NIL era brings cautious optimism to college-town businesses

Jul 18, 2021, 9:15 PM | Updated: Jul 19, 2021, 2:27 pm

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — Bret Oliverio says he wants college athletes to endorse his Sup Dogs restaurant along the main Franklin Street drag steps from the University of North Carolina.

He is just being patient before jumping into a brave new world.

Like other small business owners in college towns, Oliverio is sorting out just what it means to strike an endorsement deal with athletes who are now free to profit from the use of their name, image and likeness (NIL) for the first time.

“I don’t know if an athlete wants 20 bucks or 20,000,” he said, “so that’s what I’m trying to navigate.”

The NCAA’s decision to allow athletes to cash in arrived July 1 with a few restrictions and even less guidance. There is no “pay for play” allowed but many rulebook no-nos that once led to ineligibility are now largely fair game, provided the athlete provides some type of service — a social media shoutout, an appearance, a signature — in exchange for compensation.

Schools are cobbling together policies or leaning on state laws permitting NIL activities, along with having compliance staffers scrambling to ensure athletes follow guidelines.

“I would say it’s a beautiful mess,” said Kurt Svoboda, an associate athletic director at Michigan. “It truly is. These are uncharted waters.”

It certainly is for schools and for businesses assessing a market that is less than a month old.

How much is it worth to have an athlete endorse the local pizzeria on social media? What about appearances at a car dealership or tattoo parlor – popular subjects of past NCAA infractions investigations – for a fee? How much will those moves boost the bottom line, if at all?

That uncertainty explains why Aaron Nelson, president and chief executive of The Chamber For a Greater Chapel Hill-Carrboro, said business owners near UNC are “looking to learn more before they go fullcourt press on it.” They aren’t alone.

At Lucky 13 Tattoos on Broad Street in Richmond, Virginia, just a short walk from where Virginia Commonwealth play its home basketball games, a framed Milwaukee Bucks jersey of former VCU star Larry Sanders hangs on the wall. Manager Bob Knox said it was a gift from Sanders, who had several tattoos done at the shop and still drops by.

Knox said his staff has put ink on a lot of VCU and Richmond athletes over the years, but he wasn’t sure about the value of striking deals with college athletes from a marketing point of view — even a popular one.

“Tattooing is different than a lot of other businesses. Tattooing is all word of mouth,” Knox said. “You don’t go where you’ve heard about, you go where your buddy went.”

On the table for athletes, of course, are deals with auto dealerships and tattoo shops, an ironic twist given some of the past infractions scandals. For his part, Knox said he was unfamiliar with the so-called “tattoo five” from Ohio State, who traded memorabilia in exchange for tattoos. Former Buckeyes quarterback Terrelle Pryor, like former USC star Reggie Bush, have suggested past rules violations should be wiped clean now that things have changed.

A number of companies have emerged the past few years with an eye on connecting college athletes to business deals, and they have been busy the past few months. To Athliance CEO Peter Schoenthal, whose company designed “disclosure and education” software helping schools review and athletes close NIL deals, the right time is now.

“If I’m a local business, it’s probably cheaper for me to partner with these student-athletes and use their social-media engagement to drive traffic to my business rather than put up a billboard pay for radio, do Google AdWords,” he said. “This is actually not only a more fun way to advertise, because you get to the be first ones in NIL, but also a cheaper and more effective way.”

Deals thus far have taken a variety of forms. Fresno State twin basketball players Haley and Hanna Cavinder reached an agreement with a wireless company. Kansas basketball player Mitch Lightfoot has endorsed a junk-removal service and a roofing contractor. A Florida chain of mixed martial arts gyms owned by a longtime Miami fan offered a $500 monthly contract to Hurricanes football players for social-media advertising.

Others moves have been smaller, with a clever charm.

Jordan Wright, owner of Wright’s Barbecue near the Arkansas campus in Fayetteville, reached deals with members of the Razorbacks offensive line as “Protectors of the Pit.” A few days later, the Wisconsin offensive line struck a similar BBQ deal of their own.

Wright started with restaurant gift cards as well as merchandise for compensation. He wants to work with as many Razorbacks athletes as possible, though he has expanded to a deal with UCF linebacker Quade Mosier, whose hometown is Fayetteville.

“I’m a local guy, I’m a barbecue dude,” Wright said. “I’m just a guy that’s got a family who has a cool barbecue place who likes to do cool things. … I think it is good for the brand.”

At the Parker Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram dealership near Mississippi State’s Starkville campus, general manager Kristi Snyder was mulling money, merchandise or even vehicle servicing as compensation. She said she was planning meetings with Bulldogs athletes and is eager to align with the newly crowned NCAA champion baseball team while “spreading the love” among multiple sports.

She said she wants to know what the athletes are expecting from her — and how much time they will have to do the work.

“I’m really just more curious: What can you do for me?” she said. “Because at the end of the day, I’m looking for a return on an investment as well, right? I want it to be a really good mutual agreement with a student who could represent us well on this smaller stage.”

In Michigan, Ann Arbor-based company Underground Printing sells apparel and other products online through its 25 stores from Chapel Hill to Norman, Oklahoma. Owner Rishi Narayan said it is a natural avenue for athlete entrepreneurs but he is taking a wait-and-see approach: “We’re unsure what the market is or what’s the right way to do things.”

Nearby, general manager Phil Clark of Ray’s Red Hots — which sells Chicago-style hot dogs near the Michigan campus – described “very exploratory” conversations when it comes to NIL, including potentially signing an entire Wolverines women’s team to a deal.

“It’s sort of the wild West out here,” Clark said. “I’ve heard tale of people pursuing all kinds of deals from money payouts to free food for life.”

Back in North Carolina, Oliverio is closely watching NIL developments with an eye on his two college-town restaurants (the other is in Greenville, near East Carolina University).

The right opportunities will come in time, he figures.

“I think it’s great for the student-athlete – it’s about time they make some money,” he said. “I think it’s awesome for small businesses like ours because we have a huge advertising channel that just opened up that has never been there. So just like anything else, it’s all about finding the right value.”

___

AP Sports Writer Larry Lage and AP Video Journalist Mike Householder in Ann Arbor, Michigan; and AP Sports Writer Hank Kurz Jr. contributed to this report.

___

Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap

___

This story has been corrected to describe Athliance as operating “disclosure and education” software instead of marketing software.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin celebrates a goal against the Vancouver Canucks during the first...
Associated Press

Ovechkin tops Gretzky for most road goals, Caps beat Canucks

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — Alex Ovechkin scored twice, passing Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history, and the Washington Capitals beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on Tuesday night. Ovechkin has scored 403 of his 793 career goals away from home. Gretzky holds the overall record with 894. Anthony Mantha added a […]
23 hours ago
Associated Press

SIUE wins fifth straight game, beats St. Ambrose 89-54

EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. (AP) — Terrance Thompson scored a career-high 15 points to lead SIU Edwardsville 89-54 on Tuesday night for its fifth straight win. Ray’Sean Taylor added 13 points, Lamar Wright 12 and Damarco Minor 10 for the Cougars (6-2). Amarey Wills scored 10 points to lead the Fighting Bees. ___ More AP college basketball: […]
23 hours ago
Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic, left, makes a move under the basket against Los Angeles...
Associated Press

Powell scores 32 as Clippers rally past Blazers 118-112

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Norman Powell scored 22 of his 32 points in the fourth quarter, and the Los Angeles Clippers beat Anfernee Simons and the Portland Trail Blazers 118-112 on Tuesday night. Reggie Jackson had 24 points and 12 assists, helping the Clippers to their second straight win. Ivica Zubac added 12 points and […]
23 hours ago
Associated Press

Morgan State defeats Virginia-Lynchburg 123-59

BALTIMORE (AP) — Malik Miller scored 26 points and Morgan State defeated Virginia University of Lynchburg on Tuesday night. Khalil Turner added 21 points and Isaiah Burke 20 for the Bears (3-5). Marcus Willis led the Dragons with 25 points. ___ More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25 Copyright © The Associated Press. […]
23 hours ago
Associated Press

Blacksher scores 21, Grand Canyon beats Alcorn State 80-72

PHOENIX (AP) — Jovan Blacksher Jr.’s 21 points helped Grand Canyon defeat Alcorn State 80-72 on Tuesday. Blacksher also added five assists for the Antelopes (6-2). Rayshon Harrison scored 18 points, shooting 6 for 12 (2 for 5 from 3-point range) and 4 of 5 from the free throw line. Noah Baumann was 5-of-8 shooting […]
23 hours ago
Associated Press

Stetson posts 125-51 win over Johnson (Fla.)

DELAND, Fla. (AP) — Jalen Blackmon scored 18 points as Stetson beat Johnson (Fla.) 125-51 on Tuesday. Josh Smith shot 7 of 8 from the field and 3 for 3 from the line to add 17 points for the Hatters (4-2). Cyncier Harrison recorded 15 points and shot 6 for 9, including 1 for 4 […]
23 hours ago
NIL era brings cautious optimism to college-town businesses