As College Athletes Finally Start Cashing In, Entrepreneurs Big and Small Also Look to Score

College Football: Alabama QB Bryce Young (9) in action vs Miami at Mercedes Benz Stadium on Sept. 4, 2021. Under the new NCAA rule changes, Young has reportedly signed name, image and likeness agreements worth more than $800,000.

College Football: Alabama QB Bryce Young (9) in action vs Miami at Mercedes Benz Stadium on Sept. 4, 2021. Under the new NCAA rule changes, Young has reportedly signed name, image and likeness agreements worth more than $800,000. Kevin D. Liles—Sports Illustrated via Getty Image

Back in 2013 Blake Lawrence, a former University Nebraska linebacker who is co-founder and CEO of a then-fledgling sports technology platform called Opendorse, felt that his breakthrough moment had arrived. The Opendorse app sought to connect professional athletes with sponsorship opportunities that would allow players to monetize their name, image, and likeness rights (NIL). It’s not unlike how, say, Uber connects drivers with riders, or Airbnb matches up hosts and vacationers.

And Opendorse had just agreed to a partnership with the NFL Players’ Association that would introduce these pros to the platform. So Lawrence can recall leaving Washington, D.C.—headquarters of the NFL union—that day, feeling pretty good about himself. “I envisioned that we were just months away from being a $100 million-$1 billion company,” says Lawrence now. “We’re going to take the world by storm.”

“And that is not what happened.”

While Opendorse has experienced some success with professional athletes, Lawrence soon learned that agents still held a firm grip on the pro sponsorship market. Negotiating lucrative, at times complex multi-year agreements required a human touch.

What Opendorse really needed to grow, Lawrence came to realize, was a market in which thousands of digitally-savvy young people—say, college students who play sports—could use the platform to tap into local passions for college athletics, and secure agreements with companies to promote their brands. Opendorse, meanwhile, could take its cut of each deal made on the app.

What Lawrence needed was for the NCAA to finally remove its outdated restrictions prohibiting college athletes from monetizing their NIL rights. That day came on July 1 of this year, giving birth to a multi-million dollar industry pretty much overnight.

“This the moment we’ve been waiting for,” says Lawrence. “The market opportunity is here.”

A College Sports Gold Rush

As the 2021 college football season kicks off this month, marking the first academic year in which student-athletes can earn payments from third parties, Opendorse has plenty of company in this new space. A multitude of startups and platforms are rushing in to grab a share in a college sports sponsorship market. That market, in the estimation of Carnegie Mellon Tepper School of Business professor Tim Derdenger, has already reached at least $100 million, with the potential to grow to $1 billion in five years.

A company called Icon Source, another digital platform connecting athletes and sponsorship opportunities, raised $1.6 million in May to prepare for the loosening of NIL restrictions. Captiv8 Collegiate promises “to educate student-athletes on how to effectively manage their personal social-media brands and partnerships.” There’s Altius Sports Partners and INFLCR and PWRFWD, founded by former college basketball player Luke Bonner, which has set up a site selling merchandise from, among other athletes, UCLA soccer player Mia Fishel. The list goes on.

To date, the larger deals have grabbed headlines and raised eyebrows. Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, for example, has reportedly signed NIL agreements worth more than $800,000; Onyx Authenticated is selling his trading cards; and he also announced a partnership with Cash App. In August, super-agency WME Sports signed LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne, who has 4.3 million TikTok followers and 1.3 million Instagram followers, as its “first NIL athlete.” She could earn up to seven figures in endorsements from the deal.

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