The former Nike employee works closely with each player on the roster, helping them navigate NIL opportunities and their professional development.
This might come as a shock to some, but basketball coaches generally want to coach basketball.
The ever-changing nature of the college game has made that more difficult over the past few years, perhaps even nudging legends like Roy Williams and Jay Wright toward retirement earlier than they otherwise would have stepped aside.
To truly thrive in the world of the transfer portal and name, image, and likeness, a coach needs to be willing to try something different. At Duke University, first-year men’s basketball coach Jon Scheyer had that opportunity and created a position on his staff that exists nowhere else.
In June, he named former Nike executive Rachel Baker as the program’s first General Manager.
So, what does that entail? Baker’s role is to support the Blue Devils’ men’s basketball players in their personal and professional development. This includes helping them manage NIL opportunities and develop their personal branding, allowing Scheyer and his assistants to focus fully on basketball.
“If all Jon Scheyer can think about all day is X’s and O’s, we’re doing a really good thing,” Baker said of her role. “I think the less he needs to hear about [NIL] or focus on it, the better that we can be.”
From the Grassroots
It’s no accident that the first-ever general manager role for a major college basketball program went to Baker. She’s made a career working with young athletes from a business and marketing perspective, first at Nike, then with the NBA and WNBA.
“[Scheyer] always starts with who and then he figures out what,” Baker said. “I think he took a look at my background and realized that he needed help from an NIL perspective, but then also could use my help from a recruiting perspective and the relationships that I have.”
When she first met Scheyer, Baker was working for Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League leading event strategy for the grassroots circuit as rival shoe companies like Under Armour and Adidas rose to prominence. Baker was a mainstay at marquee summer events like Peach Jam, interacting with high school players, grassroots coaches, and Nike executives.
With the college basketball world beginning to shift amid the fallout of the 2017 FBI corruption scandal, Baker took a series of jobs that helped her hone her skillset for her eventual role at Duke.
First, she moved to the NBA, starting in an HR role and moving into strategy and communications. Then, she transitioned to the WNBA, helping to work the league through a rebrand alongside then-commissioner Lisa Borders. After that, it was back to the Swoosh to work with athletes going from college to the NBA, helping them position themselves from a business perspective.
Following a re-org, Nike put her on Kevin Durant‘s business. From there, it was off to Pendulum, a growth investment platform focused on Black-owned businesses. Even though she wasn’t exclusively working with athletes, that experience gave her valuable insight into just how many athletes were beginning to think big about building things for themselves.
“I saw how the athletes were transitioning — how their mindset was going from endorser to owner to entrepreneur — and wanted to have equity in these businesses,” she said. “And quite honestly, I didn’t know anything or I didn’t know enough about that side of the business in order to be that successful in it.”
But at that point, Scheyer saw enough in her to give her a call in his first offseason as a head coach.
“It really felt like all of my previous experience and my worlds colliding,” Baker said. “In terms of grassroots, which was where I really started, and working with athletes and families as they were looking to navigate that space, while also at the same time the world of NIL was growing and becoming a thing.”
Brands of the Blue Devils
When Baker first got to Durham, the first thing she did was get in a room with the team’s creative director, David Bradley, and hold one-on-one sessions with every player on the roster. The goal of those sessions wasn’t to nail down specific NIL deals to make players rich overnight; instead, she talked to everyone — from captains to walk-ons — for over an hour about everything but basketball, getting to know the athletes as people so she could start to figure out how she could best serve them.
If she could do that, then her job (as well as the players’ jobs) would get much easier. That’s key, because as it stands, Duke is a truly elite academic university, ranked 10th in the US News & World Report’s 2022-23 Best Colleges rankings. Adding a blueblood Division I basketball program to the mix, it’s natural that players would not be left with much free time to optimize their NIL potential.
“It’s really hard being a student at Duke. It’s extra hard being a student-athlete at Duke,” Baker said. “And then on top of that, if you want to be a CEO of your own business, you have to really want to do that. So, we spent some time really figuring out how much time and energy they wanted to put towards this, and then also, where’s their unique opportunity for them to be able to engage in the marketplace?”
Because of the caliber of athletes that Duke often brings in, several Blue Devils players already have agents. Baker functions as a day-to-day extension of those agents — someone who is there at practice with them and on team trips. As a university employee, she can’t actually reach out to brands on behalf of her players, but she is fully empowered to help filter incoming requests. She encourages the team to come to her with every endorsement pitch they are considering so she can help them figure out if it’s the right opportunity, as well as if the associated time commitment is reasonable.
Baker uses freshman and No. 2 overall recruit Dariq Whitehead as an example of her role in action as it relates to NIL. Before she was hired, Whitehead agreed to a deal with a particular brand with a demanding set of deliverables, to be executed later on.
“He came back around after the fact and he was like, ‘never again,'” she said. “‘I understand what you were saying. This didn’t make sense for me,’ and he was burnt out from it. It didn’t feel good. Ever since then, we talked about almost everything. I think that things like that where they just can see where the benefit is has gone a long way.”
More than the Money
The NIL aspect of Baker’s job won’t be consistent from year to year. Next year, for example, Duke will enroll four top-20 prospects and the No. 1 class in the nation. Some players in that class, Baker said, have already told her that they do not want to focus on NIL. They’re in Durham to play basketball.
That doesn’t leave Baker bored. Her job is more holistic than just helping players secure big-money deals. As she puts it, it’s about helping to set up each player for life after Duke.
Simply by virtue of being a Division I basketball player in the ACC, most players that she works with will have an opportunity to play somewhere after they graduate. But what happens after that? Or, even, what happens while they are playing professionally, particularly if they don’t immediately sign a pro contract for more money than they or their families will ever need?
“What keeps me up at night is… there’s enough here to be able to set our athletes up for long-term success, their families up for long-term success, all of those things,” she said. “What will prevent you from doing that, I think, is on us. I’ll take some responsibility there.”
So, where does that leave Baker on the road ahead?
It’s on her to regularly have conversations with her players, gauge their mindsets, and communicate with the coaching staff if she sees a problem. She’s also there to help them explore the opportunities that the university provides — and not just athletically, but academically and socially.
“Figuring out what it is that they do and how they wanna contribute to society,” she said, “I take a lot of personal responsibility in the kind of individuals we are helping to create. And you just hope that if you say something enough times, eventually they’ll listen.”
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