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Ruling Clears Way for Virginia College Athletes to Curate Brands

Person plays with lacrosse stick and ball
Virginia Tech lacrosse player Kennedy Lynch during warmups for a game. (Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech Athletics)

Name, image and likeness deals have opened the doors for college athletes to curate their own brand.

In recent months, college athletics has been thrust into the world of NILs, deals that allow athletes to sell their name, rights and images to bidders outside their universities. Legislation passed in Californiaand a recent Supreme Court ruling have paved the way to the current NIL sphere.

Brands and college students have quickly jumped to making deals. When Barstool Sports, a popular sports media outlet among college students, tweeted out an NIL invitation for athletes, Virginia Tech lacrosse player Kennedy Lynch answered the call.

Lynch’s Instagram blew up after Barstool owner, Dave Portnoy tweeted about her joining the Barstool family.

“They have a really large appeal to a really, really vast audience,” she said. “Whether it be millennials, Gen Z, whatever, [Portnoy] has such a large reach and such a large network that being affiliated with them gives me the opportunity to expand my own network.”

Since the Barstool deal, brands such as Tomahawk Shades, Tella and Lola reached out to create contracts or make verbal agreements.

These deals were the beginning of Lynch curating her own brand, something college athletes have always done but not been allowed to profit from. In the 1990s, the Michigan Fab Five created their signature brand through their trash talking, baggy shorts, black socks and black shoes, though they were not able to capitalize on it.

Lynch saw a chance to also show her values with some of the deals. She pointed to Lola, a woman-run athletic company that recently ventured into size inclusivity.

However, if an athlete’s hobby or interest is anything similar to Snoop Dog’s favorite pastime - marjuana - or anything along the lines of alcohol or weapons, they’re out of luck. Athletes are not allowed to make NIL deals with companies who trade in these subjects according to NCAA rules and regulations.

Lynch curating her image by maintaining a brand and working with companies is a crucial component to prepare herself for the workforce.

“I'm a PR major, '' Lynch said. “I think it's just good for me to kind of get these interactions with these different brands because it's honestly teaching me a lot. Not only about building an image, but just expanding my career in a sense and applying knowledge that I've been learning through internships.”

Virginia Tech has started a program called Jumpstart for athletes who might not be as marketing savvy as Lynch.

“Jumpstart really starts with education,” said Virginia Tech Associate Athletics Director of Strategic Communications Pete Moris. “First of all, educating the student athletes on the parameters of what this new landscape in college athletics looks like. Also, giving them some education on the existing tools that we have in place to help them really build and leverage their brand.”

Virginia Tech partners with INFLCR, a digital platform to offer education, social media metrics, market valuations and other important elements for growing athletes’ personal brands.

The program was announced early this June, before NIL came into effect. “The handwriting was on the wall that  this [NILs] was likely going to become a reality,” Moris said.

Similar programs were swiftly built throughout the country to help guide college athletes. Schools also began setting up their own rules and regulations for NILs, and states created legislation to protect athletes' NIL rights. 

Currently, Virginia Tech’s rules are identical to the NCAA’s. Virginia’s General Assembly recently passed legislation governing NILs, a move athletic directors across Virginia advocated for so Virginia athletes have equal rights to others across the country.

Although the opportunity to brand and make deals is exciting, there are still many unknowns.

“It's very early in the process,” Moris said. “We're a little over a month into this whole new world right now, but I think we're all anxious to see how it plays out. And I'm sure it will continue to evolve as we get more, more months and years into this process.”

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