The acronym NIL is rapidly entering the mainstream conversation, while completely changing the dynamics of college athletics as we know it. It is especially relevant right now in New Jersey, with the Sweet Sixteen run by the small, but mighty Saint Peter’s University Peacocks, which turned the team into overnight national celebrities. And with new NIL rules comes an opportunity to attract lucrative branding and partnership deals, which some experts estimate could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Not to mention the tens of millions of dollars in publicity for the small Jersey City Jesuit school.
Let’s first start with what NIL is, why it matters, and how we got to this point.
NIL stands for name, image and likeness. For more than 100 years, college athletes were not able to profit off their NIL. But that changed on July 1, 2021.
A June 2021 Supreme Court ruling against the NCAA made clear that restrictions, including on NIL activity, could face future legal challenges. That opened the door, days later, for the NCAA board of directors to adopt a rule change allowing NIL activity, which went into effect on July 1.
While it marked a new era of freedom and opportunity for student athletes, the lack of laws, regulation and guidance also set the stage for a wild west scenario. Rules varied from state to state and policies varied from school to school.
In September 2020, anticipating the NCAA changes, Gov. Phil Murphy signed the New Jersey Fair Play Act, which allowed athletes direct compensation and representation in relation to their NIL rights while prohibiting payment directly from schools and universities.
As all of this was playing out, and during COVID-related lockdowns, Rutgers guard Geo Baker found himself at the center of the debate. In March 2021, Baker was one of the faces of the #NotNCAAProperty movement, which almost led to a protest before Rutgers’ first round NCAA tournament match-up against Clemson. Ultimately, the idea was scrapped to avoid delaying the school’s first March Madness appearance in 30 years.
The issue, though, is personal to Baker. He became a bit of a pioneer in the NIL space, before it was really even a thing, out of necessity during high school. As a senior, his mom was diagnosed with cancer, so he started selling t-shirts with his own likeness and messages to help make ends meet. The shirts caught on around his hometown of Derry, N.H. But once he signed his letter of intent with Rutgers, he had to stop selling the shirts because he no longer owned his name, image, and like-ness. Rutgers did.
Baker did not believe he was a victim, though. “It just shows that there were probably a million stories like that, before me, that were 10 times worse, where kids truly needed that money,” he said.
That sentiment, plus COVID conditions which meant not seeing family, sparked Baker’s activism on the NIL issue. “I think the first thing that kind of got me into talk-ing about NIL was during COVID, when I realized how much college athletes were sacrificing without getting much in return. I don’t say that in a way where you’re not grateful for a scholarship or the opportunity to play for your university or anything like that,” Baker said. “But, you think, in the grand scheme of things, all of the money that’s being made from literally the athletes,” he explained. “If there’s no athletes, there’s no business structure, it’s not there.”
Baker credited Rutgers and especially his coach, Steve Pikiell, for being supportive and understanding the issue was a lot bigger than just basketball. Baker also be-lieves the issue is about more than just money. “I think the biggest difference for me right now is all the networking opportunities that I’ve made with business owners. That’s networking that you didn’t have before. That’s something that’s going to help you in the real world once you’re done with whatever sport you’re playing.”
Peter Schoenthal, CEO of Athliance, a sports management and NCAA software company that has been helping students and schools navigate the new space, said while there is still a lot to figure out, the new rules will help preserve college athletics. “Name, image, and likeness, in my opinion, is going to be something that saves college sports,” Schoenthal said. “It’s going to allow students the ability to bridge the gap, while they’re in school, to profit off of who they are, and not have to work and play under financial hardship.”
While Schoenthal acknowledges that much of the data is incomplete due to a lack of disclosure, he said that the new era of NIL has generated millions of dollars through deals, endorsements, and business endeavors.
And he said it’s not just the big-name athletes. “The everyday athlete that you and I might not know about will have the ability and are actually cashing in, making an extra thousand, two thousand dollars a month, which greatly impacts their life,” Schoenthal explained.
He has also noted some other positive trends as the space evolves. “Seeing the local businesses get involved, the national companies get involved, and seeing student-athletes take on that entrepreneurial spirit that they will be able to take out into the real world that’ll make them successful years after they leave college,” Schoenthal said.
Baker shared that sentiment. “No athlete wants to hear it, but eventually, the ball is going to stop bouncing,” Baker said. “And now you’re getting these professional opportunities where you’re getting in front of real businesses and you’re learning how to operate. This is the time where we get to take risks. This is the time where athletes get to be entrepreneurs.”
Baker, who capped off his senior season with an All-Big Ten Third Team selection, has carried that spirit through these first months of NIL. He said he has tried to focus more on building relationships versus one-off promotional opportunities. And he has focused on forming partnerships with businesses owned by Rutgers people, such as Old Bridge-based Alva Fitness, and LeGrand Coffee House, which is owned by the well-known former Scarlet Knight football player Eric LeGrand.
Baker also believes that because of its location, New Jersey schools, such as Rutgers, are in a particularly good position to capitalize as the NIL space grows. For example Rutgers quarterback and four-star recruit Gavin Wimsatt left high school, took accelerated classes, and enrolled at the college early this fall after reportedly signing lucrative NIL deals with New Brunswick Development Corp. and Edison-based Miller’s Rentals.
Baker and Schoenthal both agreed that the new rules will keep more kids in college. “I think NIL is a great equalizer for student-athletes while they’re in school,” Schoenthal said. “I think you’re going to see NIL really make a positive impact in football and basketball where kids sometimes leave a little too early and make tough decisions based on financial reasons.”
Then, there is the first case of a true Cinderella in this new era, and how Saint Peter’s players stand to gain from NIL. The brand and the athletes’ popularity grew exponentially overnight.
Sharp-shooting guard Doug Edert of Nutley is a prime example of how quickly NIL can change a student athlete’s fortunes. In a matter of days, his Instagram follow-ers multiplied to more than 20,000 and his trademark mustache has gone viral. But the notoriety has also led to a paid partnership with Buffalo Wild Wings. Edert posted his first sponsored ad on his Instagram page, just three days after helping his Peacocks team reach the Sweet Sixteen. In addition, a shirt featuring Edert’s now-famous mustached-tongue-out likeness that says
“Dougie Buckets,” is on-sale at Barstool Sports.
Schoenthal advised the Peacocks players to make a plan and have parents, relatives, and close supporters screen and facilitate deals as they come in. “So you can keep your eye on the prize, which is continuing playing. The more you play, the more you advance, the bigger your brand grows.”
In general, he cautions all athletes and schools proceed with caution, since details are still being worked out to close loopholes and keep out and punish bad ac-tors. “When you have the wild west, you get wild actors,” Schoenthal explained. But he believes the kinks will be fixed in the next 36 to 48 months, and is optimistic about the early progress and trajectory, including how many of the student athletes are using the opportunity for good.
“One of the great stories that I’ve seen are the student athletes using their name, image and likeness, and brand to help charities and get philanthropic,” he said.
Baker, in fact, has used his platform in that way, recently donating proceeds from his Cameo earnings to Choose Love, a nonprofit providing emergency aid and refugee support for Ukraine.
In June, he will attend the very first NIL Summit, being held June 13-15 in Atlanta, Ga. Being billed as “Democratizing College Athletics,” it provides one more example of just how much this very new space is growing and very much evolving. It also emphasizes just how much potential NIL has to benefit student-athletes in the long run.
“That’s the true beauty of it,” Baker said. “It’s going to change people’s lives. And it’s going to keep people in college, which is the most important thing. The ball is going to stop bouncing eventually, so just staying educated and making money while you do it.”