How some college basketball programs are meeting future of player rights head-on

  • Covers college basketball
  • Joined in 2011
  • Graduate of Minnesota State University, Mankato

Soon after five-star recruit Cade Cunningham posts his first monstrous performance for Oklahoma State’s men’s basketball team in the coming weeks, he is going to hear his phone ping. The Cowboys’ projected NBA lottery pick will be presented a series of content he can instantly — and legally — show off to his 160,000 followers on Instagram and elsewhere.

Flashy photos of an impressive dunk. A mid-air shot of a pretty jumper. An image featuring his focused gaze from the free throw line. Cunningham will have the ability to post every picture — which will arrive through an app created by a company called INFLCR — with which OSU and other schools have partnered to help Cunningham and his peers build their personal brands amid the changing name, image and likeness climate.

“I think it helps to educate them on the power of social media,” said University of Pittsburgh head coach Jeff Capel, whose program is among those that have partnered with INFLCR.

Though Cunningham won’t be able to make money from the audience he’s building on social media this year — that time appears to be coming soon — INFLCR has prepared schools and players to engage in a discussion that was previously taboo within college sports.

“In 2017, when I first started, 90% of the people wouldn’t take a meeting with me,” said Jim Cavale, founder of INFLCR, which works with more than 80 collegiate programs to provide licensed content and education about the power of social media. “It has just been flipped the other way.”

While NCAA rule-makers and politicians sort through the complex details of proposed new rules, schools around the country have quietly partnered with INFLCR and other digital marketing vehicles that aim to prepare schools for a future when athletes are able to cash in on their NIL rights — and coaches will use them to seek an advantage in recruiting.

The timing of these measures matters. The Division I Council is set to vote on a name, image and likeness proposal that, if approved, would be enacted for the 2021-22 season and would allow athletes to get paid through a variety of activities, including autograph signing, personal appearances and camps. The details of the official NIL language are not yet known, but state officials are not waiting for the NCAA to act. Colorado, California and Florida have all passed NIL laws that are set to go into effect by 2023.

NCAA President Mark Emmert has called upon Congress to establish a federal NIL law that would supersede those state laws. In September, Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio), a former Ohio State football player, became the latest legislator to introduce a bill that addresses NIL issues on a federal level.

The goal for schools partnering with INFLCR and similar organizations ahead of the final NIL structure? Help athletes understand the value of their brands and offer content that helps them grow their followings. While Power 5 schools might have an advantage in that pursuit, the changed landscape could also encourage star prospects to think outside the box to maximize their financial potential.

“We know that social media is the absolute game-changer in this,” said Luke Fedlam, a sports attorney and the president of Anomaly Sports Group. “During the first few years, we’re going to see how things are going to settle down. But if you’re the athlete and you have a following and you can be compensated, maybe it doesn’t matter as much which school you go to.”

At Opendorse, founder Blake Lawrence works with nearly 100 colleges, at various levels, around the country to show them the opportunities new NIL legislation could create for their athletes and the resources they’ll need to ensure they do not compromise their eligibility. Athletes signed up to work with platforms like Opendorse will also be able to quickly connect with companies to endorse products and take advantage of a sudden and temporary elevated fame.

He said he’s spent recent weeks envisioning the potential for Indiana football, one of his clients, after its 3-0 start. The future might involve star QB Michael Penix Jr., who led the Hoosiers to a win over a top-10 Penn State squad in their season-opener, fielding fan requests from Cameo, a service that allows celebrities to send personal messages to their fans for a fee.

“This is the recruiting battle of the next decade,” said Lawrence, a former Nebraska linebacker. “How can [schools] differentiate their name, image and likeness brand-building programs from the competition? If you don’t have an NIL solution, it’s like failing to show your stadium on a recruiting tour.”

While the content and education on NIL possibilities are the primary missions, both Opendorse and INFLCR are also helping schools understand the specific fees athletes could command in a future where the rules continue to evolve.

Per INFLCR’s formula — created in partnership with AthleticDirectorU and Navigate Research, a sports valuation firm — the players on Duke’s men’s basketball team were worth a combined total of $1.2 million (Cassius Stanley’s audience was valued at $410,000) had the Blue Devils been allowed to promote branded content from sponsors on their personal social media accounts last season.

The company’s algorithm, which is based on a rate of 80 cents per Instagram follower, also estimated that Cole Anthony, North Carolina’s projected lottery pick, could have picked up $20,000 per promotional post last year. Former Oregon women’s basketball star Sabrina Ionescu? Worth $380,000, just off social media, during her final season with the Ducks, per INFLCR.

“What does that mean for schools?” Fedlam said. “Do they have a plan for what NIL is going to be at their schools?”

The narrative thus far has centered on players turning new NIL regulations into major sponsorships with shoe companies and apparel giants, opportunities players such as Zion Williamson were offered after leaving college. But those connected to the schools that are working to adapt have rejected that idea for the overwhelming majority of college athletes. The next wave of marketing “deals” for athletes in the future, they all agree, will center on more moderate promotional opportunities.

Parents and athletes at the high school and collegiate levels have sought guidance on what that means for them.

“There is so much misinformation,” said Zach Soskin, who helps athletes build brands through his firm, Voltage Management. “You’ve gotta explain that you’re not going to be in a national ad once the rules change.”

As one of Division I football’s younger coaches, West Virginia’s Neal Brown, 40, has watched the evolution of social media over the past decade. He said his program’s partnership with INFLCR has helped it prepare for what’s ahead by educating athletes about the new NIL concepts and their connection to their personal brands.

During COVID, his program has arranged virtual tours for prospects. One of the segments of those tours specifically details branding, Brown said.

While NCAA rules will prohibit schools from having a role in helping athletes secure promotional opportunities, schools are scrambling to prove they have the resources to facilitate those efforts once an athlete comes to campus. Brown said he tells his players that they’re “your own marketing firm.”

“I think you either make the decision to fight it or you make the decision to embrace it,” Brown said. “We here at West Virginia have decided to embrace it.”

When he was a star player for Duke in the 1990s, Capel says he would go to the mall with his friends and see his jersey and that of teammate Grant Hill on the walls of popular stores. Back then, he wondered why he had to pay for them like everyone else and questioned how he and other collegiate athletes had been excluded from profiting off their popularity.

Today, he discusses marketing power with his players and recruits.

As a Duke assistant in 2011, Capel remembers going on a recruiting trip with Mike Krzyzewski and first hearing the legendary coach use the word “brand.” It’s now an important element of Capel’s plan to grow Pitt’s basketball program.

The players he’s recruited have their eyes on 2021 and the potential revolution that could impact collegiate sports. At this point, embracing the concept, Capel said, is imperative for coaches in his position, even if the specifics are still unknown.

“I’m all for it,” he said. “You still don’t know how it will work. I think it’s going to be chaos for a little bit, if I’m being completely honest.”

ESPN’s Dan Murphy contributed to this article.

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