NIL in the 217

NIL in the 217

As of July 1, 2021 college athletes can profit from their name, image and likeness which is commonly referred to as NIL. The ruling from the NCAA comes after years of conversations and debates surrounding this topic. Campus Ink has been at the forefront of NIL since day one. To date we have signed over 35 athletes to merchandise agreements and generated $85,000 for those athletes.

We continue to be stewards of learning and education in this very new arena. While things have gone well so far (including an investment from Mark Cuban to grow the NIL side of our business) there is still so much to learn. Because of its newness, the NIL is an ever-changing and expanding industry.

As we reflect on the first year of NIL we wanted to take a look at how local businesses have engaged with student-athletes. At the local level, we’ve seen billboards, events, social media campaigns and more. We chatted with some local businesses to get some advice on engaging with student-athletes and NIL.

Getting In Touch with the Student-Athlete(s)

So you want to work with a student-athlete on a campaign or event, but where do you even start? Figuring out how to approach the players can be the first challenge in the process. Navigating these unfamiliar waters can seem overwhelming at first but we’ve rounded up a few ways for you to get started.

  • There are platforms built specifically for NIL to connect athletes with endorsement deals. Check them out: INFLCROpenDorse and MarketPryce.
  • Use the University of Illinois as a resource. Kam Cox is the INFLUENCE Program (NIL) Coordinator and serves as the external and internal point person for the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics’ approach to NIL.
  • Some student-athletes may have agents now. Most of the time, agent information can be found on the internet.

As with everything surrounding the changes in NIL legislation, there is still a lot of uncertainty. There isn’t one right answer on how to approach the players. There are, however, some wrong answers – for example, waiting outside the gyms to pounce on the players after practice. Handle NIL agreements as you would any other business deal – with professionalism, patience and understanding – and you’ll be just fine.


You’re probably tired of hearing this already, but I’m going to continue to reiterate it – NIL is very new. This means that there will be challenges in every aspect. Whether it’s Campus Ink trying to figure out how to satisfy a players desire for “street wear” merchandise or a business trying to decide what to put on a billboard, it’s all brand spanking new.

Some common challenges encountered when working with the athletes at the local level have been in the form of communication and scheduling. Keep in mind, these individuals are students AND athletes. That is no small feat. Balancing a full load of college courses and playing a sport for upwards of 20 hours a week is a lot. This study breaks down just how much time Division I athletes are committing to their sports on a regular basis. So, add on top of that time to schedule photo and commercial shoots, signing events and whatever else they choose to do with their NIL, and we’ve got some busy people on our hands.

The other thing to keep in mind here is that they are young. These student-athletes are somewhere between the ages of 18 and 22 (sometimes a little older depending on NCAA eligibility). At 18 years old I was still trying to figure out how long to microwave a Hot Pocket. Don’t go into these NIL situations expecting polished, savvy business people. They just aren’t. Be mindful of their age and patient with them as they learn too.

Making the Most of Your Opportunity

Alright, so you followed our advice and you’ve landed your first NIL contract with a student-athlete. Now is the important part. You want to make the most of your time with the player. As we just discussed time is valuable – theirs and yours.

It cannot be stressed enough the importance of planning. Have schedules, plan out who, when where, what you’re doing. It’s probably not a good idea to go into this with no plan of what you want to do with the player. Even if that plan happens to change or evolve along the way, it’s still important to start with some sort of roadmap for this engagement.

Another thing to keep in mind is to partner with athletes that match the mission and vision of your business. Don’t force it just for the sake of featuring a popular athlete. The best campaigns and events are going to be the ones that are the most genuine. Do your research, learn as much as you can about the athletes and partner with ones that make sense for your business.

Lastly, be creative. Try and make this experience as enjoyable for the players as possible. If you’re trying to get them to do something that ends up being dreadful, it will show. These are young adults, remember? It’s easy to slap their photo on a billboard and call it a day, but is that really the most effective way of utilizing this opportunity? Think of unique ways to engage with the athletes. Have fun with your campaigns. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box. One of my favorite things to watch are the Puppy Interviews from Buzzfeed. They are silly but entertaining nonetheless. Could you do something similar?

Advice from Your Colleagues

Ready for some words of wisdom? Well we’ve got them straight from businesses who have already done this in the 217:

“Be patient. It seemed nothing happened overnight, even when we wanted to.”

-Curt Squires, OSF Heart of Mary Medical Center

“My best advice is to have a rough plan or idea in plan when you make your pitch. Just saying you want to do something and try to go from there will delay the process and won’t provide a clear vision on how the athlete will be used. We’ve seen great buzz from our partnership so far and we’re hoping more businesses will jump in to help with other U of I athletes in all sports.”

-Jeff Dobrik, Stephens Family YMCA

“Become familiar with the “rules” for marketing put in place by UIUC. Graphics cannot have any UIUC logo clothing/images in pictures/videos, and likewise with statements/messages put into marketing.”

-Gretchen Thompson, IMPACT Physical Therapy.


As I conclude this blog post, I have to give a huge shoutout to the following businesses for giving feedback on their experience with the NIL: OSF Health Care Heart of Mary Medical CenterStephens Family YMCA and IMPACT Physical Therapy.

Each of these businesses took a leap of faith and chose to test out the uncertain waters of NIL in its infancy. At the local level, they are helping to establish a blueprint of what it can look like for businesses to engage with student-athletes and their name, image and likeness. We applaud you for diving head first into this arena. We are learning right along side you.

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