Monetizing fame has long been an issue for college athletes. Rules prohibited them from profits that universities and bookies saw in equal measure. That all changed on June 30, however, when the NCAA decided to adopt an interim policy that suspends the organization’s rules prohibiting athletes from selling their Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL). The guidelines, which allow athletes to capitalize on the monetary value tied directly to their brands, superseded new NIL laws that were set to go into effect on July 1 in six states. (The Centennial States’s NIL legislation doesn’t come into force until Jan. 1, 2023.) Amid the shakeup, one local company is primed to disrupt the athlete endorsement industry.
Chase Garrett launched Icon Source, a Denver-based digital marketplace, in September 2019 to make it easier for athletes and brands to connect. The company’s platform enables brands to communicate directly with sports agents. Drawing on social audience demographics, Icon Source’s mobile application and AI platform matches athletes and brands—entities that can search for athletes based on their location, likes, interests, sport, ethnicity, and gender. Since its inception, the company has worked with over 2,000 professional athletes and more than 500 brands for endorsement opportunities. Now, Icon Source will be entering the emerging college space.
After a turbulent 2020, Chase Garrett, founder and CEO of Icon Source, sensed that it was time to move his company in a different direction. With professional brands fearful about future economic prospects and states like Florida announcing NIL legislation in 2021, Garrett decided to pivot.
He realized that it didn’t make much sense for Icon Source to continue committing all its resources to short-term marketing efforts. “We would rather focus on what the future holds,” he says. “We decided to take our proven system and go into the college space ahead of time because we wanted to progress that conversation and be the leaders in the space.”
Drew Butler, executive vice president of collegiate for Icon Source, joined to help student-athletes find opportunities in this space. Having played football at the University of Georgia, Butler understands the demands that come with being a student-athlete. “I know for a fact that these students have so much on their plates,” Butler says, referring to classes, tutoring, and, to top it off, all the arduous training for big matchups. “They need a simplified tool that will allow themselves to be exposed to a wide variety of brands with the seamless workflow of software; and that is exactly what Icon Source is providing them.”
Icon Source’s app enables student-athletes to communicate directly with brands, negotiate high-level details, and sign contracts—all from their phones.
“We know for a fact that student-athletes are going to want to utilize the app,” Butler says. “They are going to want to drive their opportunities to one spot so they can manage it.” Butler says that over a thousand student-athletes have signed up, and that brands are already creating pitches for student-athletes, scheduled to send on July 1 at 12:01 a.m. across five states. Come July, the college landscape is going to look very different.
Woody Eckard, professor of economics at the University of Colorado Denver Business School, has studied sports economics and the NCAA for more than 23 years. Eckard thinks that the majority of NIL usage will be in the realm of product and service advertising. “College athletes are still kids,” Eckard says. “It’s not like an established professional adult athlete who is going to have a much broader, higher level of influence. That’s why I think the college athletes, being sort of newbies and young, are more likely to have influence in the traditional areas of product purchase and that sort of thing.”
Eckard points to sporting goods stores, local restaurants and bars, and auto dealerships as examples of places where customers might be impressed by a student-athlete’s recommendation. In exchange for their services, student-athletes could receive either cash payments or payment-in-kind. “If an athlete is helping to advertise a restaurant, the compensation might include free meals for the upcoming year,” Eckard says. “The auto dealer could say, ‘I’m going to give you a free Ferrari.’”
Once student-athletes can receive compensation for their NIL, Eckard foresees the college athletic market mirroring the market for celebrities. “There are celebrities that sell their NIL,” Eckard says. “I assume the college athletic market would, in a broad sense, resemble the market that already exists for other celebrities.”
Likeminded companies will be key in keeping universities informed about the business activities of their athletes. The outreach to universities, on Icon Source’s part, has already begun. The marketplace company plans to provide compliance departments at universities with all the information about dealings on its platform. “We try to explain to them that we are the Excedrin to their migraine when it comes to where student-athletes going, how are they getting paid, and how [to] know what’s going on,” Butler says. “We come in and say, ‘We think we have the platform to fix that problem.’”