College Athletes Are Already Gearing Up for Merchandise After Supreme Court NCAA Ruling
The universities are closed right now, but college athletes are putting in the work for next season, and we don’t mean in the weight room.
After years and years of controversy and criticism over the NCAA’s insistence on amateur status, aka barring athletes from profiting from their name, image and likeness (NIL), the Supreme Court ruled that the practice goes against U.S. antitrust law.
There are still a few details to hammer out on the NCAA end of things—such as whether it will be one consistent rule across Division-I schools or left on a school-by-school or conference-by-conference basis—but student-athletes are already working on ways to use their status for financial gain.
University of Wisconsin QB Graham Mertz has reportedly already filed a trademark for a logo, which he could use on a variety of products the same way pretty much every NFL player of note does. (Think about Tom Brady’s “TB12” or Marshawn Lynch’s “Beast Mode” gear.) Sure, Mertz might not ever make it to that level of stardom in the NFL, but that’s even more of a reason to strike while the iron is hot and his stock is high even beyond the city limits of Madison.
Coming soon... pic.twitter.com/XDhapgrRrr
— Graham Mertz (@GrahamMertz5) June 28, 2021
According to CBS Sports, Mertz's trademark would cover "wearable garments and clothing; namely shirts, sports caps and hats."
University of Oklahoma QB Spencer Rattler is doing something similar, playing off of the fact that his last name lends itself to some pretty awesome logo design:
— Spencer Rattler (@SpencerRattler) July 1, 2021
Where You Are Matters
Some of the legal inconsistency is due to the fact that certain states allow student-athletes to profit from their NIL, but others don’t. As of today, Florida schools are allowing it, and some are using that as recruitment tactics.
Think about how top high school prospects go about selecting a school. In a lot of cases, the biggest concern is the prestige of the program, the coach they’ll be working with, and the chance to develop into a professional-caliber player. Now, the ability to grow a personal brand plays into that decision.
The University of Central Florida already created a website to entice potential student-athletes to go to UCF for the sake of building a brand and making a buck whether they make it to the pros or not.
“You have these players that play football for four years and 99 percent of them will never be professional football players,” legal analyst Steven Kramer told News 6 in Orlando. “They are not going to make the NFL. Their career ends when they graduate or finish their college career. If they are featured on a magazine cover or there’s a photograph taken, they can be compensated for that.”
UCF’s recruitment website, using the “Your Brand Is Go for Launch” tagline, plays into the Orlando media market and the ability to grow a personal brand as a student-athlete more than it actually goes into the history of the athletic programs. Times are truly changing.
That UCF program will also provide student-athletes with expert guidance on building and maintaining a brand while they’re there.
The Missing Piece
A lot of college students have side hustles. It’s just that most of them aren’t quarterbacks at D1 schools who are televised across the country every week. UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson has been selling merchandise like sweatshirts and hats with the slogan “Friends Over Fans” since March, accumulating more than $10,000 in profit. However, because of the previous NCAA rules, Thompson-Robinson wasn’t allowed to use his status as the starting QB to boost sales.
Now, he can, since California is also one of the states that allows for it, as of today.
“This is huge for a lot of athletes, Thompson-Robinson told the LA Times. “I know from a lot of teammates of mine, we’ve been wanting something like this for a while.”
What it also does is create profitability for athletes outside of the traditional big-time sports like football and basketball. If making it to the NFL or NBA was difficult, the odds of reaching the Olympics and becoming enough of a name to live off of endorsements is even more rare.
For athletes in sports like gymnastics, being able to combine your sports persona and entrepreneurial spirit can make a huge difference for your own visibility on the world stage and boost a personal brand for when your competition days are behind you.
Also at UCLA, gymnast Margzetta Frazier had already been using her comedy and music backround, fielding offers from brands on social media offering her partnerships. Because of the NCAA, though, she always had to decline.
“I’m sure the girls have missed out on so many opportunities where they could have made income, whether it was brands that wanted to work with them or [giving] private lessons or music videos,” Frazier told the LA Times. “So we’ve already done everything, it’s just a matter of not getting paid for it.”
For some athletes, it’s just a matter of being able to finally use their name or number on something they've already been doing. But, for many others, college sports now presents an opportunity to monetize a personal brand from the first day on campus. It might incentivize some athletes to stay for longer than they need to before going pro, since they can stay and graduate while making money.
And for branded merchandise companies, the local university just got a lot more potential customers on campus.
Some critics, like Andrew Brandt, executive director of the Moorad Center for the Study of Sports Law at Villanova University, said that this move could force universities to divert funds from advertising the school in favor of advertising athletics.
Here is the problem with NIL for Athletic Departments (beyond compliance issues):
sponsors may decide to divert their advertising budget away from the school and towards the athletes. This will happen.
— Andrew Brandt (@AndrewBrandt) July 1, 2021
It probably won't be as definitive or as ominous as Brandt's "this will happen" warning, but it's a possibility. So, it will be in distributors' best interests to be nimble and pay attention to their higher education clients' marketing plans in the future.