NILBraska promotional graphic released when Nebraska announced their NIL plan in full on June 3. Photo courtesy of Nebraska Athletics.

Nathan Hawkins discusses NIL with Peyton Thomas on UNLimited Sports Daily: 

 

On July 1, the NCAA became the Wild West.

Cowboys and gunslingers of the 1800s became athletic departments and student athletes across the country, navigating the new frontier that is name, image and likeness (NIL).  The NCAA voted to adopt an interim NIL policy on June 30, allowing all student athletes to profit through use of their NIL and allowing each school to adopt their own NIL policies. The uncharacteristically laissez-faire approach by the NCAA creates a landscape with a different set of rules across different regions, as some states have passed NIL legislation while others have not.

But like the Wild West, with disorder there’s opportunity. An opportunity that the University of Nebraska-Lincoln plans to be at the forefront of.

Executive in Residence in the College of Business Joe Petsick calls it the “pioneer spirit,” a term that represents Nebraska’s innovation that Petsick said made the Huskers a national brand. They became the first football program to endorse a weight training program in 1969. They launched one of the first nutrition programs in collegiate athletics. When HuskerVision was launched in 1994, the football team became the first in the country to have instant replay boards.

It’s with that spirit that Nebraska became the first athletic department to partner with Opendorse in March 2020. Opendorse is a Lincoln-based athlete marketing platform with the objective of maximizing endorsement value for athletes. They’ve emerged as a premier NIL company, working with more than 100 athletic departments, including Ohio State, Clemson and Oklahoma.

Opendorse Senior Communications Director Sam Weber said the collaborative partnership with Nebraska was helpful in building a beneficial program for student athletes.

“With Nebraska just down the street from where our headquarters is, we were able to work with their team to understand what they needed, what they valued, what they understood would actually help their athletes bring a tangible benefit,” Weber said.

Opendorse was founded in 2013 by former Husker football players Blake Lawrence and Adi Kunalic. It began as a platform for professional athletes to gain endorsement opportunities more easily and quickly. It has developed into a platform that provides education and brand building among other services, including their endorsement marketplace.

Weber said there’s been a steady acceleration of schools that understand the importance of having top-level NIL education.

“It’s like having the best football facility or the best weight room,” Weber said. “It’s a recruiting tool and I think it’s something that actually tangibly matters to the lives of the student athletes who really commit to helping themselves learn how to best attack this.”

With student athletes becoming marketable for the first time, the potential endorsement opportunities are vast.

“There are few times in our lives, if ever, that we’re told in advance about an industry that is about to be created,” Petsick said. “And then we’re told the date it’s going to be created. And then the day that it is created, it’s immediately a multi-billion-dollar industry. What’s going to happen very quickly is we’re going to see all kinds of people and businesses descend upon the space to try to find a way to get a piece of the action.”

With NIL providing an entirely new realm of possibilities for student athletes, it also adds to their already heavy workload. Petsick said the student athletes could become overwhelmed with public relations management and constant calls from businesses, in addition to the responsibilities of film sessions, practice and class.

Adam Wagler, the Associate Dean for Academic Programs in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications (CoJMC), said financial opportunities could have negative side effects as well.

“You can look at name, image and likeness and see a lot of positives around the money, and that’s great,” Wagler said. “But there can be a lot of downsides with companies ripping students off, and students having to do a bunch of legal stuff that they don’t have time for and being sucked into some really bad deals. I don’t wish that on anyone, but it’s just the reality: when money is exchanged things happen.”

Attempting to create a robust support system is part of the reason the Huskers NIL plan goes beyond Opendorse.

The school announced its comprehensive NIL plan, #NILBraska, in full on June 3. The Opendorse Ready Now program is the first of three main components of #NILBraska. The second is Husker Advantage, led through the Life Skills Program. The third is Accelerate, a wide-ranging program that spans across campus.

Nebraska’s Accelerate plan can be traced back to Petsick’s office in the Center for Entrepreneurship in Howard L. Hawks Hall. Petsick was a student in the college during the 90s, a decade that saw the Huskers claim six national titles across three different sports. Staring outside of his office window, which has a clear view of Memorial Stadium, Petsick began to think of the student athletes he knew back in his days as a student. He began to jot down the names of some of those athletes –athletes from a variety of sport. About 30 names in he noticed a commonality among the athletes he wrote down.

“Almost everybody on the list I had written was an entrepreneur,” Petsick said.

That realization had Petsick knocking on doors, trying to find out how much the connection between student athletes and entrepreneurship had been explored by the College of Business. That led him to the doorstep of the athletic department, where they were eager to build an initiative to help athletes strengthen their skills and knowledge in entrepreneurship. While Petsick began building the foundation for entrepreneurial programming that would benefit student athletes, Nebraska was gearing up to announce its partnership with Opendorse. That’s when Petsick got the idea for the broader program that would become Accelerate.

“I started talking about an idea I had that we could build that would add a new degree of depth,” Petsick said. “And I think change the way that NIL was being managed in most places around the country.”

The concept behind Accelerate is simple: help student athletes turn their brand into a business.

“Most schools that I’ve been reading and watching and seeing the things they’re sharing, (are) focused mostly on the transactional component, the ‘how do we help students make money?’” Petsick said. “That’s obviously an important component, but what we’re doing is we’re instead focusing on how we can help a student athlete learn to build a business around themselves so they can be best positioned to make the most money.”

“This is investing in the next 40 years, not just the next four,” Petsick added.

Brett Stohs, the Cline Williams Director of the Weibling Entrepreneurship Clinic at the College of Law, said that while NIL is new and unique, a business around it would be normal.

“A lot of this typical stuff any startup might deal with, these startup athlete ventures will also deal with,” Stohs said.

Accelerate is broken down into three components. The first is “Identify,” where student athletes will take the Clifton Strength Finders assessment and Builder Profile 10. Petsick said that these assessments combined will help students lean into their strengths while building a business around themselves.

The second component is “Strengthen,” where student athletes will learn how to apply the strengths they found in “Identify.” Petsick said “Strengthen” will include workshops as well as mentorship and apprenticeship opportunities.

The third is “Activate,” a culmination of the Accelerate program where student athletes will begin to create opportunities for themselves. In “Activate,” students could pitch their startup to the new Husker Venture Fund to potentially gain funding, or they could take their business through a startup accelerator.

While Accelerate is led through the College of Business, Petsick acknowledged areas of the program could be best supplemented by other colleges. He reached out to the College of Law and CoJMC to play their part in the program.

Wagler said the campus-wide NIL program could be used as a recruiting advantage.

“Obviously that helps with recruiting on the athletics side, that they can say there’s a support system at UNL to help train you and make the best of your time while you’re here,” Wagler said. “From the academic side, support usually means the coursework and education we can provide.”

Wagler believes coursework and education are already in place at CoJMC to make the college a natural fit; it has programs in Sports Media and Communication as well as Advertising and Public Relations.

“We’ve been doing things such as branding, digital content production, media production, social media strategy and media relations for years,” Wagler said. “It’s just a new platform or a new set of people who might be interested in those skills that will be needed.”

CoJMC will offer a series of one-credit courses in the coming school year with topics ranging from personal branding to Instagram storytelling.

The College of Law will have a direct role in Accelerate through the Weibling Entrepreneurship Clinic. While the programming through the College of Business will encourage students to build a business around themselves, clinic can help make that happen.

“I think many athletes will look at today, and they won’t necessarily think ‘I want to start a business,’” Stohs said. “They’ll think, ‘I have a brand. I want to use that to make money.’ But I think for some of them, if they’re savvy, they’ll think about this over a longer period of time.”

To Stohs, that means formalizing a business and creating an entity are the most common service the clinic provides. The clinic could also assist student athletes with trademark protection, contract management and general outreach to provide education on issues that exist in the business of branding.

“I think it’s an important step for the athletes, in terms of protecting themselves personally,” Stohs said. “Then on an education front, it’s important they understand that this is more than just going out, doing stuff and getting cash. There’s a formality to setting up a business that is prudent for any new business owner.”

While much of the program is catered toward student athletes, Petsick said most of the curriculum will be available to any student on campus.

“Let’s say there’s a student athlete who is very interested in building a business around themselves, they’re going to look for opportunities to hopefully get other brands to sponsor them,” Petsick said. “But also think about the music major who’s interested in being a songwriter once they graduate and needs help understanding how you build a brand around yourself. The cool part about this is a lot of the curriculum is going to be about the context in which you bring into the class.”

The campus-wide scope of the Accelerate program will also create opportunities for Nebraska students to get involved with NIL. Students in the College of Business interested in sports business and marketing could become “NIL Advisors,” a team of students knowledgeable of all things NIL who help student athletes take advantage of its opportunities. Students involved in the Jacht Agency, a student-run ad agency through the College of Journalism, could get involved with content creation and marketing for student athletes. Students who do freelance work in photography and media creation could find opportunities to grow their portfolio through partnership with student athletes.

The wide-ranging, multifaceted approach of #NILBraska is among the most comprehensive plans in collegiate sports, Petsick said.  If you ask him, it’s one of the best places to be in the Wild West of NIL.

“The fact that other components of campus are excited about getting involved in this says a lot about Nebraska,” Petsick said.

“I definitely think that Nebraska will have some of the best resources available for the student athlete.”