AUSTIN (KXAN) — In June 2021, the NCAA adopted rules that allows student-athletes to benefit from their name, image and likeness which has sent shockwaves around the collegiate landscape. The rule, which went into effect on July 1, 2021 is broadly referred to now as the acronym, “NIL.”
Athletes from any sport and any university are allowed to benefit from their name, image and likeness. At the University of Texas, there has been a number of big-name NIL deals.
A pair of Longhorns football players, Quinn Ewers and Bijan Robinson, have led the charge. Ewers’ deals with companies like Wrangler and Robinson’s with Lamborghini Austin have created major buzz.
Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian said about NIL and its place with the Longhorns, “There’s so much that this university has to offer. That’s why I want kids to come here. Then the NIL can be a factor. But if you’re choosing to come here because of NIL, you’re coming here for the wrong reasons and you’ll end up not being happy.”
We spoke with an expert from Opendorse on the future of NIL and how Texas fits into it. Opendorse described itself as “the leading NIL marketplace and technology company.” Below are KXAN’s Noah Gross’ questions Sam Weber, Opendorse’s senior director of communications.
Noah Gross: Opendorse, I assume it’s a play on endorse and just kind of give me a bit of a background on the company and kind of what you guys do and your role in NIL and how you got started with it.
Sam Weber: Opendorse is the athlete marketplace and NIL technology company. Right now we’re helping over 90,000 athletes really make the most of their opportunity with NIL, helping them build and maximize and protect their personal brand while giving them access to support from their brand, their fans, sponsors, donors. And of course, schools like the University of Texas really put them in a position to win in this new era.
NG: Obviously, I want to hit on [collectives] you know, it’s something for those of us that don’t work directly in [NIL], I mean, we work adjacent to it, I guess it’s something we’re still learning and collectives are a big part of that. So getting broad again, can you kind of explain collectives and how that’s kind of grown with NIL?
SW: Sure, it’s an interesting part of the space, that’s for sure. And something that I would say on July 1, 2021, even the most in-tune people with what a NIL was, and could be, it was not top of mind. So we saw our first NIL collective form in I believe, August 2021. So about a month into this new era. And generally, what they are, they function in different ways.
Some of them are basically fan-funded models, where fans are asked to give donations that then eventually get to the student-athlete in return for exclusive access, whether that’s the athletes showing up to an event, whether it’s the athlete giving, like coaching to a specific little league youth team. The athlete could be giving exclusive video shoutouts back to their fans. That’s one way they function.
Another way that collectives function is with smaller but wealthier donor groups that they come together and form because they essentially come together and say, you know, we want school ‘X’ to have the best-funded NIL program in the country, so they’re able to organize and then work with local businesses, or work amongst themselves, to create deals. It’s almost an agency model where they’re more or less representing the athletes and helping them get deals that they’re then able to compensate the athletes for, but there’s an activity involved so there’s still the quid-pro-quo or the performance that the athlete performs that they can then prove they perform something in exchange for the dollars that they’re receiving.
NG: The University of Texas is the big one to talk about. It’s one of the biggest athletic departments, if not the biggest, in the country. They have a lot of, you know, big names for different sports. Obviously, Bijan Robinson kind of leading the way for football. His numerous deals with mustard companies with Lamborghini of Austin have really, you know, taken the area and the country by storm and in a sense. What has your experience and your company’s been with the University of Texas and being, you know, it seems like almost every college is on your website in some capacity? So what about the University of Texas? Do you know from working with them and just kind of experiences with the Longhorns?
SW: We support about 150 schools across the country right now with marketplace, content, compliance, and education resources, all built to give their student-athletes the best NIL experience possible.
And one thing that I can say about Texas, is that they really have one of the most holistic, best organized from top to bottom NIL programs for their student-athletes, really from their marketplace to having a really well-organized and functioning collective with Clark Field [Collective], which isn’t officially associated with Texas, like they’re very separate entities. But the Clark collective exists that supports types of athletes. And then down through their education and the resources, they make available to all of their athletes on campus.
They’ve built a very impressive program that positions UT along with the very, very top schools in the country as far as the success that their student-athletes can expect to find.
NG: And I’m sure you get questions like this a lot. You know, I think most people would agree that NIL has at least been positive in the sense of these athletes deserve to get some compensation for the money that they’re producing. But a lot of people on TV are saying, you know, they have to rein it in, in some capacity. It’s getting to be free agency. Do you see any issues arising that kind of concern you and your company as a whole? Or are you kind of seeing green pastures enjoying the way things are headed?
SW: I think the developments through the first 18 months of the NIL era have been overwhelmingly positive. Are there ways that the industry could be maybe a little … could there be better understanding of what is allowed? What isn’t? Could there be better safeguards to keep maybe bad actors or people that aren’t really looking to support athletes, but looking to basically provide recruiting inducement out of the ecosystem? Absolutely.
Any industry can always improve. And I think there will just become more and more clarity around how positive actors can function with NIL. But for all intents and purposes, this is long overdue, and we’re thrilled to see and to help thousands of student-athletes really at every level, take advantage of the moment.
NG: OK, and then, you know, obviously, you’re not the one and you’re not the one that wrote the legislation, you guys are just working with it and trying to help the athletes, of course, but what has the feedback been with athletes? Is there any kind of pushback, and I don’t want anybody to look at you and Opendorse and the way you answer this and think you are the ones, you know, sparking any of this. You guys are just working with it, but just kind of what is your feedback been from athletes, from fans, from some coaches, everybody kind of involved in all of it?
SW: I think one very consistent thread through all of this is that there’s a massive need for enhanced education. And that’s at every level, that’s starting with the athlete. July of last year for athletes around the country…of course, there were the top athletes that had agent representation, but what we were hearing is that you know, “I don’t know what I can do. I don’t know what deals I should accept. I don’t know what I should negotiate. I don’t know, like how to prove that I actually perform the activity,” all of this.
And while that’s been addressed through the last 18 months, there’s still a concern, there are still questions that athletes have, like 99% of college athletes won’t have agent representation. That’s a big reason why Opendorse exists. And our education program is working day and night. The people that we have boots on the ground actually going to the universities, I don’t envy their travel schedule, and they are there grinding to make sure that these athletes around the country are informed and understand how they can best take advantage of this while staying compliant and eligible ultimately.
On the fan side, I would say that level of education is needed just as much. If you talk to the average college football fan, the average person that’s going to a UT game on a Saturday, I don’t think they know how they can compliantly support a student-athlete. Any fan can go to Opendorse tomorrow and request an autograph from their favorite Texas athlete. And I think if you were to poll all 90,000 in the stadium, very few know that’s an actual option right now. And then at the school, the coach, the AD side, everybody wants to know how to be ahead of the curve, right? Every program wants to be able to tell its athletes and their fans that we have the best NIL program in the country.
There’s every school trying to do it, there are a few that are standing out among the top. I think UT is right there. But it’s a consistent development curve that’s getting closer and closer. But it’s a work in progress.
NG: I don’t know if your background is more in sports and finance, marketing or otherwise, but one of the concerns people have brought up, obviously, football is not the only thing but the competitive imbalance is a term that’s been thrown around in college football before NIL. It’s the same four teams competing and people think that NIL can only widen that gap between programs like Texas and Clemson and Alabama when they get so much money. And then smaller programs, you think of somebody like James Madison, who’s doing well, but they just don’t have the same operating budget. Do you worry about kind of NIL’s role and the have and have-nots there?
SW: Right. I don’t believe that we’ll see NIL shift the power balance significantly toward David versus Goliath. I think the revenues that athletic departments are already producing are doing that on their own. And if you want to look at a potential positive, I think is that if anything in the Power Five and potentially the Group of Five level, I think there’s a chance that NIL can give some of these programs that have maybe fallen on hard times and still have that very high level of fan support.
I’m talking about a great example being Tennessee this year. But the Miami’s, the Nebraska’s of the world that have fervent fan bases that want to support their athletes, they want to see them reach the mountaintop again, even though it’s been … I’m a Nebraska grad so this is near and dear, even though it’s been 20 years. And now those fans have a way that they can really impact that, you know, you can’t go use NIL to win recruits. But recruits will notice when programs have positive NIL outcomes. And I think that’s something that some of those sleeping giants around college football or college basketball will really lean into and look to use to entice the next generation of recruits.
NG: Are there any changes you anticipate big picture or within colleges within Central Texas? Kind of just what do you see as changing and benefiting? Is there any difference going forward?
SW: I think you’ll just continue to see schools and their supporting donor and fan groups become better organized. It’s crazy to think that we’ve been in it for a year and a half. But we’re still just barely scratching the surface of the level of support that athletes are going to have if you look down the road in five years or in 10 years. Our data projections show that athletes earned just under a billion dollars in the first year and that’s across college athletics, not just D1. And the levels of which that’s going to raise to in the next one, five, ten years or I think it’s going to surprise a lot of people, and it’s going to be because of education, athletes, fans, brands and donors, and their schools, they will all become better and better optimized to really make the most of the moment.
NG: Anything you want to add in general or about you have any stories with specific Texas athletes? I don’t even know if you’re allowed to do that. But anything about Texas athletes, or there’s anything you want to add about NIL and kind of its role as a whole or here in Central Texas?
SW: I’ll tell the story about … and not attacking this athlete, and I’ll keep it anonymous. But I think there’s a lot of a “quick to judge kind of way” that a lot of fans look at is that, you know, and say these athletes are already given scholarships, they already have the best setups on campus, like do they really need this extra windfall of dollars? And when you think about it, you think of the Bijan Robinsons, who are getting the Lamborghini deals, and Bijan’s Dijon and he is a massive outlier, right? He is one of the elite athletes in the country. And he can and should and like good for him for really doing well. But athletes at every level can impact their financial freedom and that of their families.
I guess the story that I’ll tell is about a volleyball player. Growing up her family had fallen on hard times, she had lost her parents and she and her siblings prior to her leaving for college had lived in a car. And they had never had, really a home, a car that she owned. She had relayed after a couple of months of the NIL era that she was able to purchase her first vehicle using only her NIL dollars. Those ways that NIL [are] positively changing athletes’ lives not just the big-name deals are why we all should care about it. And it’s the impact that this really can have and why I’m so bullish on education. You know, I want every athlete to be financially literate and to understand the impact that this can have on their lives. And I think we’re working every day to make that a reality.