If there’s one thing that pundits and fans seem to agree on, it’s that name, image and likeness deals are ruining college sports — at least, for institutions.
I think that the fears are overblown and that compensation is long overdue, but we need to do better by creating deals that serve athletes long after their stars fade.
Even a casual observer of the NCAA would notice that NIL deals have created all sorts of madness for schools, brands and athletes themselves: right now, NIL is “a huddle without a playbook, at a chaotic point of the game.” I’m not worried that coaches and programs will figure this out, but I’m more concerned about the wild west of possibility and potential pitfalls for these young entrepreneurs balancing sports, school and business.
Early examples of NIL deals have ranged from the obvious endorsements to potentially shady pay-to-plays -- looking at you, Texas A&M. But all of these, I think, treat the athlete as a single-use commodity that expires when they graduate. Even that million-dollar payday will run out soon if injury keeps them from going pro.
Here’s a better idea: build athletes’ brands and give them a cut of the business.
I help run an ad agency, Callen, and last year, we scored with a condiment brand we built for University of Texas running back Bijan Robinson, called Bijan Mustardson. In exchange for lending his face and fame, Robinson now is an equal partner in the business. The key here for Bijan is that his ownership means he’ll have a substantial revenue stream as well as a new skill set, even after his football days. Which we think will be glorious!
We’ve been in business together since last summer, and so far the results are promising. Here’s what we’ve learned about how both businesses and players can make good NIL deals.
Look for the right partner
We approached Robinson because he’s an explosive player and a hometown hero, but also because he’s a smart guy with a great personality. We didn’t have a lot of cash to throw his way, but we do have business and branding expertise. That led naturally to a partnership of equals, and Robinson was savvy enough to recognize the long-term benefits outweighed a short-term gain.
We hope these kinds of creative business NIL deals can become the norm. If there’s any formula to follow here, it’s to try to look at things in the spirit of true partnership. What’s the most win-win deal you can imagine for an athlete or team? This is about revenue, of course, but it’s also about caring for the athlete and their future.
When considering an athlete or brand partner, character comes first. A brand doesn’t want someone whose reputation is so dicey that they’ll reflect negatively on the business. An athlete wants a partner who is going to add to their personal brand as well. Who would you enjoy working with for several years? Who has staying power? Who is a fan favorite? The more research you do, the more confident you’ll be in your choice.
Increasingly, athletes are cashing in while they’re in their physical prime. But the reality is, this business will mean the most later. Right now, they need to focus on their sport, and they need great partners who can set them up for sustainable success. The goal is not just a paycheck today, but a source of income that will build and grow.
A longer-term view lets a partnership become more than just a name — it’s about building a lifetime of wins for athletes as they mature into entrepreneurs. Partnering means being relentlessly dedicated to your athlete’s success throughout their career. It’s more than financial. It’s thinking through how to show up for them in the right way to take advantage of a cultural moment.
Build a brand club, not a fan club
We launched during Robinson’s final season with the Texas Longhorns. We showed up at every tailgate squirting mustard on people’s hot dogs, created a video campaign, pitched the story to the press and influencers and even made a Bijan Mustardson mascot. But we were careful to make this about mustard – not just fandom. Ultimately, our best PR coincided with Bijan’s games — but our best day of sales happened after the season ended.
It was important to us that this was more than a stunt, and that fans could show support. We want people who may never watch a game to buy the brand. To that end, we are serious about the business fundamentals and product quality. People may have bought at first for Bijan’s face on the bottle, but they kept buying it because it tasted great. We keep careful tabs on our percentages of repeat buyers, which are continually building.
Even in February, long after bowl games are over and Bijan was awaiting the draft, we still saw people wearing Mustardson hats at kids soccer games, Mustardson t-shirts at the taco stand and a natural spike in sales for our Mustardson candles on Valentine's Day.
Bijan Robinson is an amazing human and athlete; Bijan Mustardson is an amazing mustard that people like, even though it can’t score touchdowns on the field.
What’s Next for NIL?
We won’t ever do a mustard deal with another athlete, but the experience of building a brand for one has helped us to see how NIL can evolve into something less chaotic and even more beneficial. We’re looking at expanding the model to become more evergreen — say, for entire teams, so that more people can get a piece of the action through generations.
We don’t know what these next couple years of NIL deals will bring, exactly. But we hope that as the dust settles, the industry will create fair partnerships that ensure long-lasting revenue for college and pro athletes, so that their work is still valuable once they step off the field.
David Hughes is MD at Callen. This story first appeared on campaignlive.com.