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CHAMPAIGN — The athlete endorsement games have begun in Illinois, and the Illini backcourt has corralled the opening tip.

Point guard Andre Curbelo was the first University of Illinois athlete to secure a deal with a C-U organization: a partnership with the U of I Community Credit Union.

The talks began a couple days before Thursday’s start date.

“Andre put himself out there knowing that this day was approaching, and we said, ‘Hey, reach out to me if you’re interested in talking,’” said Chris Harlan, director of the credit union. “Looking at the exposure he generates, it really just felt like a great opportunity to start a conversation.”

Harlan and Curbelo spoke Thursday over Zoom, discussing a basic one-page proposal for a short-term engagement as well as what a longer-term deal might look like.

From there, Curbelo crafted his partnership announcement post for Twitter and Instagram.

It’s still early, so compensation and complete terms haven’t been hammered out quite yet.

Leading up to the basketball season, the credit union would like to have Curbelo in for in-person meetings with members.

“I really was very impressed by Andre’s leadership; he is the point guard, he’s one of the most exciting players and we just felt like it was great fit for us,” Harlan said.

The opportunities don’t end there for Curbelo: shortly after, he announced a partnership with delivery app GoPuff.

His backcourt mate, Trent Frazier, went public with a flurry of business moves Thursday, including VidSig, where fans can book one-on-one video chats with the guard, and his own venture, “Frazier Fridays,” where he’ll give away signed gear for social-media followers.

Frazier also opened up bookings on Cameo, where followers can request personalized video messages, at $45 a pop.

“I am very outgoing, funny, and creative. I can’t wait to have the opportunity to connect with fans and friends,” Frazier’s Cameo bio reads.

About 50 area business reps, including Harlan, attended a presentation on the state’s new “name, image, likeness” law Tuesday with UI athletic director Josh Whitman, men’s basketball coach Brad Underwood and other officials.

The group went over the rules and regulations surrounding college athlete endorsements, along with the app that the UI will use to help keep track of these deals, called Opendorse.

Maclaine Stahl, marketing director for campus apparel shop Gameday Spirit, is happy for college athletes’ newfound autonomy.

“Personally I’m glad Illinois is at the forefront of this. It’s really mind-boggling to think when I was in college none of this was allowed,” said Stahl, who graduated from the UI in 2018.

Stahl had some of his questions about the app answered, which he said seems “pretty user-friendly.”

“It’s all about convenience It can show what the athlete is willing to do, like take photos, autographs or camps or anything like that,” he said.

Gameday Spirit got about as close to the experience as possible, securing a T-shirt deal featuring beloved Illini forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili just after he announced his intent to go pro.

“We kind of have that experience. Obviously, at that period of time, Giorgi had forgone his college eligibility and wasn’t working as a current student-athlete,” he said.

The main question Stahl had was how vendors could use university marks like the Block I or Shield team logo in athlete partnerships.

“We learned that that was not to be part of the rulebook,” he said.

Stahl and Harlan agree that the new permissions are overdue. They feel for the former athletes who missed out on these opportunities.

“You look at other sports or a couple tiers down the depth chart, this is their peak exposure time in their lives,” Harlan said.

Amid the open season, Harlan fears some bad actors may try to take advantage of athletes in lopsided endorsement deals, which he’s sure will “be a side effect.”

“As a not-for-profit, member-owned community organization, we want to be on the right side of this endeavor,” Harlan said.

Will it affect Illini recruiting? Stahl echoed the coach on this one.

“Underwood said it really well when he said he’d ‘be naive’ to think this wouldn’t play a part in recruiting,” he said.

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