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An Athlete’s Guide to Navigating NIL in the NCAA Tournament

The world is watching March Madness in the first season of NIL. So, how can college athletes make the most of their moment?

All eyes are on college basketball.

While only a handful of hoopers competing in March Madness will be paid to play at the next level, this year’s tournament is the first time in history that amateur NCAA ballers can benefit from endorsement deals.

The advent of NIL, which stands for name, image, and likeness, allows student-athletes to cash in on their personal brands. So far, future first-rounders such as Chet Holmgrem and Paolo Banchero have inked endorsements with the likes of Yahoo! Sports and Panini. Over in the women’s bracket, big-time talents like Aliyah Boston have buy-ins from Bose and Bojangles.

For few, NIL is an opportunity to earn as an amateur before a big payday in the NBA or WNBA. For many, it’s a chance to build a brand when all attention is set on the NCAA Tournament. While the opportunities are almost endless in this new space, the schedules of student-athletes remain stacked.

Between focusing on film and keeping up with classwork, how does a player competing in the NCAA Tournament make the most of their one shining moment from a NIL standpoint? We spoke with experts to learn how to turn amateur excellence into financial success in any future profession.

Inside Man

Julian Aiken

Growing up, Julian Aiken ascended the ranks of New Jersey’s competitive prep hoop scene by leading the whole state in scoring as a senior in high school. Only standing at six feet, Aiken kept the dream alive by playing college ball at Assumption, but pivoted his path from an aspiring Allen Iverson to a businessman behind the scenes, much like Maverick Carter.

While playing college ball in Massachusetts, Aiken remained plugged into the AAU scene he came up in. Traveling to tournaments strictly to watch presented a new lens on why certain players become household names while others are soon forgotten.

“The guys that were really elite were the ones that had a really strong brand,” Aiken told Boardroom. “They weren’t signing deals or making money, but they were branding themselves as elite and premier players.”

This presence of professionalism as high school hoopers communicated a level of seriousness to college coaches before balling at the next level even began.

The marquee example, even as a teenager? Boston Celtics superstar Jayson Tatum.

“The brand that he created at a very early age has become a worldwide brand for himself,” Aiken said.

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By looking the part, acting the part, and playing the part, Tatum communicated a level of focus and class that caught Coach K’s eye at Duke, convinced Danny Ainge to draft him, and has Jordan Brand ready to release his first signature shoe. While Tatum couldn’t earn off his name, image, or likeness during his lone season in Durham, current standouts building a brand are making the most of the new rules.

Take for example Jahvon Quinerly, five-star point guard for the Alabama Crimson Tide.

As a high school standout, Quinerly was among the most popular players in the country thanks to his affiliation with the Jelly Fam and fanfare across the greater New Jersey area. Due to proximity and AAU allegiance, Aiken was connected to Quinerly since Day 1.

“I’ve known him since he was 10,” Aiken said. “He took the Jelly Fam movement and branded himself at the highest of levels. Was he able to monetize it how he should’ve? At that time he couldn’t, but with that brand and how authentic it was he probably could’ve made a couple of thousand dollars at its peak.”

Because of this, Quinerly now has his own grape jelly deal done in conjunction with SLAM. Additionally, Aiken and his team at PWRFWD, the athlete-to-consumer platform pioneered by Luke Bonner, have set up a clothing brand for Quinerly on their platform.

“He knew who he was before he needed somebody else to tell him who he was,” Aiken said of Quinerly. “JQ’s built a very strong brand over his style of play and his style off the court. He focused on that in eighth grade when no one was paying attention to it.”

The model PWRFWD is building in the wild west of the NIL era may become the status quo for college athletes of all abilities.

Lucky for those on the way or already enrolled, it’s not too late to learn the rubric.

Where to Win

According to Yahoo! Sports, the men’s NCAA Tournament generated $917.8 million in revenue in 2019 alone. While the kids competing won’t see any of that money, the savvy players with a solid team off the court are already maximizing their chances to make the most of the new NIL landscape.

As an advisor and founding member of PWRFWD, Aiken urges amateur athletes to first ask themselves the following questions:

“One, who is your audience? Secondly, what do they need or want from you? Third, what value can you bring to them and what value can they bring to you?”

This marketing analysis is key when building any new business, and NIL done right is essentially building a brand through yourself. Aiken cites that college markets are plentiful and that many players would be surprised just how long a fan base will follow and support them.

But first, they have to truly get to know them.

“Athletes assume that people know who they are, especially in college,” Aiken said. “Let people know who you are and connect to other things. Put it out there, social media is the biggest tool in the world.”

Whether you’re a walk-on at a blue blood or hooping in the Horizon League, sharing your passion for something such as video games on your social channels puts you in a better position to get a paid post from 2K Sports in college, or better yet a position at Activision upon graduation.

When considering a brand deal, Aiken breaks down the criteria for accepting an NIL partnership with three pillars:

  • Personal value – Does it align with who you are and what you stand for?
  • Economic value – Is it financially worth it?
  • Community value – How does this benefit the people that support me?

So, how does an NCAA athlete apply that sweet science during tourney time?

March to Greatness

As scholar scorers survive to advance in the month of March and ideally all the way into April, checking one’s phone during tourney time is understandably about Instagram activity and texts from the fam as opposed to sifting through business plans.

Just like winning on the court takes a good team, capable comrades off the court apply, too.

“Make sure there’s someone on your team that you trust to build your brand,” Aiken said. “And plan in advance. Make sure that person has a really firm understanding of what story you’re looking to tell.”

This proves more true in tourney time when the spotlight shines brightest.

“Your name can be booming in March, so make sure you have people who can authentically tell your story to the world,” Aiken said. “It might not have to be strictly about basketball because when are you ever going to have that many eyes on you ever? Use a parent, use an AAU coach, use somebody you trust.”

This advice hits home for Aiken who has seen friends from his hoops journey miss out on money when their name was the hottest because they didn’t play in the current era. Lucky for future standouts, players from the past are sharing their intel.

“My advice to college athletes who are looking to capitalize on high visibility events like the NCAA Tournament would be to lean into your personality and your authentic consumer preferences,” former University of Texas star and Orlando Magic forward Mo Bamba told Boardroom.

Mohamed Bamba of the Texas Longhorns looks on against the Nevada Wolf Pack during the first round of the 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

As a freshman force in Austin, Bamba became a household name thanks to a Sheck Wes single and All-Big 12 honors. Despite playing in front of a student body with over 50,000 classmates and being tied to a song that charted in over a dozen countries, Bamba couldn’t leverage his likeness until he decided to go pro.

“I think Mo would’ve made seven figures,” Aiken said.

Between touring with Travis Scott in the offseason and an innate interest in tech, Bamba could’ve leveraged the industry and fanfare in Austin all from his curiosity off the court.

As a baller and businessman, Bamba says that using the big stage of March Madness to dive deep into your campus community is where the easiest and most organic wins are.

“For instance, if you have a favorite pizza spot in your college town, and you’re in an interview, talk about how much you can’t wait to get back on campus to celebrate with a pizza party there,” Bamba suggested. “Play up your college’s local restaurants and retail establishments in your interviews and you position yourself to convert that into a potential NIL deal where you’ve already given the company some genuine national exposure.”

As Bamba eyes a big second contract this summer in the NBA, there are still plenty of opportunities on the horizon in the NCAA for fellow athletes to secure their next bag.

March & the Metaverse

In Thursday night’s First Round thriller between UCLA and Akron, the tension mounted with 25 seconds left as both teams talked through a timeout looking to win the one-possession game.

Overpowering the conversation from coach to player was the band playing a brass rendition of “Mo Bamba” by Sheck Wes.

While the Bruins survived and advanced, the band in Portland soundtracked just how much the business of basketball has evolved for amateur athletes. On the court in the closing seconds, UCLA forward Jamie Jaquez Jr. fought for loose balls and battled for buckets. Though Jaquez may not have a Cactus Jack jam named after him, he does have NIL deals with the likes of UPTIME Energy Drink and Quizlet Education App.

“In LA there’s so much opportunity,” Jaquez told Boardroom in February. “I signed a NIL partnership with Wasserman so they’ve been helping me out a lot to get brand deals and endorsements because it is busy as a student-athlete.”

Jaquez, a projected NBA Draft pick, not only has the city of Los Angeles behind him but also the fanfare of Mexico. If drafted, he will become just the sixth star from the country of over 128 million to play pro at the highest level. Last year, Jaquez arrived on the national stage in March Madness, helping UCLA rise from the First Four to the Final Four.

Famously, the Bruins were bested by Gonzaga thanks to a buzzer-beater by Jalen Suggs. Not only did Suggs sink the shot in front of millions, but he also made it his asset in the world of Web3.

“Look at Jalen Suggs,” Aiken said. “He launched an NFT before they were hot. But that shot he hit in the NCAA Tournament? He will now get a royalty on that NFT sale for the entirety of his life.”

While Aiken is quick to point out that there are plenty of cash grabs and rug pulls for athletes in the realm of Web3, he says that merging moments in March with that of the Metaverse can be among the best deals for college players when done right.

“Partnering with different NFT projects or launching your own Web3 project is great because you can own your moment as a digital asset,” Aiken said.

Thanks to applied pressure from former players like Ed O’Bannon to new platforms such as Overtime Elite and G-League Ignite, the opportunity to earn as a hoop hopeful has never been better. While marketplaces like PWRFWD Shop make it possible for Jahvon Quinerly to capitalize off his Jelly Fam fanfare through end-to-end merchandise, the evolving landscape of NIL has only just begun.

Still, for high school and college athletes looking to make money off their status in sports, March Madness is only a moment that leads to a legacy if you’ve been putting in the work beforehand — on and off the court.

“You want to look at what is your story and how can you tell that before any brand deals come to you,” Aiken said. “Because a brand deal is only going to emphasize or tell your story to a larger audience.”

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