Last Updated on May 26, 2023
Business of College Sports had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Antoine Burrell, Founder of B.E. Collective +.
BE Collective + is a sports marketing agency that facilitates partnerships and bridges the gap for HBCU student-athletes to utilize their name, image and likeness (NIL), and the corporate world through digital marketing and community outreach. Antoine is a graduate of Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia, and has worked extensively across the sponsorship and partnership landscape with professional sports franchises such as the Baltimore Orioles, and Washington Nationals and collegiately with Georgetown University Athletics.
We discuss the inspiration behind BE Collective + and his agency’s impact on NIL and college athletes.
BCS: Thanks again, Antoine, for joining me for this Q and A for businessofcollegesports.com; so tell me, what is B.E. Collective +?
Antoine: B.E. Collective + is an HBCU name, image and likeness collective / agency. What separates us from other collectives in the marketplace is that we are not created for one specific school or HBCU. However, we’re out to serve all HBCU student-athletes in the capacity like an agency would, which is why we added the plus to our collective to try to differentiate ourselves to show that we’re offering more than just your average collective.
BCS: What inspired you to start B.E. Collective +?
Antoine: I am a graduate of an HBCU. I went to Hampton University and was a sports management major there, so I’ve always had a passion for sports, even throughout my collegiate career. But, at the same time, I wasn’t a student-athlete; I was learning the business side of it.
After I graduated, I got an opportunity to get into the professional sports industry, working with the Washington Nationals and then transitioning into the corporate sponsorship and activation space within collegiate athletics at the University of Maryland and Georgetown University.
I compared my experience as a student working within our athletic department and what I saw as we would do different tasks as interns and on game days and whatnot to what I saw in my professional experience and who I was working with, and how our departments were, structured and laid out and the resources that we had that I didn’t see in my student experience within our athletic department at the time.
I’ve grown professionally, looking for ways to give back and find my purpose. NIL is the greatest opportunity to level and equalize the playing field for HBCU athletics, capitalizing on many big-name marquee coaches now stepping into head coaching positions. A lot of light shines on professional leagues and organizations on HBCUs. NIL is the biggest opportunity for my professional experience. This was a way to take what I’ve learned and seen within the industry directly and then try to ensure that HBCUs stay caught up in this brand-new wave that has taken the industry by storm.
BCS: That’s true, and I wrote a name, image and likeness article discussing Adidas’ created an inclusive NIL campaign that included some HBCU athletes. One of the college athletes was Julian Calvez, Quarterback at Grambling as well as some other athletes from other notable HBCUs. In terms of leveling the playing field. Why is it essential for HBCU athletes to have that representation within this NIL landscape?
Antoine: Many people overlook what HBCU students have to offer. HBCU student-athletes provide the same amount of marketability as a Power Five student-athlete, which is all thanks to the internet. As a millennial, I know college students are now the generation below us. We came of age with the internet, so it’s only more powerful now with student-athletes and college-age students nowadays. Social media has created an opportunity where it doesn’t matter where you go to school or where you are because of your presence and the brand that you may have built on the internet. For example, suppose you were a big-time high school star in your small hometown, but you go to a local HBCU. You continue to be a star there, that same following that you grew your social media. In that case, your Instagram, your TikTok, just from living your life, being a star, having the natural popularity that you have developed from being an athlete that still carries on with you regardless if you got a scholarship to play at Alabama, or if you were playing somewhere else in the SEC or any other Power Five Conference you can still have that same notoriety, that same following that you built up during your recruitment stage or your developmental stage.
As you were in high school and developing and growing your brand, that still goes with you no matter where you go to school. So you can go to a small JUCO somewhere, and you still have that following on Instagram.
You can go to a small D-III school and still have that following on Instagram, and your athletic abilities can allow you to grow and captivate that following. So you can take your following from your small hometown in Louisiana, take it somewhere in Oklahoma, and develop a whole new following. So now you have a following in two different markets based on what you’ve created. So that’s all thanks to social media and the internet because that’s something that isn’t limited to just the exposure that your university will get, that your team will get, or that you will get as an athlete. After all, everybody has the same opportunity to control their destiny regarding the brand they present to the world.
BCS: I agree each athlete has a specific community where they’re from the teams they play for at their university or school communities. I am sure you bring this same mindset and attitude when working with athletes; what do you stress with them regarding how they engage brands and maintain those relationships over time?
Antoine: One of the first things that’s most important for me, for every athlete I talk to, is understanding what they want to do with their brand. Every student-athlete is not out here looking for the biggest deal in NIL. Every student-athlete is not looking to become an influencer or anything of that nature. Some of them are just trying to make some side money. Some of them are open to opportunities if they come. But in addition, some of them alternatively see the headlines and want that for themselves. So the first step is finding out what the student-athlete wants. Do they want to do all of this? So you got your introverts; your extroverts and personality type don’t determine whether you’re a good athlete.
Some people don’t necessarily want to be in the limelight or want to do all of those things, or may not even care that much about social media to that effect; responsibilities come with some of these NIL deals; I think the first step just finding out with the student-athlete, sitting down with them and say, where do you see this? Where do you want to take your brand? And then, from there, see how you would describe your brand. How do you want me to talk about your brand to other people? How do you want me to represent your brand? Hearing it from them directly and getting their feedback, I think, is what’s most important because I think it’s that personal touch, which guides them so that they can learn as they go, as opposed to someone just saying, Hey, this company wants to work with you. You have to do this, they do this, and then here you go and make it transactional.
If you allow yourself to hear their side and what they’re looking for, that’s what makes true partnerships. Everybody’s winning on both sides. Everybody knows what they’re signing up for and is comfortable with the deal.
BCS: Speaking of deals, you recently signed your first athlete a while ago, Carmynn Bonner, a softball player at Hampton University. She also signed her first deal. Take me through that process of one, being able to sign that first athlete to your collective, and then secondly, what was that experience like landing that first NIL deal?
Antoine: We’ve approached launching our collective by trying to meet the students and the brands where they’re at because that’s where we’ll find the brands most interested in NIL and the students. So that means we’re on Instagram, pushing heavily on Instagram, building our following, and building our brand. It’s been built strictly from the ground up as far as from zero followers to where we are now, and just trying to make sure we’re following the correct accounts, following university pages, following team pages, following student-athletes that are tagged in various posts and, liking their posts, engaging with their posts just trying to get in front of them to interact with our page so that they can see the information that we’re putting out.
We wanted to take the approach of establishing ourselves as a thought leader and as a place that they can come for as a resource, even if it is just on Instagram, while they’re scrolling, and can still get facts or information regarding NIL regarding how they can navigate the space as a student-athlete, understanding what brands are looking for and things like that.
From there, we’re still doing marketing because we’re a business, and so still trying to attract them to us, drive traffic to our site and get them to contact us and want to be a part. Because a big part of this is it’s more than just signing a bunch of athletes. You still have to get the deals; I think we start with trying to reach them, and if they are interested in us, then we are here to help them because it’s no sense in us selling a pipe dream and getting a whole bunch of people on our roster if we aren’t getting them deals.
So, when we have students, they reach out to us, follow us, hit the link in our bio, visit our webpage and see what our website is about and what we’re about as a collective. They can register online to fill out a questionnaire as far as reaching out, and we’ll get back to them directly and get some time on the calendar.
We get an understanding through that questionnaire, their name, their principal, their sport, their interests, what kind of brands they’re interested in working in, working with, and how they would describe their brand so that we can kind of get an idea of what students are interested in working with us. Then we schedule an introductory call, and we have that call and, and discuss again, you know, who we are, the mission behind B Collective +, what we’re aiming to do, how we operate.
We value transparency and let them know every stage is; we’re a startup and growing too, so that they know is our process as we grow, they’re growing. We’re doing everything possible to grow their brand, but they’re helping us too. They’re our best case study. So, we help each other out as we navigate this space together. That’s how we were able to navigate our relationship with Carmynn. Just having those meetings and conversations with her to understand her interests, what her time and her schedule looked like getting, her class schedule, her workout schedule, her game schedule, understanding is that what is a reasonable way that we can regularly communicate what works for her, what are the best ways of communication just kind of getting those kinds of understandings to build that rapport with her so that we can now move forward and work towards getting deals and keeping her updated as we’re making new contacts and reaching out to brands and, different things that we’re going to do, whether it’s a social post going out, or we need you to tag us in this, or we’re going to tag you in this. Also, letting her know those things and keeping her up to date.
This ultimately led to following up and transitioning into her first deal that we recently landed with Prodigy Fitness Apparel which was a great opportunity. Prodigy Fitness is new to the NIL space. They’ve got a handful of athletes, a few high school athletes, a few college athletes. Carmynn will be their first female collegiate student-athlete and first HBCU student-athlete.
So there are many firsts for this deal; we’re excited about bringing Carmynn to the Prodigy team and how she can help grow and launch their brand and get them in front of a new demographic. So we’re excited for that.
The opportunity came to fruition, given the relationships we established at Prodigy, which were fascinating. They found out we had some student-athletes on our roster who were interested in working, getting involved with some female student-athletes, and we were like, hey, we got someone for you. We shared Carmynn’s profile, followers, and engagement rates from Instagram and TikTok. She’s like 90,000+ on TikTok and has a high engagement rate. So, she was an excellent opportunity for the Prodigy brand and for us to land that first deal.
So like I said, we are all in the spirit of transparency, having the conversations with Prodigy, getting an understanding, okay, what are you guys interested in offering? What does the deal look like? Having those conversations with Carmynn, letting her know this is what the deal is, and helping her understand that these are the details they’re prepared to offer.
Also, having conversations with her to help her understand the deal. Some of these deals may be exclusive; some may not be exclusive; some may say you must have four posts; some may say you need six posts. Some of it, it has to live for 24 hours. Some of it can be taken down right away. So we walk through the steps of the deal so that she knows because these deals are sometimes long-term partnerships. So making sure she knows, like, okay, if we sign this deal, this is what looks like moving forward until the end of this deal. So signing one deal means we can’t work with another deal in this category or this space.
We also help her to understand categories, exclusivities, and what that means. So, for example, suppose an athlete is interested in working with many cup brands. In that case, we have to ensure that we’re looking at their exclusivity in every single deal because the moment someone says it, we know that’s now cut off any other opportunities. But it is then evaluating some opportunities. Is this worth it? Is it a stepping stone to position yourself and grow as a brand with your first opportunity? Or is it that sometimes the juice isn’t worth the squeeze? It’s understanding the nuances and helping her to understand, especially in her case, she’s a freshman, and so we’ve got a long-standing partnership with her to help her learn this game as it grows too. We understand the NIL landscape and what brands are looking for, putting her in the best possible position.
BCS: Absolutely! I read an article not too long ago where it was talking about how brands have to acknowledge that when it comes to athletes, particularly student-athletes, they’re not necessarily natural influencers. For some athletes, you have to hold their hand; for others, you just let them follow a format.
You have had experiences in the sponsorship and partnership spaces. From your perspective, how can brands with limited eyes on them capitalize on leveraging student-athletes within the name, image and likeness space?
Antoine: Oh, I think they have the greatest opportunity, honestly, the small brands, the up and coming brands, the local brands, those brands have the greatest opportunity because honestly, personal recommendation is like, don’t look at it from the lens like you see in Adidas campaign, and like you see a Nike campaign on tv, look at it from a very baseline lens, in the same way, that you may spend $500 to put an ad in your program for that soccer team. You could spend $750 next year, 500 to keep your ad in the program, and 250 go to a student-athlete who is a part of that team, and they’re promoting your business as well.
So it’s just little things like that, and I use that as just an example. But, still, like, it’s breaking it down to the smallest form and realizing that the opportunities are in front of you, the opportunities present themselves.
There has to be someone that understands how to translate it for those that don’t understand it. So there has to be someone who can explain to the local pizza shop business owner why he should do a deal with a couple of players he always sees in there every Thursday. Maybe he’s just giving them gift cards to come to eat for free, but those gift cards are still a way that it can be a NIL deal, which was once illegal. So now this student-athlete has another opportunity to eat. So then now they can go there, use their gift card, get something to eat, bring some buddies, bring a teammate or whatever, and in exchange for those gift cards, they’re sending a post or a tweet taking a selfie while they’re there and tagging the restaurant.
Right there, you’ve created a deal that is a low lift for the business, as it costs them the rate of their gift cards and the service of what they would’ve been doing. But that’s also how a lot of businesses and restaurants operate anyway. And then you have a student-athlete who was already going to eat at this place anyway because it’s close to campus, probably a bit cheaper, and now he, she, or they get to eat there for free. So we have a win-win from both sides as far as like its opportunities like that; why I say don’t look at it at the lens of, you know, raising Cannes deal or these deals that we see and all of the articles and headlines because it doesn’t have to be that grandiose.
It can be something just as small as that. But that was a large premise of NIL and why we wanted to see this kind of thing happen. So even still, maybe it’s not gift cards; it’s looking at your marketing budget. Like if you guys are spending this amount of money on Facebook ads, perhaps we take some of that money from the Facebook ad and give that to a student directly who’s already coming there; that’s going to bring more students now to your place because they’re all on campus. You know, that’s worth an extra hundred, $250 to kick over to that kid’s, to post twice or thrice for the next three months. You know, that’s an investment that is worth it to grow your business in a short-term solution. So it’s ways of looking like that, looking at NIL and those opportunities for smaller businesses, smaller brands up and coming companies up and coming to the large scale businesses and brands.
BCS: That’s a key point because now, you take, like, a car dealership, for example; I remember the Ohio State football team had different NIL deals with various car dealerships. So now, certain companies can maximize their marketing budgets because they don’t have to spend as much to pay for an ad Instagram or a Facebook ad. So they can tap in with the athletes that are on campus, as you said.
What is interesting on that same topic of NIL is the whole idea of creating content with NIL. So, for example, you saw Clemson; they just started the Clemson Athletic Branding Institute. Given your understanding of HBCUs and the spending power that certain HBCUs have when it comes to athletic departments, how can schools that may not necessarily receive a lot of funding, particularly on the HBCU side, compete when it comes to leveraging or creating content within the NIL space that may not necessarily have, a building dedicated strictly to creating content around NIL, what are areas that they can mainly capitalize on to stay competitive within that space?
Antoine: The first one is a completely shameless plug, B.E. Collective+. That is a significant reason we were created to be that extension and help HBCU athletic departments to help them build to that stage where they can sustain within. To make that content or have access or resources for their student-athletes. You know, that goes into that agency side of the collective plus model of what we’re trying to create here is being able to be that full-service NIL solution for the HBCUs in the athletic departments that we hope to work with and, you know, sign them as partners so that our services can go to all of their student-athletes.
But even outside of entities like us, I think I think it starts with like kind of utilizing like your on-campus resources, you know, internships in the sports industry; it’s a crime that they still got us working that hard for free when you’re trying to get in the industry; I hope that it changes very soon for the young kids coming in. But even still, like, that is a great learning experience for kids on campus interested in working.
A lot of college kids are very talented. We see the birth of side hustles everywhere. Everybody is doing something on the side, whether self-taught or finding out how to do it. So, it’s tapping into the campus videographers. The ones making those hype videos for the parties at homecoming are getting them and saying, Hey, are you interested in helping us out for the games this week? So it’s getting those kids that already have the ability, helping them create their portfolio for whatever they want to do. They may not want to be sports videographers, but if they are passionate about film and recording, this is more content for their repertoire. It just helps them learn, and you have your standard interns within your departments and marketing.
You have them working with their classmates that they know are good at this, and you tap into the resources that are there that are available. Because albeit you may not be able to build a branding center for your university and your student-athletes, but, you know, I’m sure there’s a couple of those kids that know what they’re doing with a camera and a few of them that know their way around Canva and Photoshop that can help create, more exciting, more eye-popping type of graphics or content that the university athletics can push out to do the best that they can because they just, like the student-athletes have that same opportunity of the internet. You are creating your brand and building your presence.
So you can build it until they come; you make your presence and awareness by tapping that way. Then, eventually, future students see this online, and prospective students are like, oh, this school looks cool, let me check them out. Now you’re getting more interest in your school which may lead to new opportunities.
It may lead to the growth in numbers that you need to get more budget, the increase in numbers or excitement in fandom or ticket sales, or opportunities that come from just building your awareness, building your fan base, building those opportunities. So sometimes it’s a matter of just working with what you got until you can have the resources. But the lack of resources should not be the end of all cases.
BCS: It’s tapping into your talent because it’s not necessarily lacking; it’s just utilizing what you have. As you said, you can tap in with a videographer that can create content. That’s going to be the key. The content created around name, image, and likeness will have a lasting impact.
It reminds me of an article about Deion Sanders’s impact at the University of Colorado and how it’s not just him. It’s more about the content being created, his son has a media company, and his children have prominent YouTube channels. Sure, the University of Colorado football program hasn’t been discussed on the level it has been talked about now, but when you think about why it’s mainly because of Deion Sanders and the reputation he has built as a player and coach, in addition, you have to factor in the media properties that are associated with him and the number of eyes they attract.
So I think that, as NIL grows moving forward, I believe that the media component is going to be just as competitive; as we see the deals take place as more schools kind of build these facilities specifically for content creation, I think that that’s a space that will continue to grow.
Antoine: Most definitely, a common misconception is that NIL will grow with the student-athletes who perform the best. But to your point, it’s really about the content. Regardless, we will see the power of user-generated and authentic content these student-athletes create.
We may see a day when a student-athlete does a sponsored post and talks about how they went, 2 for 15 on the court that day. But, shout out to whoever the sponsor is the cause of this t-shirt, and it might be funny and get laughs; it might, you know, normalize having bad days, or who knows what could come of that. We see anything on the internet these days, right? So like, it’s just those kinds of opportunities that, yes, your ability is great, it can grow your following. But also, or not even, but even if you are the last guy down there on the bench, you still have opportunities. You still have opportunities because you are on the team, so you have enough skill and talent to be on the team. So don’t let the fact that you’re not a starter or you’re not the star stop you from seeking NIL opportunities. Like, you just have to tap into what are your strengths. Are you talented at sports or something else? Do you play the piano?
Can you draw well, like, do you cut hair? What other talents are still marketable that we just combine with you being a student-athlete and your growing brand? As you said, it’s really about the content.
Youth like I’m super old, but like people younger than us, they get more creative. We try to guide them and predict their actions, but they will continue to get more creative. Allowing their creativity to shine while also giving them an opportunity and taking advantage of it by hitching a board with it.
BCS: What you said there is vital where, even though you may be at the end of the bench, you still have something to contribute. It’s just a matter of identifying what your talents are.
Going back to pre-NIL, college athletes had a one-track approach to things where you go to practice, you watch film, you go to school, and that’s it. If you do anything outside of that, that is not sports related; we don’t want to shed any light on it. However, NIL is humanizing student-athletes during a period when we love to subscribe to not just brands but also individuals now. Additionally, I believe NIL is doing a great job of humanizing student-athletes. Even though they’re student-athletes, they are also day-to-day people with interests like you and me.
When you look at the landscape, what do you think, whether it’s from a brand or an athlete’s side of things? What is the biggest area of opportunity? Things are changing, and we’re getting into the second year; what is one thing on the branding side that’s the biggest area of opportunity? Further, what opportunity may people need to pay more attention to?
Antoine: The biggest opportunity from a brand side is affordable marketing. Very specific. The research all says about influencer marketing and how it’s cheaper. But from a brand side, it is a real opportunity there. The dollars spent with the ads, the sponsor posts, and things like that, all of these different mediums that are just traditional marketing media assets, we have a new player in the game influencer marketing, NIL, is a new player in the game and it’s the new shiny toy. So why would you not capitalize on that? Why would you not? That will bring you eyeballs that will get people talking about you because it is something new, but to be early on to it. Because if it’s not going anywhere, it’s not like it will stop happening.
Brands need to take advantage while the opportunity is still affordable. The cost of influencers will only keep going higher. The more popular, the more followers, the more engagement, and the more reach these influencers have, it’s only going to cost more and more, people’s value their worth, and things will go up.
That’s where NIL becomes enormous; this is an opportunity where, like, if you already invest in sports marketing if that is your lane of marketing, where there is a bunch of companies that do like this is an opportunity to jump on the hot new shiny toy to put reestablish, re-put your footing amongst your competitors. There’s likely only a little of all one industry all utilizing student-athletes and NIL and things of that nature for their marketing campaign.
So why not be one of the first, or try to be one of the early adopters of something instead of just the wait-and-see approach? Conversely, there’s always the wait-and-see; let’s see how it plays out. Let’s see what all these other companies do with it and how, like, does it work? Does it not work? A healthy risk can be taken by just taking a step and a leap of faith. Especially once you start creeping into year two, year three, at this point, we see like, all right, it wasn’t a fluke; it’s not going anywhere. Numbers are still getting higher; people are still interested in this. So now is the golden opportunity to be one of those early adopters and be one of those people to establish yourself in the forefront.
For student-athletes and universities, specifically HBCUs, the opportunity lies in understanding what you have to offer instead of always looking and comparing to the neighborhood school or who you see in the March Madness tournament or anything like that. It is not comparing your school to their school, what they have, their resources, who their alums are funding boosting, private versus public. It’s looking inside and recognizing that our volleyball team has won the conference championship four years in a row. So maybe, there’s an opportunity there. Conversely, we may have a softball team defending champions going for it back-to-back season. So what that is not your football or basketball team and those opportunities, it’s still taking advantage of the options.
Because at the same time, when it is your big program, your football team, or your basketball team, the same rules will apply. Just because your team is doing good doesn’t mean overlooking opportunities that can sustain you long-term, keep you going, and keep you riding high. So that can set the tone for your other programs to say, ” Okay, we’re going to model how we market and promote our other programs off of our most successful teams.” That way, you can bring it all in-house because, especially as an HBCU alum, it’s just one of those, like, we’re a fan of our school regardless. So like, I’m not a fan of my school’s football team, but I don’t like our basketball team.
Like my school is my school, right? The same name that’s on the jersey is what’s on my degree. So it is not a matter of just saying, oh, we don’t have this, or we don’t have that. It’s taking advantage of what you have and the opportunities in front of you, and that’s how you start. I’m not saying it’s going to change overnight, it’s not going to be the magic cure-all fix or anything like that, but you have to start somewhere. You have to do something to attract the brands. You must do something to draw the sponsors, fans, and people to buy tickets. You have to do some of the work upfront so that you can put it out there, put a good product out there, and let your fan base see, oh, this is different from what I’m used to, but I like what we’re doing.
I like where we’re going. I like this. You know, let me continue to support this. And that’s how you can position yourself to talk to a brand, talk to sponsors and say, Hey, no, we’ve got the numbers. Like we have x, we are selling out, packed here, talking to donors, boosters and whatnot. Like, hey, you all love us, but we need money. At this point, everybody’s supporting us, and now we need to help everybody. And that’s how you get the conversations going. But it’s just a matter of not looking at it like we don’t have what they have, but you got ta take advantage and start somewhere. So like, why not use what you already have?
BCS: I like that a lot because what you said there is key as an HBCU alum; it’s not a matter of I don’t like this particular team versus the other team. For you, it’s Hampton; I’m embracing Hampton as a community, not just the athletic teams. I also think that it popped in my mind as well the realization that when you see, or you read that, this Hampton softball player just signed this NIL deal, it’s going to be like, wow, like I didn’t even know that our school was involved in name, image and likeness.
It creates a buzz in the community. And then I think that that that’s more important too because I believe that, as you said, you have to start somewhere, but at the same time, if the eyes aren’t on it and it’s not talked about enough, then it’s tough for people to be like, you know because our attention spans are so short.It could be a way to really galvanize the community and bring people together so that there are more, you know, NIL opportunities for athletes within these universities.
Antoine: Oh yeah, most definitely.
BCS: Antoine, thank you so much, you know, for joining me; I appreciate your time and just learning more about, you know, B.E. Collective +. Where can you know people follow along as far as B.E. Collective + as far as staying updated on what is taking place, you know, athlete signings and new updates, where can people follow along?
Antoine: Oh yeah. So you can check us out on LinkedIn at B.E. Collective+ That’s our LinkedIn page. So you can follow us there. You can follow us on Instagram; that’s where a lot of our content is pushed out at post-reel highlights; you can check out our student-athletes and their content. We are on Instagram at the HBCU collective, so it’s all spelled out, all one word, the HBCU collective. So you can check us out and follow us on Instagram. As I said, on Instagram, we try to be a source of knowledge and a resource for student-athletes that follow us, but also of opportunity and another outlet for our student-athletes that were signed to, you know, expand their reach and help grow their profiles as well.
BCS: Absolutely. Again, thank you so much, Antoine, and I look forward to following B.E. Collective +. I’m excited that you all signed your first athlete, and I know it’s a sign of great things to come moving forward.
Antoine: Thank you. I appreciate it, and thanks for having me. It’s been a pleasure.