Clemson Tigers quarterback DJ Uiagalelei (Matt Cashore-Pool/Getty Images)
PLAYERS & TEAM EARNINGS

DJ Uiagalelei’s Dr. Pepper Deal Reveals the Limits of NIL

The quarterback is headed to “Fansville,” but Clemson’s name and logo aren’t coming along — because it’s illegal. But it doesn’t have to be this way forever.

Clemson Tigers quarterback and 2021 Heisman Trophy contender DJ Uiagelelei has inked his third sponsorship deal since the NCAA’s name, image, and likeness regulations went into effect, and this one may have far-reaching ramifications.

Uiagelelei will appear in Dr. Pepper’s “Fansville” ads this season (remember Larry Culpepper?) making him the first college athlete known to have partnered with a brand for a national TV campaign. The deal adds to a growing portfolio of NIL agreements that already includes Bojangles and NFT company Candy Digital.

Though Power Five quarterbacks have been among those most active in the sponsorship market this summer — some even making nearly seven figures — plenty of major brands have resisted bringing them on in national campaigns. Part of the reason? The NCAA and several individual states still have cumbersome regulations regarding NIL deals that are at times confusing, contradictory, and arbitrary.

The kind of regulations could very well end up in court. And not the Fansville kind.

NIL Roadblocks

One such regulation in many states that passed their own NIL laws is around using university or team branding in ads. For Uiagelelei, he shot his Dr. Pepper commercials in an orange, unmarked jersey because the state of South Carolina does not permit collegiate logos and marks to be used as part of student-athlete NIL deals.

Still, Dr. Pepper CEO Andrew Springate told Forbes that this was a natural fit for the brand because Dr. Pepper has long been a brand presence around college football, and they’re far from the only one. The likes of Taco Bell, Gatorade, and Allstate are ubiquitous in stadiums and on TV on college football Saturdays.

Gatorade, which has long been a player at the high school level through events like the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL) and as title sponsor of state player of the year awards, could be a natural fit to take a similar approach.

What we are still yet to see at fully fleshed out, however, is how brands like Gatorade that also have sponsorship deals with universities themselves will navigate signing players from schools already affiliated with a competitor.

(Don’t waste a minute waiting around for the NCAA to provide clarity on that particular issue, or on any number of related ones.)

Another issue that needs serious resolution: NIL regulations are completely disjointed and inconsistent across state lines. All the NCAA has done is open up the opportunity for athletes to monetize name, image, and likeness; it hasn’t actually issued a uniform set of national rules, putting the burden of enforcement on the states, or even individual universities.

That has resulted in instances like 5-star Southlake, Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers reclassifying to the high school class of 2021 so he could escape his home state to become an Ohio State Buckeye so he could start earning serious money.

This may not have happened if Texas — where high school football is as serious as it gets — was not one of three states that specifically outlaws high school students from profiting in NIL deals.

There were always going to be hiccups when the NIL era finally arrived, and we’re seeing them emerge. It’s certainly not all bad news, however, as Uiagelelei’s Dr. Pepper deal is perhaps the best example to date of how college athletes are finally seeing some of the money their talents and marketability deserve.

Broader opportunities for athletes to appear in national campaigns are sure to follow. And that will only hasten the need to troubleshoot these existing issues within the NIL landscape.

The Future of the Student-Athlete Spotlight

Another 2021 Heisman candidate, Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, has already signed upwards of $800,000 worth of NIL deals, per ESPN, before starting a single game for the Crimson Tide. CashApp is the most notable brand he’s signed with, and he’s already filmed a commercial with them, though the terms and distribution with the ad have not been reported.

Smoothie King, which is based in Louisiana but has locations around the country, has already partnered with LSU quarterback Myles Brennan and has inked team-specific deals in the past. It wouldn’t be a shock to see Brennan in commercials this fall around SEC country.

The potential is there for more than just football players, too. Boost Mobile made one of the first NIL announcements last month by showcasing Fresno State basketball players Hanna and Haley Cavinder on a massive Times Square billboard. The Cavinders have over three million followers on TikTok and have more than a quarter-million followers each on Instagram, so their reach is not to be underestimated.

And to help bring athletes into the NIL game that perhaps don’t have massive standalone followings, a popular wave is rising in the form of group licensing. This format allows current and former student-athletes to market themselves to brands as a bloc rather than on simply an individual basis — and helps solve the issue of displaying school marks by negotiating all deals in cooperation with the universities themselves.

No, group licensing alone doesn’t cure all that ails the current ecosystem. But it’s an example of a common-sense step that institutions can take to sidestep some of the more ridiculous aspects of the fledgling NIL era.

There’s a long, long way still to go to bring state-by-state, school-by-school regulations in line with one another, and we’ll learn before long who’s getting marginalized or left out of the NIL equity game. But even in this early stage, despite real difficulties, the college athlete monetization train has left the station. And it’s only going to get faster and faster with each new milestone.