'It's only going to get bigger'

‘It’s only going to get bigger’

CHAMPAIGN — Kam Cox saw two elementary-aged children getting autographs from Illinois basketball newcomers Ty Rodgers, Terrence Shannon and Matthew Mayer and couldn’t help but think that this exact scene is the upside of name, image and likeness.

The equation was simple: the community was able to interact with Illini student-athletes, and those college athletes were compensated legally for the market demand for their public appearance.

“We all were that fan when we were younger,” said Cox, the Illinois athletics NIL coordinator. “This is a memory they’ll have for the rest of their lives. Our student-athletes love being able to give that.”

And the student-athletes love getting paid for those appearances that college athletes prior to the passing of NIL rules and laws a year ago were unable to be compensated for.

Seven Illinois basketball newcomers were compensated handsomely by the Illini Guardians — an NIL collective supporting Illini athletics and endorsed by Illini athletics — for signing autographs, taking pictures and chatting with fans for a few hours in Grange Grove prior to Illinois football’s game against Virginia the Sept 10. Some players seemed to really enjoy the experience, like talkative freshmen Ty Rodgers and skyy clarkwhile others were more business-like in their interactions.

For the players, this was a chance to make some quick, serious cash — and feel some love from fans as well. For fans, this was a chance to meet the new faces of a new-look but very talented Illinois basketball team — the pride of the athletics department and fan base. For the Illini Guardians and Illini athletics, this was a chance to step up its NIL game and educate fans on how this new world of legally paying college athletes actually works.

“Half the people coming are saying, ‘How much do we pay?’ The other half are saying, ‘There’s no way you’re paying college kids for autographs, right?’” Illini Guardians co-founder Adam Fleischer told Illini Inquirer. “I think where we are at conceptually is educating the fan base about what NIL is, what it can become and how it needs to be supported.”

Illinois athletics has openly supported and embraced NIL since its inception on July 1, 2021, as the Illini hosted Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker for the state’s NIL bill-signing ceremony at State Farm Center. Illini athletics then successfully pushed the state to amend its law earlier this year to allow the school to be directly involved in facilitating NIL deals with its student-athletes.

illini athletics director Josh Whitmanmen’s basketball coach Brad Underwood and football coach Brad Underwood appeared at an Illini Guardians event to give the collective their stamp of approval. Earlier this summer, Illinois athletics announced its NIL Impact campaign, a push for businesses and fans to support the NIL program through the Illini Guardians, individualized deals or corporate deals.

The Illini unmistakably are all-in on Illini athletics and hosting the Illini Guardians’ meet-and-greet with the basketball players right outside Memorial Stadium was further proof.

“We really want to lean into NIL,” said Cox, who has spearheaded the Illini’s NIL education efforts with student-athletes, businesses and fans. “We obviously understand it’s a very important part of the student-athlete experience, but we know it’s a really important part of our fan experience too. Fans support the Block I, but they also support the players who wear it. We want them to be able to interact with those folks, and it’s really good. We love seeing this happen, and we want to see this continuing to happen.”

Added Fleischer: “They [Illini athletics] see what other schools are doing, and they know that in order to compete, you’re going to have to have a very broad-based, deeply-funded NIL program. That can’t happen without the university support.”

Hundreds of fans interacted with the seven Illini basketball newcomers in Grange Grove two weeks ago. The Guardians, who desire to link their NIL deals with philanthropic or community-based events, also recently helped organize an NIL deal for nine Illinois football linemen that will compensate the players for their efforts in marketing and appearing at a local food bank drive. The Guardians previously hosted a Day Off Social Media event during which 100 student-athletes were paid for taking off social media for a day. The Guardians are planning more and bigger events in the future.

“It’s the start,” Fleischer said. “The way that I kind of would say this is in the world of NIL, you have to crawl before you can jog before you can run. A lot of schools hit the ground running, and you saw them trip, you saw them fall and you saw the repercussions. So I think this is the first step to get these guys to understand what NIL is all about but engaging with the community. Once this starts happening, then you have a foundation, not just for these guys but for the next group and the group after. This is what this is about.

“I think the hope in the first instance is to make a splash and create a relationship between the [student-athletes] and fans and the [student-athletes] and Illini Guardians. You see guys come through and you see how excited people are to meet these guys, you see [the student-athletes] evolving and interacting with people. That’s part of the education.”

The Guardians events are just a fraction of NIL’s possibilities for Illini-student-athletes. Many basketball players have made significant money for appearing at events — including signings at memorabilia events — and for endorsing products on social media. Illinois football players also have earned endorsement deals, highlighted by defensive linemen Keith Randolph and Johnny Newton — whom Bielema dubbed “The Law Firm” — starring in commercials for a local law firm.

But as Cox watched in Grange Grove as a line of Illini fans interacted with Illini basketball players, who were being paid well for their time, the new world of NIL looked like a positive in his eyes.

“The main thing I think the student-athletes learn is just how much their community wants to support them,” Cox said. “They know that in the abstract, but it’s another thing to really see it and really feel it.

“As this thing grows, it’s only going to get bigger. It’s only going to get more advanced, it’s only going to be able to create more engagement. So getting the right stuff in the foundation is really important.”

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