Saturday, April 20, 2024

In its infancy, UNCW NIL program is providing athletes money but also real-life work experience

UNCW men’s basketball goes head to head in a game with Hofstra. (Port City Daily/file photo)

WILMINGTON — College sports is undergoing a metamorphosis — and not just for big name schools. 

READ MORE: Former UNCW dean staying on after demotion, settles retaliation dispute with university

UNCW, part of the CAA conference, has eight men’s and 10 women’s Division I teams, which are schools with largest sizes and resource pools. The university’s athletics have been gaining steam in recent years — it just had one of its best seasons in a decade with two CAA basketball championships, sent and L.A. Laker Devontae Cacock off to become the first Seahawk to compete on an NBA championship team, and has fours teams nationally recognized for academic excellence. 

The college is also showing out in a different arena, one previously thought to just benefit top players — the NIL, or name, image and likeness. In July 2022, the school launched FLIGHT, an all-in-one place for NIL deals. Around half of UNCW’s athletes participate.

The NCAA has for years prohibited student athletes from accepting money or gifts from businesses for promoting themselves or companies in public. The idea was to distinguish amateurs from professionals and shield students from predatory practices in the sports industry. 

Student athletes have long demanded a share of the profits garnered by NCAA and universities, which nowadays looks like millions of dollars (the NCAA took in $1.14 billion in 2022). In 2021, the Supreme Court granted students their wish, ruling it was illegal for the NCAA to limit education-related payments to students. The court then deferred to the states for further regulation, but mandated two rules: Compensation cannot be tied to performance, nor can players be paid to attend a particular school.

In the years since, some players have hopped on the NIL bandwagon and most of the initial benefit went to big-name players. For example, UNC-Chapel Hill basketball player Armando Bacot is among the highest paid athletes, reportedly making over half a million dollars in 2022.

UNCW student athletes aren’t pulling in those numbers, but several are garnering sizable deals to promote themselves and receive gear and goods. 

“I kind of started doing it because I saw some of our older guys on the team do it  and they were getting stuff like Liquid IV, which I used anyway,” sophomore soccer player Caleb Powell said. “I’m just kind of going with it and seeing where it takes me.”

However, Powell —   along with the three other students PCD interviewed —  preferred products rather than direct cash. 

“I’m not really adding funds into my bank account, which is totally OK with me, because I’d rather receive product or merch from a company and be able to show it off,” freshman tennis player Gabriela Glickstein said. “I’m personally proud to be working with all the companies that I’ve chosen.” 

Glickstein has deals with Slate Milk, a protein drink company, and her coffee spot, Three Friends Coffee. She has also partnered with Always Sunny on Game Day, which offers mental health support for athletes and submits 10% of all proceeds to different mental health foundations. Glickstein said she chooses brands with products she already uses in her daily life, which allows her to share her story. 

“When I was hurt over the summer, I was out for about eight weeks,” Glickstein said. “It was just this big alternate moment that happened and how Always Sunny on Game Day made a big difference for me. So, that was special. It was just like me sharing my story instead of just saying, ‘Hey, go buy this product.’’ 

According to assistant athletic director Laura Pearson, the average transaction value is $1,000. 

“It’s not really about the dollar amount,” baseball player Isaiah Hunter said. “If you’re going to trust me enough to put me on your product, or to use this, or to talk about this, I would like at the end of the day for us to benefit. So I try to think about it more, ‘Will my followers actually be able to use this or take two seconds to even click the website.’”

Hunter said he started filming his progress and then started being approached by brands seeking a partnership. He still films his practice time, only he often throws a promotion in the middle of the video as part of a deal with a training app.

While Hunter reported primarily being approached by brands, grad student and softball player Mary Sobataka said she normally seeks out the brands she wants to work with.

“I’ve reached out to pretty much everybody that I am involved with,” Sobataka said. She’s working with Dirt Bro training camp, founded by UNCW graduates Trent Mongero and his son, Taber Mongero,.

“I started doing lessons over the summer,” Sobakata said, “and really liked what they were doing. I was like, ‘Hey, how can we get this into the softball world?’” 

Finding brands and managing partnerships often go through an NIL marketplace; UNCW uses the platform INFLNCR. Students set up a profile where businesses can find them and where they can disclose their NIL activity. Photos taken from games can be uploaded there, along with links to the merch stores where the students earn a portion of money for every item their name is on.

Pearson said the athletics department has been pushing for local businesses to register on the exchange. Every student’s profile comes equipped with a QR code he or she can share when out and about.

UNCW Director of Athletics Michael Oblinger, who took the local position in April after leaving the University of Connecticut, noted the benefits of NIL participation extend beyond compensation.

“Think about the skills if you’re out there talking to a marketer about how to market with you, with your product,” Oblinger said. “That’s real, tangible skill sets.”

They also overlap with academic tracks at UNCW’s Cameron School of Business. Oblinger said he envisioned the university to offer a NIL course at Cameron, to teach students how to build a career of influencer athletes.

While each athlete that spoke to PCD said they are considering continuing to work with brands post-graduation, they were clear they didn’t just have to sell themselves to a brand. A brand had to appeal to them, too. 

“If they were just looking for my results over the past season, it’s like, OK, do I really want to work with someone who is just so finish-line focused?’” Glickstein said. “Or do I want to work with someone who’s gonna be along with me for the process?”

She and her roommate, a UNCW golf player, often have fun with it and compete with each other on who can “do better” with their brand deals each week. Glickstein said it was more a motivation tool and a challenge to network for future opportunities. Ultimately, what the students described was a mostly noncompetitive atmosphere.

Both Pearson and Oblinger agreed. 

“A lot of individuals speaking about [the NIL] were thinking that it would divide locker rooms, but I haven’t seen that here at all,” Pearson said. 

It helps that many of the students see the advantages of building a genuine platform where quality deals trump quantity. 

“Once you start to portray that you’re the best ever, and you never have a bad day, I think it’s kind of hard support after a while and people almost start looking for you to not do well,” Hunter said. “I’m a college student, a little extra dollars would be nice, but I’m not going to walk in and say, ‘I have a minimum rate.’”

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