Which players in this year’s NCAA men’s tournament have used the new name, image, and likeness rules to do something unique and impactful?
This year’s men’s NCAA Tournament has just about everything you could want. There are one-and-done stars, like Paolo Banchero and Chet Holmgren. There are the seasoned vets you love (or love to hate) like Kofi Cockburn and Jordan Bohannon. There’s also a great mix of oldbloods and newbloods, with Duke, Gonzaga, and Kentucky all on the 1- or 2-seed lines, but Auburn and Texas Tech right there with them, riding their recent momentum into a tournament with realistic Final Four aspirations.
As we get set for the madness to truly tip off on Thursday, we present the Boardroom Men’s March Madness All-NIL Team. Similar to the women’s team that we dropped Tuesday, these players aren’t just the guys who have signed the most deals or made the most money — they’ve all made their own impact on a still-new and ever-changing name, image, and likeness landscape in ways that will be emulated in the years to come.
Without further ado…
Boardroom’s Men’s NCAA Tournament NIL All-Stars
Paolo Banchero, Duke
Notable Deals: Yahoo! Sports, Panini, 2K Sports, Bojangles
The star of Duke’s 2021 recruiting class and likely top-five pick in this summer’s NBA Draft has dipped his toes into everything from fast food to trading cards. It started in September when he made NIL history twice in a matter of days with Panini and 2K Sports, becoming the first college athlete to secure an NIL trading card deal and the first college athlete in a licensed pro sports video game.
Now, he looks to make a little more history and win Coach K a national championship in his final year as head coach. The Blue Devils are the No. 2 seed in the West and face a road to the Final Four that could take them through Michigan State, Gonzaga, Texas Tech, and UConn. And while Banchero’s NIL days will soon be behind him as he heads to the NBA, the NCAA Tournament has long been a platform for players to boost their draft stock and earning potential.
A deep March run for one of the biggest brands in the sport could earn Banchero even more.
Jordan Bohannon, Iowa
Notable Deals: Cobra Verde, Armani, Manscaped, Discord, BOOMINIOWA Fireworks
When the clock struck midnight and the calendar turned to July 1, 2021, Jordan Bohannon was one of the first college athletes to sign an NIL deal, and the publicity he brought to the movement is a major reason why he lands on this list. Bohannon’s NIL journey began even before that when he helped launch the #NotNCAAProperty movement during last year’s NCAA Tournaments. This was while the push for NIL reform was gaining steam, and he joined Geo Baker (Rutgers) and Isaiah Livers (Michigan) in encouraging college athletes to speak up. It led to a meeting with NCAA President Mark Emmert (which fellow Iowa phenom Caitlin Clark also attended), and eventually congressional action the resulted in the NIL era beginning on July 1.
What did Bohannon do to celebrate? Right on time on July 1, he went to local fireworks store BOOMINIOWA Fireworks to sign some autographs.
Kofi Cockburn, Illinois
Notable Deals: OSF On-Call Urgent Care, Athletic Brewing, Locomotion Massage Therapy, T/CCI Manufacturing
Again, this one isn’t about the deals themselves. Cockburn became the first casualty of the NIL Era’s ill-defined rules, getting suspended for three games to start the season because he sold custom apparel before the rules actually went into effect. As it turns out, Illinois went 2-1 in those games and earned a 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, so things worked out okay for the Illini anyway. Nevertheless, it was further proof that even when the NCAA tries to do the right thing, it just can’t get out of its own way sometimes.
There’s another element at play here with Cockburn, too. Perhaps as much as anyone in the country, he exemplifies the old “great college player, not built for the NBA” categorization. That’s supposed to be the exact type of player that NIL rules could keep in school for longer. Even though Cockburn could certainly make money playing professionally — either catching on with an NBA team somewhere or going overseas — the ability to earn money next season might keep him in college another year.
Chet Holmgren, Gonzaga
Notable Deals: Candy Digital, Yahoo! Sports
Like Banchero, Holmgren is part of Yahoo!’s deal surrounding its March Madness bracket game. More notably, however, the Bulldogs’ unicorn was one of Candy Digital’s first basketball NIL athletes as part of its Sweet Futures NFT collection. He was part of the first college basketball class that Candy introduced, joining a horde of football talent that saw a ton of success — for example D.J. Uiagalelei’s 1-of-1 auction sold for $19,500.
As the calendar moves to mid-March, the question for Holmgren becomes whether he can lead Gonzaga to that elusive first National Championship, and in doing so, make his case for the No. 1 overall pick in June. Either way, he seems destined for the top five and a huge payday in a few months.
Shareef O’Neal, LSU
Notable Deals: NFT Genius, LinkTree
You don’t often see someone who plays just 12 minutes a game on a list like this, and being Shaq’s son is a huge reason why O’Neal has made the NIL waves that he has. No doubt. But give the guy some credit — he’s aligned himself with the right people and made sure to take full advantage of his opportunity.
The Action Network suggested last year that O’Neal has more NIL earning potential than any NCAA student-athlete, thanks to his massive social media following. But O’Neal’s Instagram page isn’t full of sponsored posts from anyone willing to give him a few bucks. Instead, he’s honed in on a couple of specific opportunities, including one with LinkTree. The other is NFT Genius, a crypto startup that is working with O’Neal on a line of non-fungible tokens that showcases his and his family’s life off the court.
Shaedon Sharpe, Kentucky
Notable Deals: SoleSavy, Culture Kings
Sharpe has not played a game for Kentucky, and he might not ever. Sharpe is a re-class who enrolled with the Wildcats mid-season and will be eligible for the NBA Draft in June. He’s sitting out the remainder of this season with the option to come back to Lexington in the fall and play the 2022-23 season if he chooses not to go pro.
That hasn’t stopped him, however, from inking NIL deals with SoleSavy and Culture Kings. Similar to Bohannon, these aren’t groundbreaking partnerships by any stretch, but they are significant. To see someone who is essentially a high schooler sign major endorsement deals is a major step forward in the NIL era. Similar to how we see NBA teams draft prospects more on potential than college performance, SoleSavy and Culture Kings have attached themselves to Sharpe now, with the expectation that he delivers either in college or the pros.
TyTy Washington, Kentucky
Notable Deals: Gatorade, Blue Grass Motorsport Porsche, America’s Best Caviar, ProCampsU
We’re not sure anyone has assembled quite the roster of endorsements that Washington has landed. He’s a Gatorade athlete, which by itself is cause for celebration. But the guy drove up to campus in October in a Porsche, courtesy of his deal with BlueGrass Motorsport Porsche. And while we’re on the topic of luxury, how many other college freshmen do you know that have attached their name to a caviar brand?
Yes, Washington has done well for himself on the endorsement front. More importantly, however, he’s also used his NIL rights to give back to his community. He’s started The TyTy Washington Foundation, which gave back to teachers, single mothers, and students during the holiday season. Washington also hosted a backpack giveaway in Tempe, near his home, and gave equipment and gear to local boys and girls basketball teams.