New NCAA name, image, likeness rules could shift power in college sports, marketing



Claire Forrest and KJ Ruffo delivered a message early this month to the University of Portland athletic department: Their days as unpaid laborers are over.Forrest, a senior volleyball player, and Ruffo, a pitcher and catcher on the baseball team, assured school officials they didn’t expect to be paid by the university. Rather, they intend to go into business for themselves and leverage their positions as collegiate athletes. Both have reached tentative agreements to endorse and promote products for private companies.Three other athletes at the small Catholic school in North Portland have since told administrators they intend to do the same, a step that less than a month ago would have violated NCAA rules and possibly earned them an NCAA sanction.But in a landmark change, the organization decreed that college athletes could, as of July 1, cash in on their own name, image and likeness. Some had been working for months to establish relationships with potential corporate partners in anticipation of the decision.“We’re all trying to figure out how to monetize this,” Forrest said. “It’s going to be really fun.”The NCAA rule change could shake up the traditional balance of power in college sports. Students are laying claim to their share of the billions their competition generates. Meanwhile, it creates an uncertain new landscape for the powers-that-be, like athletic directors, coaches, corporate sponsors and sports governing bodies.No one has the faintest idea how it will play out. It’s a time of high anxiety for coaches, administrators and sneaker companies alike.And no one has more at stake in this debate than Nike, Adidas and other footwear and apparel companies.The University of Portland is far from athletic powerhouses like Ohio State or Alabama. The Pilot athletes did not sign big endorsement contracts with high rollers like Nike or Visa or Kellogg’s.Scott Leykam, University of Portland vice president for athletics, said he and his staff are scrambling to figure out how best to administer the new rule. He said he was surprised and impressed at the students’ proactive campaigns to find corporate partners.“It’s exciting for our kids to have this opportunity,” Leykam said. “It was time. They should have the same opportunities as regular students to enter into these sorts of deals.”Some of the deals are decidedly small. Ruffo will market apparel and other products of Baseball Lifestyle 101. One of Forrest’s sponsors — Slide Jewelry — is providing her with product only, which she will promote online.Nevertheless, some students are searching out opportunities with entrepreneurial zeal, unwilling to wait for more clarity from athletic administrators on the fine points of the new rule. Ruffo said he began 18 months ago working on developing his social media following. He noticed that a company called Baseball Lifestyle 101 was reposting his material.Ruffo, who grew up in Milwaukie, contacted the Farmingdale, New York, company to introduce himself.“They reached out and asked me to be part of their team,” he said. “I’m pretty stoked.”Forrest, meanwhile, launched her own grassroots marketing campaign. “I’ve DMed a lot of different companies,” she said. “I’ve gotten a lot of noes.”Max Siegel, CEO of USA Track & Field, foresees conflicts aplenty as higher-profile athletes sign deals with sponsors that may not be to the liking of their university and its corporate sponsors.The big footwear makers that entered into spendy “all-school” deals did so on the understanding that it gave them the right to outfit all of the university’s athletic teams. What happens when the star quarterback inks a deal with a rival footwear maker and insists on wearing his sponsor’s shoes?As head of USA Track & Field, Siegel has mediated his share of disputes between corporate sponsors.“It’s not easy,” Siegel said. “There’s a lot at stake.”Siegel has personal connections to one of the new deals. His son is a center on the Notre Dame football team. Mission BBQ, a regional restaurant chain, just cut a deal. “They’re now the official sponsor of the Notre Dame offensive line,” Siegel said.The Mission deal has not resulted in any cash windfall for Siegel’s son. But he and his fellow lineman have been eating plenty of barbecue, Siegel said.The NCAA, the overseer of college sports, shocked the world in late June when it finally abandoned its insistence on amateurism, prodded by a Supreme Court decision that opened the door to future legal challenges. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, a conservative Trump appointee, went even further, saying the standard was plainly unfair and perhaps illegal.And the NCAA’s retreat may not be over. On Thursday, NCAA President Mark Emmert suggested a radically new, deregulated future for college sports in which the NCAA would give up much of its authority to schools and athletic conferences.“The new environment is one that creates some pretty remarkable opportunities for the schools and the Association to rethink and reconsider a lot of the long-standing components of what college sports has been about,” Emmert told reporters.Even before the NCAA voluntarily dropped its amateurism stance, Oregon and several other states passed their own laws clearing the way for college students to profit off their own image.Sen. James Manning and Senate President Peter Courtney drafted Senate Bill 5, which was approved by a 51-7 vote and signed into law this month.Manning had a message for sports bureaucrats and university leaders who may want to preserve the status quo: “You wouldn’t work for free,” the Eugene Democrat said. “Times have changed. We have to make sure we’re doing the right thing for these student athletes who bring such fame and fortune to their universities.”Lawyers, agents, coaches and college administrators interviewed by The Oregonian/OregonLive agree that the landscape has changed.Nike, Adidas and others have poured millions of dollars into endorsement deals with athletes, schools and leagues. Notoriously competitive, these companies will likely fight against any deal that would lessen the impact of their sponsorships.“Name, image and likeness will be a big issue for the sneaker industry,” said Jonathan Jensen, a University of North Carolina professor who tracks the apparel business. “Paying universities doesn’t make that much sense if the companies can cut deals with the individual athletes.”Jesse Williams, former senior marketing official for Brooks running shoes, predicted some degree of chaos as the big brands adjust to the new world.“It will be the wild west, honestly, and it will be interesting to see who moves first,” said Williams, who has since founded Sound Running, a race and running event organizer. “I think what school you attend and what brand sponsors that school will be very important. I can see companies like Nike signing kids to run at ‘X’ Nike school for $20K a year and like six years to get them through college and keep them afterwards.”The new era could also end the complaints of corruption within the sports marketing business. If payments to athletes are now perfectly acceptable to the NCAA, the days of secrecy and potential scandal are over.“Now it’s all out in the sunlight,” said Dionne Kollar, a professor at the University of Baltimore law school. “Let’s do it over the table. It’s a new day.”The change came too late for Jim Gatto and Merl Code, the former Adidas employee and consultant, respectively, hit with criminal fraud charges after allegedly funneling cash to recruits of Adidas-affiliated universities. Both face nine months of prison time after being found guilty. Both have appealed, and the cases are pending.The new uncertainty comes just as schools were hoping to begin recovery from the devastation of COVID-19. The pandemic blew a hole in athletic budgets across the country because games were canceled or played in empty stadiums.If superstar student-athletes succeed in grabbing for themselves a significant share of the sponsorship money, the windfall could come at the expense of their schools.“It’s a potential financial black hole at precisely the most difficult time for the athletic departments,” Jensen said.Coaches are at a loss as to what the future will bring.Dave Smith, head track and field coach at Oklahoma State University, fears a toxic environment in the locker room as some athletes prosper and some go without. He was among several coaches who voiced concern that the new paradigm will increase the leverage of big boosters, who could funnel unlimited funds to favored schools or athletic teams.“What happens when an entity invests big money in a star player and the coach then decides the star player is no longer the starter?” Smith said. “This basically professionalizes college sports. Any time you involve money in anything, you have the possibility for problems. And the bigger the money, the worse the corruption.”Smith and Danny Mackey, coach of the Brooks Beasts professional track team, envisions the day that a deep-pocketed booster decides to take an entire team’s fate into their hands.“Let’s say I make it big,” Mackey said. “I go to the coach and tell him I’m going to pay your top seven guys $30,000 a year.”When it comes to deep-pocketed donors with a passion for sports, you need look no further than Phil Knight, Nike founder and former UO runner, who has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to the university.On July 6, UO football star Kayvon Thibodeaux announced he had entered into a deal with Knight and his long-time Nike co-worker Tinker Hatfield to sell a stylized image of Thibodeaux created by Hatfield.As if dramatically breaking the seal on name, image and likeness rights wasn’t enough, the digital art comes in the form of an NFT — a non-fungible token, meaning each file is in a sense one of a kind — and can only be purchased with Ethereum, a cryptocurrency.Smith said he already misses the certainty of the old system. And he’s not the only one.But for Forrest and Ruffo, the two University of Portland student-athletes, the new policy rights a historic injustice. That far outweighs the concerns about unintended consequences.“It’s a phenomenal opportunity,” Forrest said. “It’s great for athletes all over the country.”– Jeff Manning



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