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Inside the NIL Era with Daveed Cohen of Lil Wayne’s Young Money APAA Sports Agency

Learn how great minds and top athletic talent came together to craft a compelling approach to the college NIL landscape at Young Money APAA Sports.

The worlds of sports and music are forever intertwined, and as one of the most prolific lyricists in the history of hip-hop, Lil Wayne is no stranger to songs and bars that shout out athletes, sports media, and even individual broadcasters.

He also boasts 65 athletes signed to his agency, Young Money APAA Sports (YMAPAA Sports). Of that group, 25 are college athletes with deals for name, image, and likeness representation.

Wayne’s Young Money and Adie von Gontard’s APAA Sports originally partnered back in 2019. Initially, von Gontard told Boardroom he received rhetorical jokes about Wayne’s involvement in the agency.

“Starting off in the beginning it was like, ‘oh, you’re going to have Wayne represent you? He’s going to be calling NFL teams and NBA teams.’ That probably lasted for six months until they realized who was really behind the agency,” von Gontard recalled. “The beauty of Young Money APAA Sports is that it is really two groups on completely different spectrums. You have Young Money and Wayne and then you have Anheuser-Busch and my family. You have new money and old money which forms a powerhouse that can’t be beaten.”

Von Gontard is literally referring to his lineage — his great-grandfather is Adolphus Busch, the founder of Anheuser-Busch, the company behind beverage brands like Budweiser, Bud Light, Michelob Ultra, and many more. And while blood is thicker than beer, someone who has come to be just like family to him is Daveed Cohen, YMAPAA Sports Vice President of Player Marketing and Brand Partnerships.

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Von Gontard said that he and Cohen first met through a mutual friend.

“Daveed and I have really teamed up and taken on the day-to-day business of the agency because we share the same vision of looking at different avenues to really build a player’s career on and off the field or court,” von Gontard said. “We are perfectionists. If there’s a company, he has most likely worked with them. And if it’s not he’ll find a person at that company within an hour. Daveed has been instrumental in everything and he makes sure no stone is unturned from marketing to negotiating to anything.”

The Waiting Game

Cohen spearheaded the agency’s approach to the college sports NIL landscape when the NCAA permitted athletes to monetize those rights beginning July 1, 2021. He wanted to do something that athletes, agencies, and brands across the country simply were not doing: he wanted to wait.

“When NIL first launched, I really wanted to take a backseat and take a look at what was going to happen,” Cohen told Boardroom. “I was looking at the rules state by state and how were brands and agencies going to interact with athletes. What I thought is exactly what happened — brands were able to take advantage of athletes because it was the first time athletes were able to make money off their name, image, and likeness. A lot of athletes were locked in on deals that didn’t make sense or were signing for pennies on the dollar.”

Cohen counted on the support of his team at Young Money APAA Sports in order to stem the tide and ensure that athlete empowerment could still come first despite a lack of national NIL guidance and a confusing, ill-defined regulatory environment state by state.

It quickly became clear that this was a “fools rush in” scenario.

“We watched and saw what agencies were doing, what athletes were doing, and most importantly, what brands were doing. Looking back on it, [waiting] was probably the best thing we could have ever done,” von Gontard said, “because we saw contracts and deals where companies would try to lock in an athlete getting 20% to 30% of their actual value. We sat back to be able to learn and be experts before going to pitch to athletes.”

The six-month window during which Young Money APAA chose not to jump right into the NIL fray did come without sacrifices, however. Athletes who were already on their roster were unsurprisingly hoping to make money on Day One, but the agency was not ready to take the plunge until it had conducted due diligence to the fullest. As a result, Cohen and YMAPAA cut ties with a number of athletes — some who wanted to make quick cash as such, others who urgently needed funds to send back home in support of their families.

Photo via Young Money APAA

“We wanted to stay away from athletes that were just going for the money grab,” Cohen said. “We want to help build their personal brand and get the right deals; those six months actually helped weed out some of the people that were not the right fit for us… [but] there was some pushback from athletes where they were saying they had to support their family and for us, we were transparent and told them we could not launch correctly so respectfully we parted ways.”

Young Money APAA now represents more than 20 college athletes across several different sports, including University of Washington forward Keion Brooks and Devan Cambridge, a shooting guard for the Arizona State Sun Devils.

To date, Cambridge has inked deals with Fashionova, Insomnia Cookies, Monroe’s Hot Chicken, and Shop GLD. The way he has been able to ink the deals has come in a variety of ways. In some cases, the brands will direct message him on social media. Other times, he will direct brands he is interested in straight to Cohen.

He had previously gone elsewhere for NIL representation, but Cambridge noted that the relationship lacked the consistency he appreciates from Young Money APAA.

“I was doing some things myself before I signed with YMAPAA Sports, but I wasn’t having the same success rate I do now,” Cambridge said in a phone interview with Boardroom. “Daveed literally answers every call and question I have. Anything that I need, he takes care of so I knew this was the right fit.”

He also shared that the NIL money he earned enabled him to buy a Tesla earlier this year. And as the returns remain happy, he made a point to laud Cohen’s keen sense of recall.

“Daveed remembers every little detail that I don’t remember,” he said.

Meanwhile, Keion Brooks Jr. — who began his college journey at Kentucky before transferring to the Huskies after his 2021-22 junior season — has deals in place with McDonald’s and apparel brand Cuts thanks to his relationship with Young Money APAA

“In a space like this, a lot of people try to throw things at the wall and see if they stick. But they had numbers and facts to back up what they were saying,” Brooks said in a phone interview. “They were very transparent when they talk to me about what’s possible and those are guys who have a lot of integrity. The NIL space is still fairly new and I would not even know what direction to head in or what people to talk to in order to acquire deals but with their help, they’ve been making the proper connections I need and putting me in different positions to leverage myself and my brand.”

Teaching Lessons

Capital City Go-Go guard Davion Mintz with Cohen and von Gontard

NIL money can form a vital foundation for the career of an athlete after they finish playing out their collegiate years — whether or not professional sports dreams can be realized.

According to the NCAA, fewer than 2% of all college athletes go on to play at the pro level; a vast, vast majority has to go on and create a different sort of career. In any event, NIL pacts offer opportunities to learn more about marketing, content creation, brand development, negotiation, and a litany of industries in which these athletes can potentially forge their second act.

Cohen hopes that throughout the process there are moments in which athletes can learn about themselves just as much they are learning about the brand they are signing on the dotted line to represent.

“We really try to lay out a custom strategy for each athlete that is a multiple-prong approach. The first is the philanthropic side, getting out in the community and ingratiating yourself in the place where your school is, there are a lot of opportunities like visiting a children’s hospital or a turkey drive,” he said. “Those things won’t make money in the short term but in the long term, they can.”

The other dots YMAPAA Sports connects for its athletes beyond the fine print of endorsement deals themselves include website creation, social media content strategy, and best practices regarding merchandise and ecommerce.

For athletes that arrive with large followings on social media, many types of deals can come easier, but Cohen said that he enjoys having transparent conversations with athletes about playing the long game and building out their brands regardless of likes and follows.

“The whole name of the game is being completely honest from the jump, and at the end of the day, most people respect that more than anything. We’re not going to sell a dream that isn’t there. Every player is different and every player has a different audience,” he said. “We reverse-engineer an athlete’s end goal. So if an athlete’s end goal is to get a brand deal with whatever the brand may be. We build small steps to take in the micro that we can do on a daily basis to create those opportunities so you can work with your dream brand.”

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About The Author
Randall Williams
Randall Williams
Randall Williams is a Staff Writer covering sports business and music for Boardroom. Before joining the team, he previously worked for Sportico, Andscape and Bloomberg. His byline has also been syndicated in the Boston Globe and Time Magazine. Williams' notable profile features he has written include NFL Executive VP Troy Vincent, Dreamville co-founder Ibrahim Hamad, BMX biker Nigel Sylvester and both Shedeur and Shilo Sanders. Randall, a graduate of "The Real HU" - Hampton University - is most proud of scooping Howard University joining Jordan Brand nearly three months before the official announcement.