As we get further from the actual day, July 1, 2021, and as the dust settles from the initial whirlwind of activity, college administrators have been left to sort out what the changes to name, image and likeness policies actually mean on campus. What can or can’t a school do for and with its athletes? What should or shouldn’t it do?
‘It’s Going to Be a Clusterf—:’ The New Era of College Sports Is Here. Is Anyone Ready? (Sports Illustrated)
Uncertainty reigns as new world of NIL awaits college athletics July 1 (Richmond Times Dispatch)
NIL reform is coming. Are college sports leaders ready? ‘Maybe we should live with chaos for a while (The Athletic)
It is evident, as I connect with folks on various college campuses, that this is uncharted territory, amplified by decentralized policy implementation and the shifting dynamic between athlete and school. Nobody wants to make a mistake and, simultaneously, nobody wants to fall behind. Right now, there is a lot of noise as college administrators try to define their approach. There are platforms, advisors, tools and other solutions to consider. But sitting in plain sight is a model that will serve schools and athletes for the long-term. It’s cobranded group licensing.
We can all envision the results: EA SPORTS College Football will be more authentic with athletes included in the game; fans will fill stadiums and arenas wearing jerseys with the players’ names and numbers on the back; kids will rip open packs of trading cards in search of their favorite college athletes; and rising technologies, like NFTs, will redefine how we experience the moments we share with those athletes. Cobranded group licensing will benefit a broad base of athletes and generate incremental revenue for schools to enhance the experience across all sports. If done right, the overall college licensed product market, which has seen single-digit year-over-year growth for about a decade, will grow exponentially. There will be some trade-off on product sales, a fan might buy a cobranded name and number t-shirt instead of a t-shirt with the school logos only, but there will also be an increase in demand. The pie will get bigger.
So, how do we get there and what are the mechanics of cobranded group licensing?
Early critics suggested group licensing wasn’t possible in college because it required a union. But that simply isn’t true. You don’t need a union to get the benefits of a collective group rights program. What’s needed is an unbiased third-party representing the athletes’ group rights. This serves the best interests of the athletes, makes sure they get fair market value for their NIL, avoids conflict of interest, and allows schools to keep an arm’s length from any athlete-related deals. A school, or its representatives, should not be involved in negotiating or establishing terms on behalf of the athlete.
But that doesn’t mean a school will lose control of its brand. Institutions will continue to manage the use of their marks and logos on licensed products as they do now, in-house or through a licensing agency, deciding what licensees and products they want to approve. Managing cobranded group licensing opportunities won’t require additional resources from schools.
The group licensing model has proven effective for teams and athletes in the professional space. Team and player cobranded products account for more than half of licensed product sales for professional sports leagues. And it is a legitimate way for college athletes to get compensated for their NIL, with almost no burden due to the passive nature of licensing. Group licensing also doesn’t conflict with any individual deals that athletes might secure on their own. The collective model helps athletes maximize their overall value.
What is unique to college is the current absence of a central place to acquire rights. The broad-based aggregation of rights across schools is necessary if we’re to see athletes integrated into licensed products in a meaningful way. Many licensed products will require a huge body of unfragmented athlete rights across schools. One-off, local opportunities will have a limited impact for both schools and athletes.
Everyone took notice when the M Den announced the availability of customized jerseys featuring current Michigan football players last week. There is no doubt it was exciting for the athletes to be included in a program with a well-known local retailer. But the return will be limited for those athletes. The efficiencies of broad-based group licensing are needed to unlock opportunities with brands, like Fanatics, Nike, adidas, and Under Armour, who have relationships across schools and both local and national distribution. Schools want fans to have access to products on campus and off – and athletes deserve that too.
We just announced a group licensing deal with Panini America for trading cards. The historic deal will bring college NIL trading cards to market this fall. The program will allow Panini to include athletes from across schools and sports in both physical and digital trading cards. OneTeam is the only organization positioned to aggregate the necessary body of rights and develop group licensing opportunities in this way. We can meet college athletes where they are and have established partnerships with all the major platforms in the market (Altius Sports Partners, INFLCR, and Opendorse). We can maximize the value of college athlete NIL because of our unparalleled expertise in group rights, deep relationships with all major brands, experience managing rights across sports (our current rights include the NFLPA, MLBPA, WNBPA, MLSPA, USWNTPA, and USRPA), and knowledge of the college landscape.
We plan to work on behalf of college athletes and alongside schools to chart a new path that benefits all. The move to allow athletes to be compensated for their NIL is forcing a paradigm shift in college. And in the case of group licensing, you don’t need a solution, you just need to understand and get comfortable with the concept.
The sky is not falling. The view is just changing.
Malaika Underwood oversees licensing for OneTeam Partners. She has worked in the college sports industry for over 15 years and was a scholarship athlete at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.