Corey Kispert, the Gonzaga basketball star who just missed the opportunity to cash in on his name, image and likeness as a college athlete, has some advice for his former teammates and competitors as they consider opportunities to hawk T-shirts, college town pizza, and more:
“Go after what you’re worth and be careful while doing it,” Kispert told MarketWatch recently.
Indeed, the so-called “NIL” or “name, image and likeness” era — which launched this month when the NCAA relaxed rules prohibiting college athletes from profiting off their name, image or likeness — has created the chance for college athletes to cash in on their personal brand while still maintaining eligibility for college sports. Previously student-athletes were barred from getting paid to promote products such as soft drinks or sports clinics if they still wanted to participate in NCAA competition.
But the new rules also opened up opportunities for companies to take advantage of 18- and 19-year-olds navigating this landscape for the first time. Those watching the fledgling industry closely have already spotted contracts asking college athletes to grant irrevocable, royalty-free rights to companies to store their likeness, modify it, reproduce it and more.
That’s why Kispert, a business major who is part-way through his MBA, advised college athletes to work with an expert to vet any contract proposal for hidden or hard-to-decipher terms that could hurt an athlete’s ability to profit off their brand down the line. For example, a company could ask an athlete for exclusive access to some aspect of their image or likeness they may want to license later.
“There’s a lot of scary stuff that can happen to you when you create deals with businesses,” said Kispert, who is expected to picked up by an NBA team in the first round of the draft on July 29. “Make sure you have somebody in your corner. Make sure they review those contracts and understand exactly what you’re getting yourself into.”
Kispert’s last season at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash. ended in spring 2021, just a few months before a patchwork of state laws and NCAA rule changes opened the door to college athletes making money off their brand. Kispert’s shooting skills, Gonzaga’s almost-undefeated season — they lost to Baylor in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament finals — and perhaps his locks, skyrocketed him to fame during last year’s college basketball season.
Kispert said he would have capitalized on that popularity, working with his favorite local clothing brands and restaurants, if he’d been allowed. “I was really fortunate enough to spend a little time in the national spotlight so I would have taken advantage of it,” he said.
“I would have spent a lot less time playing video games with my buddies and a lot more time building my personal brand,” if NIL had been around when he was in school, Kispert said.
When Kispert got to college, he knew that universities would provide some student-athletes with checks in addition to their scholarships to cover incidental costs like transportation. Still, “I knew it wasn’t going to be much,” he said. “I knew I was going to have to start seriously thinking about a budget.”
To help his funds last, Kispert engaged in behavior that will look familiar to many college students: Keeping meals largely to the cafeteria, even when it was tempting to grab a bite at a restaurant on the way home after long days of training; stretching his groceries out as long as possible; stashing any Christmas or birthday money away to save for a car.
Gonzaga athletic staff, the school and the fan community treated Kispert well and he never felt exploited, he said. “But as soon as the numbers are put in front of you and you start to look at what schools are making and what coaches are making,” and you think about those funds in the context of athletes’ work on the court and in the gym, “the questions do start to pile up,” Kispert said.
The discrepancy between the money schools, coaches and the NCAA bring in for college sports and the amount of money players receive has prompted questions for years about the fairness of amateurism in college sports.
In 2019, the top level of college football brought roughly $9 billion in revenue to participating colleges and the institutions spent about $1.6 billion on coaches’ compensation, according to the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, which tracks college athletics spending. In the year leading up to August 31, 2019, the NCAA earned $1.1 billion in revenue.
Kispert got the chance to explore questions surrounding paying college athletes as part of the National Association of Basketball Coaches Player Development Coalition. There, Kispert was part of a group of men’s basketball players who met regularly to discuss issues facing student-athletes and meet with the organization’s board of directors as well as NCAA committees.
“We talked about it a lot as a group,” Kispert said of the idea of allowing student athletes to earn money. “Just going through and detailing what we were worth and thinking about the gap between where we were and where we wanted to go.”
Now, Kispert said he’s excited college athletes will be able to earn their value. “A lot of people have spent a lot of time building a following on social media,” he said, and now they get to monetize it, “which is really, really cool,” Kispert said.
As a professional athlete, Kispert is exploring business opportunities with help from a stable of trusted experts. But even with that vetting and his own knowledge of how these deals work — “I knew what I was getting myself into more than the average bear,” Kispert said — he still found himself surprised by some of the minutiae, like the taxes and fees that can chip away at your earnings.
“Whatever the deal that’s on the paper is worth is not how much is going to be in your bank account,” he said.