Duquesne basketball brand coach Jordon Rooney
PLAYERS & TEAM EARNINGS

He’s College Sports’ First “Personal Brand Coach,” but Every Team Needs a Jordon Rooney

“The argument always gets reduced down to college athletes being paid. It’s bigger than that,” Rooney tells Boardroom.

For amateur athletes in America, the NIL era isn’t coming — it’s here. Thanks to breakthroughs both legal and entrepreneurial, college and even high school athletes now have legitimate paths by which to profit off their names, images, and likenesses. And though the floodgates won’t truly open until federal legislation is signed into law and the Supreme Court rules on Alston v. NCAA, there’s no longer any excuse for athletic programs to deny or ignore what’s coming.

And this week, the Duquesne University men’s basketball program prepared accordingly. They hired Jordon Rooney, an entrepreneur and speaker specializing in brand marketing, as their Personal Brand Coach.

The first person in college athletics ever named to such a position, there’s every reason to believe that the Duquesne Dukes’ major move will be the start of a serious trend across not just the NCAA in the months and years to come, but the high school and AAU ranks as well.

On the heels of the announcement, Rooney spoke with Boardroom about what his new gig entails, and where the NIL and athlete empowerment discussions go from here.

Here’s our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for clarity.

SAM DUNN: How did this relationship come about? Who approached whom?

JORDON ROONEY: I started a company, Slash Athletes, about a year ago when there were whispers about NIL getting approved. My background is in branding and building out programs. I have a branding agency, Built Different, and started one of the first-ever social media marketing agencies run by high school students. I saw the potential, so I built out a curriculum for college athletes.

I met with a few schools to get an understanding of where they were going as [changes to] NIL rules [were approaching]. It all seemed like much of the same thing. I spoke with Steve McNees, the Director of Basketball Ops at Duquesne, and he loved the idea. I met with him and Coach [Keith] Dambrot and they both agreed that they needed to differentiate.

However, just stating that you have an NIL program and curriculum wasn’t enough. I brought up creating the position of Personal Brand Coach, and they loved the idea. Duquesne University is a very forward-thinking school. They just built out brand new facilities. The timing was perfect.

I’ll continue to work with other schools on how they can help their athletes’ brands, but Duquesne will have me on staff to provide personalized consulting and education for their players.

SD: As things stand, what do amateur athletes and programs need to understand in order to get a head start on capitalizing on NIL? 

JR: Money isn’t necessarily coming for all of you right away. If you don’t have the following or engagement, your status as an athlete isn’t going to guarantee sponsorships. Not everyone will have the opportunity to work with brands. You’re now being treated as influencers.

Start now by putting yourself out there. Don’t just be a letterman’s jacket. Every athlete posts themselves on the field or court and working out — figure out how to insert your personality and interests into your personal brand. This will develop a deeper connection with your audience, which will increase your followers and, most importantly, your engagement.

Brands will want to see that your audience trusts and cares about you. Just because you’re an athlete won’t be enough. Use it as an entry point.

SD: Once the legal process plays out, what’s going to happen next? Do you anticipate college programs making certain predictable mistakes along the way?

JR: This is why I’m super excited about my role. I’m going to provide the case study for how NIL should be treated within a college athletics program. Teams won’t feel it now, but in a year or two when they’re pitching recruits the same curriculums and programs that others have, they’ll feel the pressure to differentiate.

This isn’t something you just check a box with — this is the age of athlete empowerment. They’re going to walk into a recruiting visit and say, “How are you going to help my brand?” This isn’t something that you just develop a general curriculum for and think that will be enough. Pay attention to what Duquesne’s athletes will be doing this next year to see how this can really be attacked.

Also, the NCAA will need to establish a third-party vetting system or requirements for who can rep athletes. There’s going to be a lot of not-so-great people trying to capitalize off of 18- and 19-year-olds being able to make money.

SD: Has there been a discussion about expanding beyond men’s basketball? From a brand perspective, women’s sports increasingly look like they have the most untapped potential of all.

JR: I will be working with all athletes. My title is Personal Brand Coach for Men’s Basketball, but I’ll be working with the women as well. I’m super excited to work with the women’s teams. There couldn’t be a better time to work in women’s sports; the popularity is going to skyrocket, and NIL will only continue to propel that.

Think about it — the more coverage a sport gets, the more viewership increases. And now, women can use their own platforms to build audiences who will be invested in how they play. The stronger their brands are, the more momentum they can build towards their sport. I’m not saying the burden entirely needs to be on [the female athletes], but I do see it as an opportunity to help increase viewership. I’m eager to empower women athletes to change the narrative around their sports.

SD: In the big picture, where do we go from here, and how do we need to adjust our thinking in order to get there?

JR: The argument over NIL always gets reduced down to college athletes being paid. It’s bigger than that.

This is a pivotal time in our society where we are seeing the people join together and disrupt institutions. This discussion isn’t really about dollar amounts; it’s a sign of the shift in our society that’s been needed for years. There shouldn’t ever be a concern over these athletes being paid. Instead, we need to take a step further and determine how we mentor them, put them in a position to lead, and then get out of their way.

Youth sets communications trends. Youth dictates elections. Let’s empower them with the tools to become the digital leaders who will create the social change which will hopefully solve a lot of the problems where the “old guard” has failed us. Stop saying, “This is the way things have always been.” That’s the No. 1 indicator that something needed to change.