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What’s in a Name?

Per a 2021 Law, Boulder Businesses Have New Opportunities To Partner With CU Student-Athletes

Article by Sarah Howlett

Photography by Courtesy CU Athletic Department

Originally published in Boulder Lifestyle

Until a couple short years ago, student-athletes who’d made a name for themselves on the field or court could not profit financially from being recognizable, talented or likable. That all changed in July 2021 when a Colorado law took effect stating just the opposite. These days, when you see a CU student-athlete on Instagram plugging a local restaurant, the passage of SB20-123 means they can now be compensated for their name, image and likeness (NIL). 

The law’s passage has brought many possibilities not only for student-athletes, but also for local businesses and everyday citizens. Want a CU student-athlete to appear at your kid’s birthday? If the price is right, you can make it happen. If you’re a local business, you can partner with a student-athlete and pay them to appear in ads, social media and so forth, be it through in-kind benefits (i.e., free food or clothes) or plain old cash.

A little background: Many student-athletes were growing increasingly frustrated that the NCAA had long prohibited them from profiting from their NIL. They couldn’t sell jerseys, be in ads or drop an album. “The principle behind it was amateurism,” explains Abbey Shea, Athletics Director of name, image & likeness at the CU Department of Athletics. “They don’t get paid to play, while a professional has endorsements and sponsorships.” 

Within the last 10 years, however, the NCAA was realizing some student-athletes, while a small number overall, were generating profit for their institutions and deserved to share in the wealth. “It felt unfair that their school could sell their jerseys and the kid would make no money,” Abbey says. “[The NCAA’s] feet were to the flames.” Additionally, thanks to Instagram, TikTok and others, student-athletes have bigger, more public voices than ever before. Saying no to tempting and lucrative opportunities was proving painful, so NCAA decided to act. 

But as with many changes in legislation, questions quickly arose. Reacting to these changes, the CU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics in February 2022 created two full-time positions to help student-athletes navigate the new law. Sadie Baker, an assistant director of NIL, works alongside Abbey in the program. While the CU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics does not need to approve student-athletes’ partnerships, Abbey and Sadie do act as mentors and help student-athletes stay in compliance with the law—which includes mandatory reporting of partnerships and their accompanying financial transactions. Additional guidance is available through Buffs with a Brand, a program that coaches student-athletes in, among other things, personal brand management and financial literacy via workshops and mentorship.

For student-athletes diving into this territory, many must learn on their feet about other laws that come with appearing in ads. In some instances, student-athletes have been unfamiliar with trademark law, not realizing they couldn’t wear a CU jersey or Nike swoosh in an ad until after a photoshoot had wrapped. (Oops.) 

“It was a big learning curve for SAs, learning about intellectual property and trademarks, and what the university owns,” Abbey says. “This is also the first time taxes have been a part of their life.”

NIL also has downsides, Abbey says—such as the potential to place external pressure on student-athletes with NIL deals in addition to already-demanding training schedules. “It can be a distraction,” she says. “In the offseason, they want to do deals—and then the season comes around and they’re committed to posts, appearances.” 

When CU puts student-athletes’ likeness on jerseys—a less-common scenario compared with opportunities on social media—those who opt in receive a percent of each sale that gets paid out quarterly. But for those who earn this money, Abbey emphasizes, it’s a much smaller piece of the pie than most brand partnerships tend to be. Student-athletes are welcome to continue charity work, of course, such as through Read with the Buffs at local elementary schools; Buff Hugs at hospitals; or any other cheer that student-athletes want to spread on their own time.

Aside from what the new law covers, there are still many instances where student-athletes are not paid for appearances. Examples, Abbey says, include signing autographs, appearing on posters or at the Pearl Street Stampede. “Those are just the requirements,” she says, “of being a student-athlete.”

Abbey couldn’t share details on how much student-athletes typically earn from, say, promoting a brand on social media, but says student-athletes are encouraged to negotiate to ensure they’re compensated fairly for their NIL. She mentions local restaurant Birdcall and Camp Bow Wow, a local dog boarding business, as two companies that have partnered with CU student-athletes.

“We have a football player who has done a great job starting with small deals that have become big deals,” Abbey says. “Sometimes student-athletes want the four-figure deal right away, but other times, it’s great to get your foot in the door and be a good ambassador first. That proves a lot to the business.”