Valley Endorsement Deals Reshape Collegiate Athletics

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Practicing, lifting, playing games – preparing for collegiate basketball is a job. And now, student athletes such as Youngstown State University women’s player Mady Aulbach are cashing in.

Aulbach, a junior, is an ambassador for upstart company Created Behind The Scenes LLC.

She plays a small part of what is likely to become big business for sponsors and student-athletes across the country under the new “name, image, likeness” regulations.

On July 1, many states – including Ohio and Pennsylvania – superseded the NCAA’s long-standing rules prohibiting college athletes from profiting from the use of their names, images or likenesses.

Thus, players such as Aulbach are now able to leverage their local or national appeal for corporate or marketing initiatives – and get paid for it.

Youngstown State University basketball player Mady Aulbach sees the endorsement opportunity as a way to make money and to network – setting herself up for a successful life after college.

Former YSU track and field athlete Collin Harden, who owns Created Behind The Scenes, signed Aulbach as an ambassador for his brand. Her Instagram posts help the company to earn revenues.

“Because his brand was so athlete-oriented, it was really easy for that to be a brand I could work with,” Aulbach says. “You could have so many opportunities with the [name, image, likeness].”

Student athletes nationwide have jumped at the opportunity in just the last three months, with the more popular players from the country’s marquee college teams negotiating lucrative contracts.

University of Alabama quarterback Bryce Young has cashed in on about $1 million in deals, according to Fortune. PlantFuel Life announced deals for male and female athletes – investing well over six figures for this program, Forbes reports.

The Arkansas Traveler says at least 160 University of Arkansas athletes have partnered with 52 different businesses.

Local attorney Brian Kopp has not seen the likes of those contracts.

“Now it doesn’t mean they won’t be coming, especially as we get close to the bowl game season and you start to see who’s heating up and things like the Heisman races,” he says.

Kopp gained extensive knowledge of sports law as an executive officer and authorized house counsel for DeBartolo Sports and Events from 2007 to 2012.

The partner in the law firm of Betras, Kopp and Harshman negotiates contracts for college and professional football coaches.

Kopp has consulted families whose athletes are seeking name, image, likeness contracts, but cannot represent them because it would be a conflict with his obligations representing coaches.

“I do see a lot and have been consulted on a number of deals from $1,500 to $15,000, depending on the deliverables,” Kopp says. “And when I say deliverables, I mean what the athlete is expecting in regards to the payment.”

Professional athletes have never been hindered by name, image likeness restrictions.

“Name image and likeness is self-explanatory in the sense that it’s somebody’s ability to use their own likeness, and personal brand, for the benefit of a commercial brand,  so to speak,” Kopp says. “So historically in sports, we talk about it being endorsement-type work.”

Jon Arnold, CEO and chairman of J. Arnold Management Co., says he’s a Youngstown State University football fan and is intrigued with senior running back Jaleel McLaughlin.

Arnold contacted the university’s athletics compliance office to find out how to offer McLaughlin a name, image, likeness deal – saying he wanted to sign the team’s best player.

Youngstown State University senior football player Jaleel McLaughlin was offered a name, image, likeness contract through the J. Arnold Wealth Management Co. “It’s definitely a blessing and I’m very thankful,” McLaughlin says.

Arnold says McLaughlin is given a certain sum of money in exchange for his appearances on behalf of his firm.

“I’m not allowed to disclose for contract reasons the amount of money,” Arnold says. “But for a certain amount of money, he’s to appear either on social media, video, audio, billboard – anything marketing related for the J. Arnold Wealth Management Company.

“He’s to appear contractually with us with his YSU jersey, and therein lies his name, likeness and appearance.”

McLaughlin was told by YSU’s athletics assistant director for compliance, Rebecca Fink, that Arnold wanted to offer him an endorsement likeness deal.

The YSU student-athlete says he’s grateful for the opportunity.

McLaughlin says he’s paid on a monthly basis on what he calls a “very outstanding contract” and encourages other YSU student-athletes to pursue deals like his.

“I won’t go into any amount or number. It’s definitely a blessing and I’m very thankful,” he says.

SOCIAL MEDIA

Louisiana State University men’s basketball player Shareef O’Neal, son of former NBA standout Shaquille O’Neal, has more than 2.7 million followers on Instagram.

Olympic gymnast and Auburn University student-athlete Sunisa Lee can make a combined $17,000 per post, according to FootwearNews.com.  

Sam Weber, senior director of communications for Opendorse, says his company provides programs to institutions like Youngstown State where student-athletes are given an assessment of the value of their personal brand.

Opendorse, based in Lincoln, Neb.,  has worked with professional athletes for nearly a decade. “[We] used that [experience] to let it trickle down to the college market and help inform college athletes,” Weber says.

Opendorse says a person’s name, image, likeness are three elements that make up a legal concept known as “right of publicity.”

Common examples of [name, image, likeness] in the professional sports space include the use of an athlete’s name on a jersey for sale, an athlete making an appearance on a commercial or advertisement and a computer-generated image of an athlete appearing in a video game.

Opendorse has seen deals come through for more than $200,000. But that’s the outlier.

“The huge majority are in the $50 to $500 range,” Weber says. “Every now and then, you have an athlete who has the level of impact that can command those big five-, six- and sometimes seven-figure offers for a brand.”

Weber says student-athletes have access to their schools’ creative and digital departments for content on their social media sites.

“We’ve found that the more active athletes can be on social media, the more they can be connected to their program and the easier fans are going to find them, follow them and build their brand value,” he says.

One YSU women’s basketball player, Paige Shy, has more than 18,000 followers on Instagram.

“I know a bunch of teammates already that have a pretty big following who are getting a bunch of attention from bigger influencers and building a network of connections where they can capitalize,” Shy’s teammate, Mady Aulbach, says. “Not only are they making money, but also building these connections after school with the [name, image, likeness].”

Aulbach is one of more than 4,000 student-athletes nationwide who joined Barstool Athletics, a branch of Barstool Sports. Those involved are sent Barstool gear for their likenesses used on their social media sites.

Aulbach says two YSU female basketball players have had their hometown businesses inquire about marketing opportunities.

As for Harden, who owns Created Behind The Scenes, he says his company is there to help student-athletes to be paid for their name, image, likeness through the sales of hoodies, T-shirts and wristbands.

Aulbach, teammate Malia Magestro and YSU women’s soccer team goalkeeper Zeeyana Jivraj are three of Created Behind The Scenes ambassadors. Harden says he’s in talks with more student-athletes around the country.

“Anything I get now is a plus,” he says. “I’m focused on the ambassadors and getting them paid.

“I was not really thinking about myself when I thought of this company.”

Kopp says social media is like “Wild West marketing” in the sense it once was a small, unknown component, which is no longer the case. TikTok, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other forms of social media are the main source of news and information for young people – including student-athletes.

“If [student-athletes] post so many messages about a brand or a business, if they endorse a product or anything like that, then you have the ability to monetize either by how many times they post it. Or by paying them for certain content pieces,” Kopp says.“But even that goes with certain restrictions right now. If you’ve paid attention to it, there’s not too many of the major apparel brands that I’m aware of that have done anything with these young athletes.”

POLICIES AND TAXES

State or private universities and colleges cannot interfere with student-athletes’ right to compensation from name, image, likeness or prevent those participating from receiving scholarships.

Contracts have to be submitted to the college or university before entering into an agreement. Endorsements for adult entertainment products and services, alcohol, gambling, tobacco and electronic smoking products, 
and prescription and controlled substances are not allowed under the Ohio or Pennsylvania laws.

YSU has devised a five-page name, image, likeness policy, collaborating with Opendorse. According to that document, failure to abide by this policy can result in reprimands of dismissal from an athletics program.

YSU has contracts with Pepsi and Nike, so athletes from the school cannot enter into a deal with say Coca-Cola, Under Armour or Adidas, says the school’s associate general counsel, Greg Morgione.

“That would be a conflict,” he says.

Morgione’s role is not to legally advise those student-athletes entering into contracts, but to advise the university’s best interest. However, he would recommend they obtain legal representation or professional guidance if it makes sense.

“If it’s a small-dollar contract, it probably doesn’t make sense to go hire an attorney,” Morgione says. “If it is a sizable-dollar amount, then it probably makes sense in that case.”

Grove City College passes out a quick reference guide to its student-athletes, saying they can profit from their names, images, likenesses. They should hire representation to help with these activities, disclose all dealings to the college and are prohibited from entering into contracts with the aforementioned taboo subjects such as alcohol and gambling

Performance-based incentives, being required or incentivized to attend Grove City, along with wearing the school’s apparel, uniforms or logos during [name, image, likeness] activities are prohibited.

According to a recent Associated Press story, Built Brands LLC – a Utah-based snack company – gave all members of the football team a chance to be paid to promote its products.

Scholarship players earned $1,000.But walk-on players could make the equivalent of a year’s tuition at Brigham Young University – up to $6,000. That would be illegal under the Ohio and Pennsylvania laws.

“The Utah law is more permissive,” says Grove City College Athletics Director Todd Gibson. “The NCAA has told us that the state law supersedes the NCAA policy.

“The BYU thing is great at BYU. It couldn’t happen in Pennsylvania.”

Taxable income and making business decisions are part of this new era for collegiate athletes, Gibson continues.

He says there could be repercussions from the IRS if income taxes aren’t paid, or eligibility could be revoked if parts of the Pennsylvania state law is violated.

Education is vital to Gibson and Grove City plans to inform students about the ever-changing world of name, image, likeness.

“We were going to try to put some education programs together this fall,” he says. “I’ve talked to some other faculty members, someone about teaching the students about taxes and how that works. A lot of students may have had a part-time job and did [a form 1040-EZ] tax form.

“Unless they maybe had a really good landscaping business or something, they haven’t run their own business. I think it came out so quickly. Kids are just jumping in, but not understanding all the steps that go along with that.”

“It’s on us, institutions, on the people supporting them to make sure they’re not caught off guard on April 15 next year when Uncle Sam comes knocking,” Weber says.


Schools Place Safeguards on Athletes’ Deals 

Youngstown State University recently enacted a policy to guide its student-athletes through name, image, likeness contracts, which allows them to profit from their personal brands.

YSU signed two separate contracts with Nebraska-based Opendorse totaling $41,000. The first was $9,000 for a name, image, likeness policy kit, which provides guidelines for colleges to support student-athletes and staff.

The second, for $32,000, is for the Opendorse Ready and Monitor service, which offers custom name, image, likeness consultation sessions with industry leaders.

It also provides a way for athletes to disclose transactions and manage all activities on one dashboard.

Sam Weber, senior director of communications for Opendorse, says his company consults with schools like YSU to ensure they are staying within state policies and putting in place any school-wide policies to keep their student-athletes eligible.

“First and foremost, we’re trying to keep them safe and help the schools do that,” he says.

More than 1,000 collegiate teams, athletics departments and conferences use Opendorse to support their student-athletes and alumni.

The Ohio and Pennsylvania legislatures this summer enacted laws to allow collegiate players to capitalize on their names, images, likenesses.

California first passed such a law in September 2019, which led to U.S. Reps. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio) and Emanuel Cleaver (D-Missouri) to propose bipartisan legislation for name, image, likeness nationwide, not rules state by state. The Student-Athlete Level Playing Field Act was introduced in September 2020.

Despite the urgency of the bill, Gonzalez says the U.S. Senate has had only a handful of hearings on it while the House has had none.

“You have this 50-state patchwork where we’re not playing on a level playing field anymore,” Gonzalez says. “College athletes are deciding on where to go to school based on the state legislature that is passing the law that they like the best.

“I think that’s a strange way to make the college decision. I also think it’s a bad way to run college sports.”

Twenty-eight states have passed name, image, likeness laws.

Six additional federal proposals dealing with name, image, likeness are pending. Some of these bills would fully regulate college athletics as far as health care and revenue splits – professionalizing the student-athletes.

Gonzalez, who played football for YSU President Jim Tressel at The Ohio State University and had a five-year NFL career, says going that direction would take away opportunities for so many collegiate athletes.

“What would end up happening is you would only have a handful of schools who have a handful of sports and everything else would become a club sport,” Gonzalez says. “You’d remove a lot of the opportunities from the 99.9% of athletes who most people have never heard of but who, but for whom college sports is a transformative life experience.”

Locally, the University of Mount Union and Kent State University also have gone over their policies with student-athletes.

“As we navigate our way through this, we will strive to have our student-athletes in the best position to participate, if they choose to, when those opportunities present themselves,” says Lenny Reich, athletics assistant director and sports information director at Mount Union.

“We are developing programming and educational opportunities to assist them in the ever-changing landscape of collegiate athletics and to uphold our commitment to provide each student-athlete with a first-class experience,” says Phil Tizio, KSU associate director for compliance.


Pictured at top: Collin Harden, a former track and field standout at Youngstown State, established the brand Created Behind The Scenes. He has some student-athlete ambassadors representing the brand through advertising. Harden is helping student-athletes take advantage of name, image, likeness endorsements. 

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.