Let’s say my favorite candy company asks me to be in a commercial for Lemonheads and offers me $10,000 to do it.
I wouldn’t need permission from anyone to accept (though I might get a stern talking to from my dentist.)
It’s my call. My choice. My right.
If the same candy company approaches an Illinois athlete with a similar offer, the athlete can’t accept if he or she wants to remain eligible.
But it is all about to change.
States across the country have either passed — or are working on — laws that will allow student-athletes to benefit financially from their names, image and likeness.
Former Illini football player Kam Buckner, now a member of the state legislature, was one of the sponsors of the Illinois bill. If signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, it will become law later this summer.
Wise move by all involved.
“We feel like we’re in good shape to be able to use our plan and provide student-athletes with great opportunities,” said Brian Russell, Illinois senior associate athletic director for sports administration and student-athlete development.
The tricky part comes next. Illinois and athletic departments across the country are waiting to find out what their roles will be.
The NCAA is expected to pass legislation that addresses what the schools can and can’t do.
“We’re kind of preparing for all angles, but obviously we’re in a good place to be able to offer Illinois student-athletes to match what is in the bill in terms of allowing them to capitalize on their name, image and likeness,” Russell said.
College sports are finally catching up with the real world. Way too late, the welfare of the people playing the games has moved to the top of the priority list.
It has been a good year for athletes in terms of fixing past wrongs. Like the ridiculous old transfer rule that forced a player in certain sports to sit out a year when he or she changed schools. Meanwhile, a coach could switch jobs with no penalty.
Fans and some media members might complain about all the roster moves, but they are being selfish. You have to put yourselves in the shoes of the athletes, who have a limited competitive window and want to get the most out of it. Now, it is easier.
Getting a fair shareSchools have always been able to profit from the exploits of their athletic programs. The exposure increases applications and donations.
They are paid for television rights and merchandising. Walk in downtown Champaign and you will see shirts and hats with Illinois’ Block I. Somebody got paid for that. But not the athletes.
Imagine how much money Ayo Dosunmu could have made this year as a spokesperson for businesses in Champaign-Urbana, Chicago or, frankly, anywhere that follows basketball.
After leaving Illinois, Dosunmu agreed to a deal with the Illinois Lottery. Cha-ching.
Soon, athletes on current Illinois rosters will have similar opportunities.
“We are definitely headed toward a space where student-athletes, when they are not representing the university specifically, can use their own name, image, likeness to be able to capitalize,” Russell said.
There is potential money to be made in multiple forms, from social media endorsement deals to commercials for a local car dealer. The possibilities are left to the imagination.
There will be some limitations in terms of how the athletes express their ties to their schools. For example, it is unlikely you will see Trent Frazier wearing his Illinois No. 1 jersey in an ad for a local pizza place.
However, it will be fine for Frazier to wear orange and blue. Just not Orange and Blue.
Logically, men’s basketball and football will have plenty of interest from businesses because of their high visibility.
But Russell said athletes in all sports will have opportunities.
“Let’s say you have a gymnast who is going to the world championships,” Russell said. “There may be a local gym or studio or academy that would be incredibly interested in having that person endorse them. This is going to extend far beyond what we initially think of as those big-time names like Ayo.”
Every Illinois sport has a following. Men’s golf, with a long, successful run under Mike Small, will have fans, businesses and donors ready to offer support.
Practical mattersWhen someone says “go” to potential advertisers, it could turn into a free-for-all.
In an effort to deal with the upcoming changes, Illinois is working with Opendorse Ready.
The company’s role is to assist the student-athletes as they are building their brands and will assess the social-media accounts for all of the Illinois students-athletes.
In terms of compliance, the company will track the endorsement deals the Illini sign.
“That part will be critical as we educate student-athletes about the world that they’re getting into,” Russell said.
Still to be determined is how much the schools will be able to help in the deal-making process.
Russell thinks a third-party marketing agent will be used.
Russell said Illinois is in a strong position when it comes to the potential for NIL impact. The state has all sorts of involved business. The university has one of the largest alumni bases in the country, many ready and willing to lend a hand.
“The Fighting Illini family will come out in droves to support Illinois athletics,” he said, “and to allow them to have success.”
Cities in bigger markets seem to offer an advantage. Southern California and UCLA should have endless options in Los Angeles.
“The flip side is there are so many competing interests in L.A.,” Russell said. “Maybe it won’t be that big of a deal, except for a few.”
In C-U, Illinois athletics is the only big-time game in town. The program doesn’t have internal competition.
Ohio State is in a metro area with more than 2 million people. The city and the state love their Buckeyes.
Does Ohio State have a big edge over the rest of the conference? Russell isn’t so sure.
“Anytime we look at that school in Columbus, it’s easy to forget they have double the amount of student-athletes we have,” he said. “When you think about it realistically, we’re providing these opportunities for a max of 500 student-athletes. Schools like that are looking at endorsement deals for over 1,000 student-athletes.”
Some student-athletes might think they are about to hit it rich. The reality might be a lot different.
For the superstar athletes, there will always be interest. But what about the backup guard or the fourth-string linebacker?
“I think it will be more of a shock to student-athletes that there’s not as much money for as many as some may think,” Russell said.
There is more to the process than signing a deal, getting a check and putting money in the bank.
The federal government and state will take a chunk for taxes.
“All of these pieces that our student-athletes may not comprehend at this point, it’s on us to make sure they’re educated,” Russell said. “Even if we can’t have involvement in the actual deal-making, we sure as heck better have involvement at the front end of preparing student-athletes for what’s coming in terms of what their responsibility is at the back end.”