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June 24, 2024

Here’s an inside look at UConn’s name, image and likeness infrastructure, and how it’s key to recruiting, compensating and educating top athletes

HBJ PHOTO | STEVE LASCHEVER Jason Butikofer, deputy director of athletics/chief operating officer, leads UConn Athletics’ name, image and likeness efforts.

If you’re a fan of UConn men’s basketball, or you’ve even just casually paid attention to the team over the past two years, you probably know the name Donovan Clingan, a hard-to-miss 7-foot, 2-inch center.

Winning back-to-back NCAA titles — which Clingan did during his two seasons with the team, before declaring for the NBA Draft in April — makes you famous, but so does having your face on billboards and in TV ads.

That hasn’t always been the case for college athletes, who in the past were forbidden by NCAA rules from accepting money to represent businesses. That has changed, though, in the still-evolving landscape of collegiate sports in which we now live — the era of NIL, which allows student athletes to earn money from their name, image and likeness.

Still, you likely don’t know the names of the people who help UConn student athletes navigate the nuances of NIL. Names like Jason Butikofer or David Noble.

Or, those who help raise NIL money for the athletes, such as John Malfettone or Marc D’Amelio.

In the NIL era, which is only three years old, what they and others do to support the school’s athletes is becoming as important as the work done by the coaches, particularly in helping UConn recruit top athletes to remain competitive on the field, court or ice rink.

Hartford Business Journal dove into the morass of NIL to understand how UConn competes on this new financial playing field, including a look at how much money is involved — the short answer is, no one will say — as well as where it comes from and where it goes.

The most interesting revelation, though, is that UConn officials view NIL not just as a chance for a lucrative payday for some athletes, but as an opportunity to learn — about business and life.

‘Tether education and growth’

Butikofer’s official title at UConn is deputy director of athletics/chief operating officer.

He does a number of things, from leading ticket operations and sales, to overseeing the National C Club, which supports former student athletes and managers.

But Butikofer — who previously served as deputy director of athletics at both Purdue University and the University of Washington — was hired in June 2022 by Athletic Director David Benedict for another, explicit purpose.

UConn Athletics Director David Benedict.

“David originally brought me here with the priority being getting the structure and strategy set for our NIL program,” Butikofer said. “We’ve launched and grown from there.”

NIL officially launched on July 1, 2021, when the NCAA created an interim policy allowing athletes to earn money from their name, image and likeness.

Since then, there have been numerous updates, revisions, lawsuits and court decisions that continue to reshape what schools and athletes can and can’t do.

Asked about the shifting NIL landscape, Butikofer said it creates anxiety for everyone.

“It’s like a moving target, and things are constantly changing,” he said. “So, it kind of feels like the plane’s being built as it’s being flown.”

Eric Brown

Eric Brown, a Watertown labor and employment attorney who counsels college athletes, said NIL has undergone “a rapid evolution.”

In its first year, schools initially took a “hands-off approach” out of fear of NCAA sanctions, which left athletes on their own trying to find promotional opportunities that often were minimal, “maybe 10 or 15 bucks for social media posts” or free merchandise, he said.

“So, you’ve got these nationally known athletes getting a pittance, and the colleges weren’t doing a heck of a lot to support it,” Brown said. “They weren’t training these kids on what they could do, what their opportunities could be.”

UConn, however, was determined to set a foundation that would “tether education and personal and professional growth with the NIL journey,” Butikofer said.

To do that, the university turned to its Werth Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, which was founded in 2017 with a $22.5 million gift from philanthropist and entrepreneur Peter J. Werth.

The institute launched Championship Labs in 2022 to provide student athletes entrepreneurial support, as they can now earn money by creating and promoting their own brand and selling merchandise across social media — which can mean selling autographed jerseys on TikTok or Instagram, or doing their own sponsored podcasts — or by signing contracts to promote existing brands or businesses.

David Noble

Werth Institute Director David Noble said Championship Labs provides counsel on topics that range “from best practices on social media to experimenting behind or in front of the camera, to launching a clothing line, or whatever a student can dream up.”

Benedict, UConn’s athletic director, said Championship Labs’ role is critical.

“What the Werth Institute does through Championship Labs is really a big piece of supporting our student athletes on a daily basis,” he said.

NIL platform

While getting the Werth Institute, which also serves regular students, involved was important, UConn still had to develop a strategy for raising money for its athletes.

Butikofer said the NIL landscape includes “three buckets.” The first involves “collectives” — organizations independent from the university that raise money, including from businesses and wealthy donors, to compensate athletes.

The second bucket involves the more traditional brand deals, in which athletes sign agreements to be paid to promote a brand or business.

The third bucket is group licensing, which involves athletes who pool their NIL rights and then license them for compensation as a group.

Butikofer said schools are prohibited from acting on behalf of a specific athlete.

“We can’t act as their agent,” he said. “We can’t negotiate contracts for them.”

Schools also have limited say over the contracts athletes sign. They can set institutional policies to protect their own brands, which includes prohibiting athletes from promoting gambling, alcohol, tobacco or marijuana.

“I think the only space that we really have had to navigate at this point is a brewery,” Butikofer said. “Is it a restaurant, or are they just producing beer?”

Connecticut joined several other states in passing its own NIL law in July 2021. It requires athletes to disclose to the school “any NIL activity that results in compensation” within 10 days.

“Sometimes we know about deals that are happening weeks in advance, sometimes we find out a couple of days before,” Butikofer said. “But we’ve had no issues.”

While athletes, coaches and administrators can all utilize the expertise of the school’s two compliance officers, keeping track of each individual athlete’s deals can be difficult. So, like many NCAA institutions, UConn contracts with Opendorse Marketplace, an NIL platform.

Opendorse, Benedict said, allows athletes to build profile pages, enabling fans seeking autographed jerseys, or businesses seeking athletes for promotional events, to find them.

“It also serves as a business-to-business application,” he said, noting that it can handle payments and record transactions, “which is ultimately important from a reporting standpoint for a lot of reasons.”

Benedict said the platform also can generate a 1099 tax form used by independent contractors to report income to the IRS.

The collectives

The money, of course, is the root of NIL. The whole point is to allow student athletes to monetize their names and faces.

And make no mistake, the money can be significant.

In February, college sports media and data company On3 reported that NIL collectives and schools in the major conferences are projected to spend about $325 million over the next 12 months on name, image and likeness efforts.

While specifics of NIL deals are generally not disclosed — they are not subject to Freedom of Information laws — information about their value sometimes leaks out.

For example, ESPN reported in May that former Utah basketball star Great Osobor transferred to the University of Washington in part because of a $2 million NIL deal.

Butikofer stated unequivocally that, other than scholarships, none of UConn’s athletics budget can be used to pay athletes. It would be difficult for the institution to take on that cost, given that UConn Athletics continues to run a deficit — $30.2 million in 2023, down from $53 million in 2022.

Butikofer also said NIL funds are not intended to be used to pay recruits

Money raised by outside organizations, however, can compensate athletes for things like participating in teaching camps, or visiting schools or hospitals.

John Malfettone

That’s where the collectives come in. There are two that raise money for UConn, including Bleeding Blue for Good, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that was co-founded two years ago by alums John Malfettone, a former private equity executive who also worked at GE Capital and KPMG, and John Greenblatt, who previously served as interim CEO of the UConn Foundation, the school’s charitable arm.

Malfettone, who serves as president of Bleeding Blue, said he and Greenblatt did not want to raise money just to pay athletes. They also wanted them to learn something.

“That’s why we combined it with a 501(c)(3),” he said. “The athletes only get paid when they do some charitable work. … It’s not just benefiting the athletes financially, it’s benefiting them in terms of their understanding of what it means to be a role model.”

Jared Thomas

Bleeding Blue Executive Director Jared Thomas, a former Army officer with a law degree, said it’s also important for businesses to see there can be a strong return on their investment when they contribute to NIL.

He cited a charitable effort in the past year on behalf of the Connecticut Red Cross, which was conducting a blood drive and had just 12 people signed up to donate. Once Bleeding Blue agreed to have men’s and women’s basketball players attend to sign autographs and take photos with donors, “within 12 hours, every single slot was filled.”

Unlike for-profit businesses, which have marketing budgets to compensate athletes for appearances, Bleeding Blue paid UConn’s athletes on behalf of the Red Cross, which Thomas said is essentially an “in-kind donation” to the nonprofit organization.

He declined, however, to say how much money Bleeding Blue has raised and paid to UConn athletes over its two years. Thomas did say his organization spends 10% or less of the money raised to cover its expenses, in part because he is the collective’s only paid employee.

According to Bleeding Blue’s 990 tax form filed with the IRS, the organization in 2022 reported $579,204 in revenue from grants and contributions. It also disclosed $523,534 in expenses, including $181,500 paid to Ohio-based ProCamps, an event management and sports marketing company, and $165,375 paid to Opendorse, the NIL marketplace platform used by UConn. 

Bleeding Blue has partnered with ProCamps on hosting basketball camps around the state that have featured UConn players.

Bleeding Blue at the end of 2022 listed $86,398 in assets and $30,728 in liabilities. 

Marc D’Amelio

In addition to Bleeding Blue, there is also the D’Amelio Huskies Collective. Founded as a for-profit entity by UConn alum Marc D’Amelio, who has a background in the apparel industry, his collective also was formed as a way to educate UConn athletes, though with a focus on brand building.

D’Amelio, whose daughters Charli and Dixie are social media influencers, founded Madsoul Clothing Co. in 2000, and sold it six years later to former NFL player Drew Pearson. He and Pearson later founded Level 4 Collective, which represents licensed apparel companies, including Mitchell & Ness, owner of throwback sports jersey licenses for former players like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. 

With that background and business knowledge, D’Amelio believed he was well-suited to help college athletes understand the business of branding.

“For me, it’s never been just about trying to stockpile money,” he said.

Murky future

While the educational aspect of NIL won’t change for UConn, the business landscape of college sports is expected to shift again in a major way. In May, the NCAA reached a $2.8 billion settlement agreement with former college athletes who had filed an antitrust class action lawsuit demanding compensation that had been denied to them. A judge still has to approve the deal.

A condition of the settlement would permit school athletic departments to directly share revenue from ticket sales and TV contracts with athletes. It sets the amount to be shared at 22% of that revenue to start, or roughly more than $20 million annually per school.

“It’s starting to look like rather than using NIL money to retain athletes and give them some spending money, it will be used to recruit athletes,” said Brown, the labor attorney. 

Schools being allowed to pay athletes could put smaller colleges in conferences that don’t demand the largest TV contracts — like UConn, which plays in the Big East, a non-Power 5 conference — at a competitive disadvantage.

But Benedict, UConn’s athletic director, says there’s always been an uneven playing field between college sports programs.

“Before it was facilities” that schools would compete over, “and then it was all the additional things,” he said. “It's how you travel and how much swag you give them, so there's always been this effort and competitiveness with trying to one up your peers and your competitors.”

He added that, in his opinion, NIL “is going to probably die down or be eliminated once you get to a place where there’s revenue sharing.”

UConn in the NIL era

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