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PLAYERS & TEAM EARNINGS

Malaika Underwood Finds New Ways to Get College Athletes Paid

OneTeam Partners’ Senior VP of Licensing discusses the future of licensing and NIL in college athletics, from apparel to video games to trading cards.

On July 1, 2021, college athletes across the country were finally able to put their name, image, and likeness rights to use through a long-overdue NCAA rule change. Thousands of deals and dollars have come pouring in since, and while these athletes can now earn money individually, opportunities to do so collectively may be the most intriguing of all.

And with EA Sports announcing in March that it will bring back its beloved NCAA Football video game franchise for 2023, the door is now open for college athletes to realize group licensing through video games like never before.

Enter OneTeam Partners and their senior vice president of licensing, Malaika Underwood.

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Underwood, a California native and a former University of North Carolina volleyball player, is also the longest-tenured player on the USA women’s baseball team. She has five Women’s Baseball World Cup medals and an additional two Women’s Baseball World Cup All-Tournament Team selections, but is additionally a veteran in the world of licensing in sports. In September 2020, she joined OneTeam Partners, the organization that helps athletes from players associations like the NFLPA, MLBPA, WNBPA, MLSPA, and beyond realize their brand marketing potential.

Boardroom spoke with Underwood this week about the evolving group licensing landscape and what all the recent changes mean for the business of sports, particularly for college athletes just now beginning to realize what monetization really looks like.

RANDALL WILLIAMS: First of all, what are the key differences between group licensing and individual licensing? What are the advantages?

MALAIKA UNDERWOOD: In professional sports, athletes opt into group licensing agreements through their respective players associations. OneTeam has been the licensing and marketing partner for those players associations, and we go out and commercialize those group rights.

All professional athletes opt into their group licensing because it’s how they are included in and on video games, trading cards, and jerseys. Group licensing opportunities are tied to the collective value. For example, all NFL players are included in EA Sports’ Madden game through group licensing. The athletes that are on the cover of that game are provided that opportunity through individual marketing rights.

Individual licensing opportunities are tied to an athlete’s individual value. Think about endorsements, marketing deals with brands, leveraging social media to promote companies, or doing an appearance at a local store. 

RW: The name, image, and likeness era is a new frontier for college athletes. How does OneTeam plan to get into the NIL space?

MA: Our focus in college is to bring the group licensing model that we know to be successful in driving value for professional athletes into the college space.

There are some unique challenges to doing that, no doubt. The scale at the collegiate level compared to the professional level is much bigger. There’s also fragmentation; there are different policies at different schools and states, and there is still discussion at the federal level and NCAA level as to how to handle this issue long-term.

At the same time, we feel very confident in the opportunity that group licensing can provide to athletes in the college space. We’re focused on broad-scale opportunities. Group licensing is going to be necessary for college athletes to bring video games, trading cards, and jerseys to market. 

RW: EA Sports announced earlier this year they will be bringing back their college football game, which could mean the eventual return of their college basketball game as well. What’s OneTeam’s role?

MA: OneTeam is specifically focused on helping bring back the college football game with EA, but also other opportunities in the video game category with other sports. What is going to have to happen is the aggregation of those rights into a group that then EA and potentially 2K on the basketball side can use to include those athletes on the video game.

We, OneTeam, would be responsible for compensating those athletes once they are included in the game. That is the infrastructure that we are building. 

RW: When you speak with athletes, are they excited about this?

MA: Definitely, it is just as exciting for fans as it is for athletes. This is an evolving landscape, but we are starting to see schools understand the incremental value that co-branding with their athletes can provide and the opportunity through group licensing to do that. 

RW: The NFL’s deal with EA is worth $1.6 billion, with the players’ share being worth approximately $600 million. What could this deal look like for college athletes?

MA: In a product like the video game, they will share equally in the revenue that is generated from that game. The quarterback will get the same as a right guard for their inclusion in that game. But just like in Madden, the cover athletes will have additional opportunities to make more money based on their individual value. 

RW: For athletes that are in the FCS or smaller-conference schools, what does inclusion look like for them?

MA: I don’t know what EA’s plan is specifically as it relates to those schools. Over time, we’ll probably see expansion into those schools. Relaunching this game has been a heavy lift for them; they have had to get schools back on board after such a long pause and a lot of caution around the issue of college athlete NIL.

I foresee a future that is inclusive of all of those conversations and that goes beyond college football. There will be a lot of opportunities for all college sports.

RW: We’ve talked a lot about video games, but how does compensation work for jerseys and apparel?

MA: Through group licensing, the royalty rate is the same with every athlete. But because you can identify sales based off the name on the back of the jersey, there is a possibility that the star quarterback will sell more jerseys than the right guard and therefore get more compensation than other players might. The group licensing structure provides fair structure across all athletes, as well as efficiency for the licensees in order to include thousands of athletes at scale for various opportunities.

If an individual athlete is looking at their college NIL income statement, the revenue from group licensing is likely not going to be the biggest number on that sheet. However, it is still complementary to drive from their individual value and it provides opportunities that otherwise would not exist.

Athletes can leverage the group licensing in the video games for opportunities such as being on the cover or to play with fans or do activations with the game. Overall, group rights are complementary to individual rights. 

RW: How is OneTeam helping athletes in women’s sports reap these same benefits?

MA: OneTeam works on behalf of the many female athletes, including WNBA players, and we are a driving force behind getting them into the latest 2K game and on the cover for the first time. We will take the same approach in college.

It is incumbent upon us to make sure there are opportunities for female athletes in the college space. We know EA is interested in bringing back the college football game but we’re having conversations with other video game makers about various opportunities.

And we are also having conversations with Panini about opportunities in different sports. I think what is important to point out is the work that we have done on the professional side and the fact that we intend to do that for female college athletes too. 

RW: What else is out there in group licensing besides video games and trading cards?

MA: The possibilities are endless, that’s the short answer. What we’ll see is evolution. We are going to start with the low-hanging fruit and the product categories that are of interest for both consumers and athletes alike and then build from there. I think it’s important that we have a broad scale foundation for video games, trading cards, and jerseys so we’ll be able to go deeper to find those additional categories.

It’s just so early on, and we have to remember that we are barely five months into this and this is a long play. This is not something that is here today and gone tomorrow; we really need to build this the right way and structure group licensing so that we can attract licensees to the collegiate marketplace and give them the ability to use athlete NIL and compensate them fairly. 

RW: Could group licensing eventually lead to unionization?

MA: The conversation about unionization is ongoing. Commercialization of group rights and unionization are separate issues. We can commercialize group rights without a union, we’ll go out and get athletes to opt in. Should athletes decide to unionize, that is their prerogative.

There are plenty of other issues that I know athletes are concerned about that may lead them to unionization. It does not change OneTeam’s approach to commercialization and how we can help drive value for those athletes through group licensing.

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