How Name, Image, and Likeness Deals Are Changing College Sports

Some U-M and MSU student-athletes are now making big bucks. Will college sports ever be the same?
college sports - NIL deals
U-M gymnastics stars Natalie Wojcik (left) and Sierra Brooks (right) pose with a young fan at a meet-and-greet and autograph-signing event staged by the Michigan merch shop The M Den. Their success in leading the Wolverines to the 2021 national championship is paying off in endorsements and paid appearances. //  Photograph curtesy of the M Den

Free time is a foreign concept for University of Michigan superstar gymnast Sierra Brooks. Between class, weight lifting, homework, exams, and practice, there’s little left over. Since July, though, she’s made time for frequent Zoom meetings with company reps, updating her social media to endorse skincare products, and popping in at U-M retailer The M Den for paid autograph gigs.

June is when the NCAA — forced by a landmark 9-0 U.S. Supreme Court ruling — announced that college athletes could, for the first time in college sports history, make money from their name, image, and likeness (NIL). In other words, they can profit from endorsement deals.

“It adds more to my plate, but it’s cool to have a source of income,” says Brooks, a junior who led the Wolverines to the 2021 national championship. “I’m already super busy, so my first priority is not to get NIL deals. But it opens doors — you’re able to make money, meet the people behind the companies, and network.”

This radical sea change in a once-amateur system that prohibited any real compensation is rife with both possibilities and perils. Some student-athletes are being offered a wide range of opportunities; others none at all. Some believe this will de-emphasize the importance of getting an education and keeping up studies; others believe it may keep students in school longer, since before the ruling, star players would often leave early to make money in the pro leagues. Some worry that elite student-athletes will gravitate to the schools with national appeal to maximize their NIL endorsement deal potential; that would be just fine for U-M fans given the Ann Arbor school’s international popularity. 

Already, the landscape is shifting. Hundreds of student-athletes at U-M and Michigan State University — the two Big-Ten colleges in the state — have inked NIL agreements that include some six-figure deals. Five U-M Michigan football players, for instance, signed with Yoke Gaming to play video games with paying subscribers.  MSU basketball stars Gabe Brown and Malik Hall, meanwhile, appear at the Pro Sports Zone in Livonia to sign autographs for pay.

Maybe the most eye-popping deal thus far: All 133 men’s basketball and football players at MSU now receive a $500 monthly stipend from Pontiac-based United Wholesale Mortgage. (The company’s CEO, Mat Ishbia, is a former MSU basketball player who earlier this year also pledged the largest individual gift to the school — $32 million to MSU’s athletic programs.)

Neither the NCAA nor Congress has set forth clear regulations or guidelines, but several states, including Michigan, have passed laws to govern the process. Both U-M and MSU have adopted policies that mirror the Michigan law, which doesn’t go into effect until the end of 2022, in requiring deals to be disclosed and cleared by the school and barring some endorsement deals that conflict with the existing contracts with the university. (U-M does not allow student-athletes to use the block M, but MSU is permitting the use of Spartan iconography.)

Still, it’s a troubling, potentially disastrous Wild West, says writer John U. Bacon, author of several bestselling books on U-M football. “What’s going to happen when teammates watch their star players get all the benefits?” he asks. “One of the great appeals of college football has been one of the egalitarian aspects of it. That’ll be flipped upside down.”

The new policy is also ushering in a new market for management agencies cropping up in Michigan and nationwide to help athletes connect with brands and sell merch. The Players Trunk, co-founded in July 2020 in Ann Arbor by former U-M basketball star Charles Matthews, signed a merchandise partnership deal on July 6 with U-M football safety Daxton Hill, for instance.

The Players Trunk now works with about 50 college athletes across the U.S., co-founder Hunter Pomerantz says, including Clemson wide receiver Justyn Ross and University of Kentucky basketball player Dontaie Allen. “Dax Hill followed shortly thereafter, and we knew we had a tiger by the tail with that,” Pomerantz says. “I think fans have a new appreciation for college athletes. It’s about time these athletes get paid.”

Still, the rule change raises serious concerns about whether high-profile college sports will be ruined by the new focus on image and money, and whether it will create bad blood among teammates when the lower performers are left in the dust. “It’s already happening where some guys can afford things that other players can’t,” says one U-M football student manager who asked not to be identified. “Right now, teammates are pretty generous with one another, but you can already see it changing the social atmosphere. Nothing kills team cohesiveness like jealousy and money.”

Even some who profit off the change worry about that. The M Den has made a big deal out of being the first retailer nationwide to sell the jerseys of current student-athletes, and co-owner Scott Hirth says that is lucrative. Still, Hirth worries about team morale: “With merchandise, for example, what happens when there is a less popular player and there is less demand? How do you keep everyone happy?”

Another concern: Women are getting shorted because men’s sports — specifically basketball and football — are bigger moneymakers. At MSU, for example, United Wholesale Mortgage is not giving any money to female student-athletes. A company spokesperson tells Hour Detroit that it may happen at some point: “We have rooted relationships with the men’s basketball program as well as football that allowed us to complete these agreements faster and more efficiently. This is new to everyone, and we are continuing to explore additional MSU teams, but we are going to walk before we run with this.”

Then there’s the issue of how academics fit. Bacon poses a hypothetical scenario: A million-dollar quarterback is failing a class, so the professor catches heat — or possibly attempted bribes — from both the school and the endorsing companies. “The law of unintended consequences is going to have its say,” he predicts.

For student-athletes, though, it seems only fair that they share in the wealth they create. “It’ll make it so most college athletes, especially the higher tier in their sports, will be able to live comfortable lives in college and reap the benefits of their hard work,” says Myles Amine, a U-M wrestler who competed at the Summer Games in Japan. “Whether it’s a few thousand extra dollars a month or free meals, it’ll change the lives of athletes in college.”

college sports - msu basketball - name, image, likeness deals
MSU men’s basketball co-captain and senior Gabe Brown signs basketballs at a paid appearance at the Pro Sports Zone in Livonia this summer. // Photograph courtesy of Pro Sports Zone

There are companies dedicated to making sure members of lower-profile teams or students from less affluent backgrounds get some of the pie. Athlytic, a Detroit-based firm that matches athletes with brands, caters to athletes from poor or marginalized communities.

“The main goal is to make sure everyone can get opportunities,” says Ashton Keys, Athlytic co-founder and an MSU alum. “From the perspective of morale, some of these athletes come from bad backgrounds and need financial stability. Some of them want to make money so they can help out family at home.” 

The new NIL rule also widens the scope for athletes who play sports with fewer opportunities to cash in on image, says Chase Saldate, a sophomore wrestler at MSU. Saldate struck a deal with the wrestling clothing brand Nearfall. Nearfall also is popular among mixed martial arts fans, so Saldate has a new following, he says. “Wrestling itself is smaller than, say, football, but tons of companies are willing to work with wrestlers right now,” he says.

U-M associate athletic director Kurt Svoboda says the school supports the students’ efforts to make deals, a shift in tone given that the NCAA fought long and hard against the new rules. “What NIL has very quickly demonstrated is there are individuals competing at a very strong level who have positivity and messages to share, and they are extremely marketable,” he says. “Quality student-athletes active in their communities can capitalize now in ways they hadn’t been able to. That’s a wonderful thing.”

This story is featured in the November 2021 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more stories in our digital edition.