The NFL-bound Cincinnati Bearcats QB is the latest high-profile example of VaynerSports’ blueprint for success for up-and-coming athlete earners.
Prolific businessmen Gary and AJ Vaynerchuk — or simply “Vee,” if you prefer — made an expansion into sports management in 2016 that came to attract household NFL names like Allen Robinson, Leonard Williams, and Super Bowl champion Jordan Fuller.
But after the NCAA finally relented and permitted athletes to monetize their name, image, and likeness starting July 1, 2021, there were suddenly vast, uncharted waters for the VaynerSports agency to explore. To date, they’ve recruited household names like Clemson’s DJ Uiagalelei and NFL-bound Cincinnati Bearcats quarterback Desmond Ridder.
Ridder led Cincy to its first-ever College Football Playoff appearance, and the success he keyed under center allowed him to build an increasingly compelling brand. VaynerSports helped Ridder ink NIL deals with Bose, Dr. Pepper, BYLT Basics, Candy Digital, and Blue Grass Motorsport.
“I really can’t overstate the importance of the game-changer that NIL is,” said Greg Genske, CEO of VaynerSports. For the first time, we’re now seeing college athletes afforded the opportunity to be compensated for what they contribute to the college sports landscape. Their contribution is tremendous. We’re starting to see that top high school players look at several multi-year, multimillion-dollar offers based on NIL from different institutions. It’s been great to open it up to acknowledge the reality of the system, which is just a big business. It’s great to end the black market that has existed all these years.”
Genske is right. Less than a year into the name, image, and likeness era, names like Mikey Williams, Quinn Ewers, and Bronny James managed to cultivate impressive deals even before graduating from high school. Williams, the No. 8-ranked basketball player in the class of 2023, signed a deal with Puma last year, and his agent has said that “everything’s on the table” — cards and collectibles, sneakers, apparel, sports drinks, video games — heralding what could come to be a go-to blueprint for the future superstars of amateur sports.
Ewers skipped his final year of high school football to reclassify to the 2021 class to enroll early at Ohio State, cashing in to the tune of a reported $1.4 million in NIL deals that weren’t available to him in his home state of Texas, where he has since transferred back. James has deals with esports giant FaZe Clan and underwear brand PSD, and is already preparing for merch and apparel moves that involve the NFT and emerging technology space.
Someone who wasn’t afforded these same opportunities? Desmond Ridder. But he’s on a mission all the same.
As Ridder told Boardroom from an NFL Combine podium in Indianapolis this week, “VaynerSports did a great job with name, image, and likeness. They didn’t make it a distraction. A lot of people thought NIL would come into play for college students; they kept it a secondary thing. The [money] allowed me to relax financially. I rented a house and I probably wouldn’t have been able to do that.”
Mike Neligan, VaynerSports’ Chief Marketing Officer, knew when July 1 came around there would be endless opportunities for college athletes to cash in, including Ridder.
“Every brand is sitting around having marketing conversations about how they could tap into NIL,” he told Boardroom. “These athletes are all fresh. They’ve never worked with anybody before. And I think it’s also the fact that they’re young so that money is actually meaningful. It’s not the rich getting richer where we know what your public salary is; [these athletes] could be sending it back home to mom or taking a girlfriend out, or maybe you’re now paying someone to do your laundry so you can do things that are more meaningful.”
Ultimately, Neligan’s strategy for every last Vayner athlete is simple: Be yourself.
“It’s always going to be about creating an authentic partnership because as long as they feel comfortable and they feel passionate about it, it’s going to drive authenticity,” he said.
Not all of VaynerSports’ clients were of the right age group to reap the full benefits of NIL. But as Atlanta Falcons linebacker Foyesade Oluokun said, he’s cheering on Ridder and the rising generation as they seize the newest opportunities.
“Compared to what I had in college, young kids now have [unlimited] access… you can get deals just from being a big name early. I think that’s definitely an avenue that people should keep researching and taking advantage of. At the end of the day, you want to promote yourself on the field by performing well, then people will want to use you.”
Being true to who you are is a main tenet at Vayner. But as Oluokun says, without stellar play in your respective sport, it can be difficult to garner deals from brands — and in Ridder’s case, his performance spoke for itself. The former Bearcat signal-caller was a Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award finalist, a Manning Award finalist, the American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year, First Team All-AAC, and First Team Academic All-America.
The opportunity to play in the NFL is a dream of Ridder’s. His chance is close at hand.
And while scouts have not raved about the 2022 quarterback class as loudly as they have in recent years, you won’t catch him bothered by it.
“This is where I shine. This is what I do, he said. “I’m a competitor. I’m excited to be out here to have the opportunity and to compete.”