included, for athletes to benefit from their name, image and likeness.
Roughly six hours after Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed Illinois’ bill securing those rights into law, the University of Illinois Division of Intercollegiate Athletics held an open house at the Smith Football Center for any interested local businesses.
It ended up being a bit of a crash course in the opportunities that will exist under the new legislation.
The DIA can’t “play matchmaker,” as athletic director Josh Whitman put it, between athletes and interested brands and businesses.
The newly signed bill prohibits those actions. But Whitman wanted to lay out what will become possible when the bill goes into effect Thursday.
“Our goal is try and create two educated stakeholders,” Whitman told a group of approximately 50 community members. “We want to create an informed group of stakeholders on the outside, and we want to make sure that we have an educated, progressive set of stakeholders on the inside with our student-athletes. Then we’ll leave it up to you all to meet in the middle.”
David Sholem attended Tuesday’s event to learn more both about how the DIA intended to operate in the new era. While his law firm, Meyer Capel, might not be involved directly in any endorsement opportunities, plenty of its clients might.
“Obviously, it’s an evolving area, and I’m sure we’re going to get lots of inquiries from our business clients,” Sholem said. “I wanted to know not only what the law is, but how the university was going to be pragmatically implementing the program. … We don’t really advertise. We already represent some former University of Illinois athletes and also University of Illinois coaches and coaches at other universities.
“We’re already involved in the marketing in sports. A number of athletes, as soon as they lose eligibility by graduation or declaring early to go pro, they’re immediately looking for opportunities. Some of them have signed opportunities locally, whether it’s autograph sessions, T-shirts and other opportunities. I’m sure it will be more of the same now that it’s authorized for other athletes.”
Habeeb Habeeb was appreciative that the DIA held the event the same day the bill was signed into law. He showed up at the Smith Center knowing it was a brand-new issue and wanting to know more about what it might mean for UI athletes and the community.
“I think there will be a lot of interest by business people,” said Habeeb, who founded H-Squared Leadership Institute after being CEO and operating partner of BPC, an employee-benefits administration firm. “I just hope it’s done right, and I hope good businesses pick up and use them. I feel good for the student-athletes.
“We don’t have mountains and warm weather, but if we have a good business fandom — people who are really supporting our athletes — that could really level the playing field with other locations,” he added. “It’s really important as a community-minded person that we get together and support our student-athletes and attract more students to Champaign-Urbana. I think the impact will be great.”
Tuesday’s presentation was led by Brian Russell, senior associate director of athletics, who is in charge of sports administration and student-athlete development. Russell ran the community members in attendance through the UI’s “Influence” program before answering questions at the end of the roughly hourlong event.
Russell highlighted multiple examples of engagement using athletes’ names, images or likenesses, including appearances, apparel deals that don’t include university trademarks, autograph sessions, social-media advertisements and video monetization.
Russell and DIA social media strategist Grace Duggan also took those in attendance through the Opendorse app, which can be used to connect brands and businesses to athletes.
But not every question had an answer Tuesday evening. The idea behind the new law might not be new, but implementing it is.
“I think people have to process the information before they’re even aware that this will be an opportunity for them,” said Jayne DeLuce, CEO of Visit Champaign County. “I think too many people, currently, have looked at it in terms of their image and not so much all the other aspects with the deals. I think it’s going to take a minute for people to get educated on it, which is why I was saying we’re going to have to have a webinar or FAQs to tell people.”
Whitman admitted there were plenty of unknowns and the new frontier remains an unsettled space. The internal DIA phrase for implementing the plan was “building this airplane while we’re flying it.”
But he remained an advocate for athletes to reap benefits from the new law and hosted Tuesday’s event to further that cause, which could inject more than 500 young adults into the greater Champaign-Urbana area looking to engage.
“I think for the small businesses, it’s an opportunity to build those relationships with those students and get them broader exposure,” DeLuce said. “What I really like about it is it’s not just about the (Ayo Dosunmus), who we love, and the (Kofi Cockburns) of the world. It’s about all student-athletes.
“What I hope it will promote is more interaction — not necessarily at a cost — for nonprofits. I think about involvement with park district programs and boys’ and girls’ clubs,” she added. “I hope that continues, because they can be great role models. I think it’s a respect for their time and what they give, but it’s also an opportunity for them to be part of the community in a broader way.”