Now that BYU athletes can profit off of their name, image and likeness, how do they do it?
Editor’s note: This story appeared in the September 2021 edition of The Daily Universe Magazine.
The world of college sports was forever changed on July 1, 2021, when the NCAA voted to allow athletes to profit off of their name, image and likeness. These newfound rights are commonly referred to as NIL, and bring a variety of questions and possibilities to the lives of college athletes.
This change was rumored to be coming for several months and even years, but suddenly became a reality almost overnight in the middle of the summer. Schools, businesses and athletes alike are still all trying to figure out what a profitable future looks like exactly, but a lot of the rules and groundwork have already been established.
First off, the NCAA has made it perfectly clear that these changes do not allow for college athletes to be paid to play their sport. Student-athletes are simply now allowed to do what any other college student could all along, make money off of who they are.
This right is especially relevant and useful in the age of social media, where everyone has a personal brand and influencers make money just for having a lot of followers and endorsing products. College athletes, especially in bigger sports like football and basketball, are local celebrities and influencers unto themselves, making these changes a natural step for the NCAA.
Before July 1, if a student-athlete wanted to monetize their social media following and profit from ads and sponsorships, they could not. For BYU athletes like women’s basketball players Shaylee Gonzales and Paisley Harding, who have tens of thousands of followers across Instagram, TikTok and YouTube, the July 1 change unlocked a wealth of potential.
BYU communications graduate student and basketball player Tegan Graham recognized the unique situation her teammates are in and held a panel to discuss how NIL is changing the student-athlete experience, especially for women.
The panel included Gonzales and Fresno State women’s basketball players Hanna and Haley Cavinder, a pair of twins with over 500,000 followers on Instagram. The Cavinders were some of the first athletes to make major NIL deals when they announced a partnership with Boost Mobile in Times Square at midnight on July 1.
“I think NIL will actually close the gap between men’s and women’s college athletics, especially Division I, because you’ll see a woman who has this enormous earning potential stand beside men, which they’ve never really done, because female athletes aren’t valued like that in our society,” Graham said. “I really hope that the Shaylees, the Paisleys and the Fresno twins, those sort of people will help to close that gap. They already have, using social media and growing awareness and being vocal about stuff, but I think even more with making money and being these marketable female athletes is really, really important for the world to see.”
Graham is researching women in college athletics for her master’s project at BYU, and the panel will be released as part of the completed project in 2022.
As for the deals themselves, Gonzales has signed with NIL agency Ohana X and Johnson has partnered with car detailing service Dapper Pros through another agency, Oncoor Sports.
With this newfound freedom and opportunity, however, comes more responsibility and risk for student-athletes. BYU associate athletic director for student-athlete experience Gary Veron explains the efforts the administration has gone to in order to try and set the Cougars up for success when it comes to NIL, and their economic futures in general.
“We tried to provide them with the best possible guidance and resources and arm them with the knowledge and the wherewithal to practice due diligence,” Veron said. “Because there are people who want to take advantage of them, unfortunately, even locally.”
This includes training sessions, weekly newsletters, connecting athletes with agencies such as Oncoor and requiring a disclosure form to help make sure the deals fall in line with NCAA and school requirements.
Veron was initially the compliance officer for the BYU football team before becoming associate AD. In that role, head coach Kalani Sitake tasked him and director of player experience Billy Nixon with creating a program to enhance the student-athlete experience. Veron and Nixon came up with the Built4Life program, which was unveiled at BYU Football Media Day and provided the backbone for how BYU would handle NIL even before the NCAA announcement on July 1.
“We customized it based on our student-athletes, our population, the institution, its values, the sponsoring church and in line with Kalani and his vision,” Veron said. “We believe it was inspired. Not that Billy and I came together and had this great idea necessarily, but just the right time, the right place, with the backdrop of NIL coming into effect.”
As one of the minds behind Built4Life, Veron became the de facto NIL expert for BYU athletics in his new role as associate AD. Both Veron and athletic director Tom Holmoe have insisted that BYU’s approach through Built4Life goes beyond just NIL, and includes partnerships with local companies and setting student-athletes up with internships and job opportunities in Utah.
Still, the magnitude and immediacy of NIL is not lost on Veron or Holmoe, as they stated their desires to help BYU athletes earn as much money as possible and reach their full potential as influencers and role models in the community.
The process to reach a deal can take many different forms, and comes with some unique requirements at BYU. Veron explained that while he occasionally posts potential deals from companies in an athletics group chat, the athletes and companies can interact independently of the athletic department and arrive at deals without his direct involvement. Athletes can also sign with agencies like Oncoor, Ruke and Ohana Experience, who find deals for their clients in return for a cut of the sponsorship earnings.
After the athlete has a deal, they fill out a disclosure form that goes to the BYU athletic department for their approval and records. BYU athletes’ deals have to comply with the Honor Code, meaning they cannot partner with a company that promotes alcohol, tobacco or gambling, among other things.
In addition to the department looking over the deals for BYU’s unique requirements, Veron and other administrators encourage athletes to consult with a lawyer before signing any agreement, to make sure the deal works to their advantage and follows legal parameters.
“We’re not a law firm, so we can’t offer those services to them. So we tell them, ‘Go talk to a contract attorney or go talk to a financial planning expert about your finances or questions on this front or accountant,'” Veron said. “A lot of them don’t know what 1099’s are and have never filed taxes before. So it’s a lot of new things happening because of the NIL space opening up that they’ve never experienced before. So we encourage them to make take time, and choose the best fit for them both with the individual deals and also talent agencies. But we don’t ever force anything on them, or compel them where to go.”
Graham says that BYU is taking NIL “very seriously” and appreciates the athletic department’s efforts to help protect and prepare student-athletes for the deals that will invariably come their way. She described a mandatory meeting that took place the week after the NIL announcement, where Holmoe and Veron, along with marketing experts, gave them the “whole rundown” and encouraged them to sign with an agency if they were serious about building their brands and making deals.
The challenge for student-athletes and the department in educating them is two-fold: how do they grow their social media following to gain earning potential, and how do they ensure that a deal is in their best interest?
“Now we have the business marketing world that’s completely overlapping with the student-athlete, college world,” Graham said. “And so a lot of people don’t really know anything about it. (The department) was warning us to get help, ask questions, and don’t sign stuff without (help). Because this period of time, right now, when it’s brand new, is the perfect time for student-athletes to get taken advantage of.”
Veron expects continued changes, both at the state and federal level, as NIL begins to take shape in the coming months and years. Through weekly frequently-asked-questions newsletters and expanded training, in addition to a robust network through Built4Life, he believes BYU is in a good place to adapt.
The BYU football team recently made headlines nationwide when Utah-based Built Bars gave NIL offers to all 123 players, including deals with BYU’s 36 walk-ons to pay their tuition, essentially putting the entire team on scholarship. In return, players wear the Built logo on their practice helmets and will promote the brand on social media and at events.