A New Ballgame

Student athletes are learning how to navigate name, image and likeness opportunties.

Josh Dallas comes from a football family. The wide receiver at Georgia Southern University played on a state championship high school team with his twin brother, a quarterback now also at Georgia Southern. Their dad was the coach. Dallas remembers the occasional argument with his twin growing up, which he always lost: “My brother would say, ‘I’m not going to throw you the ball unless you’re nice to me,’” he says, laughing. “And I’d be like, whatever you say, I’ll do whatever – throw me the ball!”

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NIL Opportunities: Georgia Southern University student athletes Josh Dallas (left) and Maya Zovko (right) flank Amy Hughes, director of athlete brand management and licensing at the university (center): photo Frank Fortune.

But when it came to recruiting, there was no argument: The brothers wanted to play college ball together. So they looked for a school that would offer them both scholarships, and a program that was pass-oriented. They eventually found both at Georgia Southern.

“We took a visit and fell in love with it immediately,” says Dallas, a redshirt freshman. “The offense is amazing. Being in our home state is amazing. And more than anything, the coaches and everyone involved here – it’s just super special. It feels like family. It feels like home.”

NIL – name, image and likeness, used as a term for how student athletes can receive financial compensation – wasn’t a factor. But Dallas had some valuable assets in addition to his skill at catching passes. In high school, he started a mostly football-focused TikTok channel that grew to have a healthy 100,000-plus followers, helped along when ESPN SportsCenter picked up one of his videos. His Instagram got a boost, too.

At Georgia Southern, Dallas realized he had NIL opportunities – using an athlete’s name, image and likeness in marketing and promotional efforts (like signing autographs, being a brand ambassador for a product, making sponsored social media posts) in exchange for compensation. “I realized I could make some money,” he says. “It’s a blessing to be on scholarship, but with everyday life stuff, it’s good to bring in a little extra money.”

To be clear, NIL does NOT mean that a school pays a player directly. Coaches can’t promise or offer money or deals when recruiting, although they can (and do) talk about what kind of NIL program a school has. (More on that later.) Nor can players get compensation that’s tied to their athletic performance. But where college athletes previously couldn’t accept any money under NCAA rules for a promotion or endorsement, now they can. The change happened in 2021 and it’s still new enough that everyone is finding their way, including schools in Georgia.

Still, there’s a lot of concern around NIL and what it means for college sports, especially the Power 5 marquee sports of football and basketball. With initially absent and subsequently confusing guidance from the NCAA, states have passed their own laws about what is and isn’t specifically permitted. Right now, NIL activities that are permitted in Texas or Missouri may not be legal in Florida or Mississippi (Texas A&M, in particular, drew rival football coaches’ ire for some of its NIL activities).

“NIL is part of the [recruiting] conversation. For every recruit that comes in, you’ve got to have your pitch about what NIL is at your school.” Simit Shah, associate athletics director for administration at Georgia Tech

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Well Informed: Simit Shah, associate athletics director for administration at Georgia Tech: photo: Ben Rollins.

Gov. Brian Kemp signed a law in 2021 that allowed student athletes in Georgia to make money from NIL, which had two unique provisions: Schools can opt to create a “pooling arrangement” where current athletes who get NIL compensation have to contribute a percentage to an account that would then be shared among all athletes who were out of school for least a year (most schools said no thanks). And there’s a requirement for schools to conduct financial literacy and life skills training. But otherwise, Georgia doesn’t have a law that specifies what can and can’t be done when it comes to NIL.

One thing is certain: NIL is here to stay, and absolutely no one has any idea what it will look like two years from now. “NIL is part of the [recruiting] conversation,” says Simit Shah, associate athletics director for administration at Georgia Tech. “For every recruit that comes in, you’ve got to have your pitch about what NIL is at your school.”

But, he says, there’s no template, at least not yet. “It’s not like you can say, ‘Let’s talk to an expert in NIL that’s been doing this for five years. That doesn’t exist … it’s hard to say that what one school is doing is going to work for another school.”

Preparing Athletes

At Georgia Southern, NIL falls under the purview of Amy Hughes, the school’s director of athlete brand management and licensing. “It is NIL-focused on the one hand,” she says of the program. “But it’s also about making sure our student athletes are fully supported when they’re not playing their sport – what we can do from an educational standpoint and how can we equip them with the tools and information they need, to be successful with NIL.”

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Poised for Success: The Tech Way collective presented an autograph signing after the 2023 White and Gold spring game. Fans received posters and lined up to meet football players and get their autographs.

The university already had a program called APEX (Athletes Preparing for Employment Experiences) that helps prepare student athletes for life after college. Hughes worked with the APEX team to add an NIL component. “We also help [our student athletes] work on building their personal brand,” she says. “And best practices around digital marketing and content creation; we were already doing entrepreneurship.”

To teach financial literacy – a big push at many schools after NIL was allowed – the university is relying on some of its community partners and its in-house experts, namely professors who teach in the college of business. Georgia Southern is launching its financial literacy program this summer for football players, with athletes in other sports to follow. When the program is fully launched, several community banks and credit unions will explain to freshmen and sophomores what financial literacy means, while juniors and seniors will get help from professors starting with the basics like paying taxes and going all the way to whether to incorporate as an LLC. “We needed to make sure these athletes knew what to do with the money when it starts coming in,” Hughes says.

Georgia Southern partners with Opendorse, an NIL platform and tech company that sets up and runs marketplaces for a number of schools. Student athletes create profiles and bios, and brands can connect with them through the marketplace about NIL opportunities. A brand pays Opendorse, and then Opendorse pays the student, tracks the payments and makes sure the student receives tax information at the end of the year. Hughes notes that Opendorse also provides content on brand-building, financial literacy and mental health.

Senior Maya Zovko, who plays soccer for the Georgia Southern Eagles, landed a deal to be an ambassador for Spanx, the women’s clothing and shapewear brand, through Opendorse. “That was really exciting,” she says, adding that it fit her criteria of being a brand she’d use even without being an ambassador. Through Opendorse, athletes can search requirements and compensation for different brands and apply – that’s how Zovko contacted Spanx. “Once they see you applied, they can go over your account, look through your socials and then they can offer you – and you can negotiate [the] deals. If they say yes, you can accept it,” she says.

Zovko also works with BIOLYTE, a hydration drink that contains electrolytes. “I love to work with companies and brands that I use daily,” she says. “Before NIL was a thing, I was drinking BIOLYTE, and now I get to represent them.”

Like Dallas, Zovko – a Cleveland native and highly recruited player who says soccer drew her to Georgia Southern but she can’t imagine being anywhere else – is interested in building her brand, but notes that school and her sport come first. She thinks that both student athletes and brands are getting smarter about NIL as it evolves. “It felt like a free-for-all at first,” she says. “Do you reach out to brands? Do brands reach out to you? … Anyone was kind of taking what they were getting. But I think now brands and companies are figuring it out. I’d say it’s more competitive in the sense of working with [them].”

Making Connections

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Business Savvy: Tanner Potts, director of NIL and strategic initiatives at the University of Georgia: photo Ben Rollins.

“At every school, the way NIL works is unique, because we’re all sort of figuring it out,” says Tanner Potts, director of NIL and strategic initiatives at the University of Georgia. At UGA, it’s taking the form of an in-house department, coordinated by Potts. Within the department, he will be joined by an athlete marketing manager employed by Altius Sports Partners, an NIL company that offers consulting, strategic planning, compliance support and education. The marketing manager will work directly to connect student athletes with brands.

Potts, who graduated from UGA law school last year, describes his job as akin to being a point guard in basketball: “I can pass the ball to make sure things are going to get done,” he says. “NIL is unique in that it involves so many different departments and people across athletics and campus, so it’s helpful to have someone in the middle who knows, for example, this is a question for compliance or this is a question for Georgia Bulldog sports marketing.”

The NIL amounts for some football players at Georgia are eye-popping, as you might guess at a Power 5 school that’s won back-to-back national championships. Tight end Brock Bowers, for example, was estimated to have come into the 2022 season with a possible NIL valuation of more than $1 million, according to the college sports data and media company On3.com.

But there are also stars in sports that don’t regularly make SportsCenter highlights, who may have opportunities in a state that loves its Dawgs. “I think it would surprise a lot of people how much value brands are seeing especially in our female student athletes,” says Potts. “If you go into Stegman Coliseum for a Friday night gymnastics meet – those Georgia Gym Dawgs are celebrities in that coliseum and kids across Georgia look up to them, treat them like royalty.”

Women’s softball, too, has seen NIL interest. “All of the brands are becoming more savvy in the reach they see student athletes having,” Potts says. He echoes Zovko’s comments about athletes getting more business savvy, too. “We have rising juniors whose entire college athletics experience has been shaped by NIL. Freshmen coming in, their whole high school experience was looking up to
athletes who were doing NIL at universities.”

“I think it would surprise a lot of people how much value brands are seeing especially in our female student athletes.” Tanner Potts, director of NIL and strategic initiatives at the University of Georgia.

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Celebrity Athletes: UGA softball infielder Sara Mosley signs autographs for fans: photo Tony Walsh/UGAAA.

Another player in the NIL space is collectives, groups that are independent from a school but pool funds from companies and boosters to create NIL opportunities and payments for student athletes. They are often founded by influential alums and supporters. If that sounds a little vague, it’s because there’s no best practices for collectives, either.

UGA’s Classic City Collective launched in March 2022 to offer NIL opportunities including social media endorsements, media ads, in-kind deals, appearances, meet and greets, autographs and digital content. Potts notes that the CEO of Classic City, Matt Hibbs, has a background in law and compliance (Hibbs previously worked as assistant athletic director for football compliance at UGA). “We’re lucky to have someone like him who has his finger on the pulse in supporting student athletes,” says Potts.

In July, Classic City was one of seven collectives (the only one in Georgia) that formed the Collective Association, an NIL trade group that aims to “act as a unified voice to shape the development of the NIL market,” according to a statement from the group.

There’s strong support for the collective at Georgia Tech, too. Athletic Director J Batt has been outspoken in his support of The Tech Way collective, urging fans to contribute to the group or to other NIL opportunities. That’s crucial to a collective’s success, says Tech’s Shah, and NIL success is a requirement in today’s college athletics. “You have to have good alignment among all the parties, and that includes your president, athletic director, coaches and donors – that everybody is trying to achieve the same thing,” he says.

When The Tech Way launched earlier this year, a previous collective (Swarm the ATL) was folded in and now The Tech Way seems poised for better success with just that kind of alignment.

“We needed to make sure these athletes knew what to do with the money when it starts coming in.” Amy Hughes, director of athlete brand management and licensing at Georgia Southern

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Fully Supported: Georgia Southern’s Amy Hughes, director of athlete brand management and licensing, meets with athletes about NIL: photo Frank Fortune.

“Ultimately you have to have ADs and presidents and coaches endorse your collective,” Shah says. “They have to go into rooms and dinners and stadiums and say, ‘We have a collective…and this is how you get involved.’” The trust between The Tech Way and the Tech administration is “probably more of a unicorn situation right now than to the norm” across college sports, he adds.

The trust comes from a good structure and good management practices, Shah says. “Our collective did legwork – they really made sure they understood [our donors and alumni], made sure they had the support of the administration, made sure they had the support of the coaches, and picked people to be involved who were well connected and well informed.”

Still, coaches and administrators are practically – in some cases literally – begging for more direction and regulation. At the SEC spring meetings in June, UGA Head Coach Kirby Smart said on the Paul Finebaum Show that he wanted Congress to get involved to ensure that all states were following the same guidelines.

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Empowering Athletes: Georgia Tech defensive back LaMiles Brooks, a junior, signs autographs for Yellow Jackets fans at an event held by The Tech Way collective: photo The Tech Way.

Meanwhile, NIL may be coming to a high school near you. Twenty-six states have moved in that direction, and Georgia High School Association Executive Director Robin Hines said earlier this year that the organization’s executive committee was discussing a change to the bylaws. If that happens, it’ll be – pardon the pun – a whole new ballgame.


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