Why ADs Must Embrace NIL: North Carolina’s Bubba Cunningham
- - With all of the uncertainty surrounding NIL, what led you to go all in with INFLCR?
- - How does NIL fit into the mission of North Carolina?
- - Why make that additional investment to pilot the NIL Suite?
- - How do you think NIL should look?
- - How do all of these NIL changes impact recruiting at North Carolina?
- - How are you approaching NIL and making decisions with products and services around NIL?
Jim Cavale: So we’re now joined by Bubba Cunningham, the Director of Athletics for the University of North Carolina. Bubba, thank you so much for making time for me and INFLCR to have this discussion. Which, I really want to start with the topic of information and lack thereof. I mean, the pandemic has put college athletics executives in a really tough spot where you’ve had to make a lot of decisions here in 2020 for the future. But you’ve had a lack of information. And NIL is only a further example of this. We don’t know the final regulations that will be for the student-athlete when it comes to NIL in 2021 and beyond. But yet you’ve decided to go all in with INFLCR. Five year deal, not just our core product, but our new NIL Suite. Why?
Bubba Cunningham: Well, Jim, I appreciate the opportunity to visit with you, particularly about name, image and likeness. We’ve been a partner of yours now for a couple of years, and it has given us the opportunity to really understand what name, image and likeness is all about, how important it is to our student athletes. And about two years ago, we started thinking of ways, “how can our students really begin to develop their brand on their own?” And so through your good company, we were able to upload an awful lot of photos for our students to put on their own social media accounts. And they really enjoyed it. They really saw a lot of growth in their ability to attract fans and they could be able to tell their story. So while I do have reservations about name, image and likeness, and what it means to college athletics, I want to do everything I can possibly do to help our students improve their brand and potentially improve their opportunity for additional opportunities when they finish their school activities.
Cavale: Bubba, I love that last sound bite because you’re essentially saying that, “hey listen: we want to play into the mission of higher ed in college athletics,” which, to be clear, is to maximize the potential of the student-athlete. And listen, at INFLCR, we exist to serve athletes, storytellers, right? At UNC, you exist to maximize the outlook on life for each of your student-athletes. And what you’re saying is, “Jim, we don’t know what the final rules are going to be, but we do know that we can, just like we do with facilities and academics and athletics, maximize the student-athlete NIL experience and INFLCR’s a way we can do that.”
Cunningham: Couldn’t agree more. I mean, there’s two things that are fundamentally important at the University of North Carolina. Number one is we want to provide an incredible education for our students that are here. Part of their education is outside the classroom. Their participation in sport is a big part of it. There are so many other co-curricular activities on campus. But learning about brand management, learning about entrepreneurship, about innovation: those are hallmarks to a great university. And it’s something that Carolina is really proud of. The other thing that we want to make sure we maintain, and those are opportunities: opportunities for students to get a great education come to a place like this, participate in sport and my concern is about those opportunities and how that will be reflected in the name, image and likeness issues as we move forward. So I give people an awful lot of credit for trying to develop plans, but we will be at the cutting edge of those opportunities for our students.
Cavale: Bubba, I love that, because when you look at our partnership, you think about, we started with just men’s basketball at UNC back in 2018. We then added all sports last year. Now you’re saying, “hey, we’re going to go all in,” not just with a five year agreement for all sports, with the INFLCR core product. But you’re one of the first to test and pilot the NIL suite. Why make that additional investment into INFLCR?
Cunningham: Well, we’ve always wanted to make an investment in our students. As I’ve said, the educational experience you get beyond the classroom is very important to us. You know, we’ve had the very first leadership academy in the country, and we’re 13 or 14 years old in the Leadership Academy. And so we wanted to bring leadership skills to our students for a very long time. We had social media training before anybody else did. And now we think we want to be at the very front end of name, image and likeness for these student-athletes. We do think that the social media opportunities for them, we think that the brand opportunities for them, are extraordinary. These are very highly marketable students. And we think that, coupled with the Carolina education, will continue to allow them to grow professionally throughout their entire career. And partnering with you in this opportunity for our students seems like the absolute best service we could provide our students today.
Cavale: So with NIL and the recommendations that were released earlier this year, you’ve not been quiet about your thoughts on what it should look like. We’ve talked online and offline, Bubba, about the limitations that are in those recommendations for the university and the athletic department, as well as the student-athlete. And if we’re gonna do this, let’s do it all the way or let’s not do it at all. We’ve had these discussions. How should this look?
Cunningham: Well, I thought the kind of the low hanging fruit (and I’ve heard that term used quite a bit about name, image and likeness) was a group license. I fundamentally believe that a group license is the best way to go, where you aggregate all the rights of student-athletes and then you share the revenue with them, and you can still tether that to education. I think that is the best way to do it. There are a lot of proposals out there that are very, very different. The two things that are different about this conversation on a national basis between college athletics and professional athletics, and its recruiting and the involvement of agents. And if we can somehow get our arms around those two issues, I would probably change my mind, if we could do it. But right now, high school students have their choice of where they go to college. They can pick the part of the country, they can pick the conference, they can pick the school. There’s an awful lot of things that go into a decision about where a student chooses to go. In the professional ranks, where you have the opportunity for your name, image and likeness, you get drafted. You don’t have a choice. You are told you are going to go to this team and play for this owner. And that’s how your contract’s going to work. The difference is that fundamental choice. I am big on choices and I would love to have students have the choice to go professional in other sports, and this be the collegiate model. The other thing I’m concerned about are agents. So as much as we like to say everyone has this opportunity to generate money, they do, but the chances of them being able to balance their schoolwork, practice, continue to grow professionally so that they might play professionally, I don’t think they can do that and run a business. The agent will run the business. Those are the two fundamental reasons that I really struggle with name, image and likeness. But as I said, we are going to do the very best job we can for those opportunities for students to come here. This will continue to be the best place to come and grow. And whether you want to play professionally, play collegiately, play in the Olympics, this will be a place that we’re going to continue to educate you well beyond the classroom.
Cavale: When I think back to the beginning of INFLCR, which was only three years ago, it was a different era. The arms race of recruiting included such things as facilities (you know, the barbershop and the locker room), and academics has always been at the forefront of the arms race. Do you have the major and program that the young man or woman wants to study prestigious academics at your institution? And then, of course, athletics, the X’s and O’s who had coaches was on the team. What the outlook is. But now I believe that branding, and athlete branding specifically, has now entered that arms race. And that was our outlook from the beginning. We never thought NIL was a matter of if, but a matter of when. And NIL has forced that athlete branding into the arms race. So talk about how all this plays into recruiting at North Carolina.
Cunningham: Absolutely. I mean, we we’d be foolish not to think that facilities make a difference. I mean, just look at the college campuses. Look at the dormitories. Look at the recreational sports areas. Look at the dining halls. Every university in the country is trying to attract students. And we all believe that when you bring a student to the campus, you’re going to have a great educational experience. Top 25, top 30, top 50 universities in the country guarantee that you’re going to have a great educational experience. But when you come to visit a campus with your parents, the first thing you ask is “Where’s my son or daughter going to sleep? Where are they going to eat? How are they going to recreate? Who are they going to be with?” All of those decisions are made oftentimes by the facilities, the people that they see, the buildings that they see. It doesn’t matter if it’s a student athlete or somebody that’s going to be in the band or somebody that’s going to work in the laboratory. Facilities and people and the feeling you get when you walk onto campus makes a difference. The same is true in intercollegiate athletics.
Cavale: Last question, Bubba. We’ve been on Zoom calls with you and your team several times over the past few months, putting this deal together. And I want to talk about that process transparently to your peers, because you’ve been transparent with us in a way that I think every college athletics executive should consider with whatever products or services they’re considering for the NIL era. One thing you asked INFLCR for was a clause that basically said, “Hey, this is unknown territory and we need to know that your our partner to get us through it, but also to adapt and take twists and turns as the industry takes, twists and turns (regulatory, or other directions).” And so we put that in there. We committed to you that we will get you through this and so talk to your peers and talk about making decisions with products and services around NIL and how you approach this with INFLCR, because I think they can get a lot out of your approach and your philosophy.
Cunningham: Well, Jim, I give you a ton of credit for what you’ve been able to do. I mean, you’re an entrepreneur. You’ve had multiple businesses. You saw this coming years ago, long before I did. And you were able to convince me that this is really something good for our students. And I said, you know, “I believe in you. I believe in your company. I believe in the vision.” And I think that has worked out really well for our student-athletes. So I really try to partner with entrepreneurs, partner with people that have a vision to see where things are going to go. You know, when you work in higher education and you work at a not for profit, like a university, sometimes you’re not as entrepreneurial. And the innovators, the people that go out there and put their own money down to say, “I’m going to better myself. And this is going to work and we’re going to build a business around it,” those are the people that I want to be associated with, and that’s who you are. And so when I think about, how can I provide the best service to our student-athletes, that’s through you, through your vision, through your company, because you’ve already done it for us. You’ve done it for our student-athletes. And our staff, our students, our coaches all believe that you have the ability to guide us through a very unsettling and very much changing time as it relates to name, image and likeness for our student-athletes. And again, we want to make sure that that experience is the best in the country because we believe that we can provide those opportunities here while getting a great education in the classroom as well.
Cavale: Thanks for making the time Bubba. I mean, we’re super excited here at INFLCR. Our whole team is just rallied around what we’re going to continue to do for all UNC teams, all UNC student-athletes, for the NIL era and beyond. So, appreciate our partnership.
Cunningham: Appreciate it. Thanks, Jim. Thanks for your time.