Q&A: Mark Koesterer, Founder of The Players NIL, Discusses NIL Education Platform Launch

Last Updated on February 16, 2023

Mark Koesterer, the founder of The Players NIL, an online NIL education and professional development platform, announced a new partnership to provide educational content and consulting services with Athletes to Athletes (A2A). We discuss the importance of NIL education, the importance of The Players NIL Five Pillars, college athletes relationship with brands and NIL for all.

Darian: Mark, thank you so much for chatting with me today.

Mark: You’re welcome. Nice to meet you.

Darian: Nice to meet you as well! How did the partnership between the players, NIL, and Athletes to Athletes come about?

Mark:  Well, I think you know, in this journey through the first 18 or 19 months of name, image and likeness, we’re all trying to find our way and understand what the landscape looks like, what it may look like down the road. My vision for the Players NIL has always been to be there for the athletes.

So we’re not a marketplace; we’re not an agency. We don’t rep agents, or we don’t rep athletes, we don’t rep brands. We’re strictly there to empower athletes to take advantage of this opportunity. And it may not be financial; it may be, you know, the brand building may include networking, internships, job creation, and potential employment down the road. So, we’re there for a well-rounded education. I met Reid Meyer through a LinkedIn connection, and he’s of a similar mind. He’s concerned about athletes, particularly high school athletes.

He’s concerned about their mental and physical health, emotional health, and self-worth outside of sports. So, a more balanced approach than I throw the ball this fast, and everyone knows me as a pitch out. And so that resonated with me. And I think we began to talk about our vision and how similar we were in trying to empower athletes to take advantage of number one of athletics because our motto is, how can you use athletics to better your life? And then, as adults, when our athletic career’s over, the second part of that motto is, how do you use athletics to better the lives of the people around you? And I think Athletes to Athletes and the Players NIL are singularly aligned in that mission.

Darian: One of the things that I found interesting is that this platform focuses on the educational component of NIL.  How important is it for college athletes to have access to those resources that’ll help educate them on navigating this new landscape?

Mark:  Well, we’re just talking about the changing landscape of sports betting, right? And how that’s advanced and how quickly that’s escalating in terms of legalized sports gambling. I think name, image, and likeness will be similar; I think it’s probably always been in the background. I know it has; professional athletes have had sponsorships, promoted brands, and been part of campaigns for years. But I think today, for whatever reason, and there are lots of them, it’s the day, it’s a year, it’s the time of the athlete, right? It’s the day of the year when athletes are empowered and have control over their brands. And I think we as a society, particularly in the United States, but globally as well, if you look at Premier League soccer, you look at LIV Golf, you look at F1 racing, you know, athletes are more sensationalized than ever. They’re more idolized than ever. People look up to and appreciate them, which gives the athlete the power to tell their story to use it for the betterment of themselves and the people around them. And so, I think that empowering athletes with education and knowledge about how to do that is paramount to the athlete taking advantage of this heightened sensitivity to the power of athletes.

Darian: Yeah, and I agree with you. One of the things that struck me is that whenever it’s a big NIL deal that breaks, the educational component doesn’t get enough attention as the actual deals. But the NIL education is so important. I was reading a Front Office sports article the writer had wrote that only a little over 40% of women college athletes as well as men are looking to obtain more resources revolving around how to do their taxes and how to manage the financial aspects of NIL, there needs to be more education.

If there is an athlete that wants to take advantage of this educational platform, how can they go about, you know, doing that for themselves?

Mark:  Well, it’s a good question and a simple answer: go to our website, playersnil.com, and click on the Five Pillars course. There you’ll see what we consider the Five Pillars of education that every student-athlete probably should understand, whether they’re a name, image, or likeness athlete. The first one is digital marketing. I always tell people, your friends, and family, from Saturday at the lake or Sunday at the ballpark, that’s not a digital community.

A digital community is beyond friends and families. How do you grow your audience to something greater than the people you know today? So that’s pillar number one. Pillar number two is how you leverage that with a brand into a job opportunity, networking for internships, and becoming an influencer. How do you create influencer brand relationships? That’s pillar number two.

Pillar number three is what those relationships look like. So, it’s tax, legal, and compliance. And to your point, I have predicted for a long time; I’m not the only one, but I have been one of the more vocal that on April 15th, 2023, there’s going to be a dark cloud over the college athletic world. Because of the stories of kids now 18, 19 months into NIL that have made significant amounts of money but have not put away for taxes and not paid their taxes, they’re going to graduate in May and June with debt, even though they’re on a full scholarship for a Power five school. These lessons about financial responsibility are critical. So that’s pillar three. Also, part of pillar three is what lifetime rights are. What is intellectual property? You know, what are net payment terms? What did you sign for that agreement?

You know, we just had the story of the high school athlete in Florida that thought he had a $13 million deal and didn’t realize there was a clause in there that said he doesn’t, you know, did anyone advise him to that? Was he aware of that? I don’t know the answer, but I will surmise no.

Pillar four is a great way to build a brand, we call it community service and philanthropy, and it’s part of our mission to use athletics to better the lives of people around you. If you look at the most recent tragedy, which I think is going to turn out okay with Damar Hamlin, the football player that was struck on the field with a heart attack, why has his brand been so popularized? Why has he created such a sensation in the NFL and the sports community?

I think people realize this is not just a football pointer. This is a very interesting human being. The proof of that was the charitable work that he was doing, with his toys program in Pittsburgh and his mom’s charity. He wanted to raise 2,500, and last I saw, it was 9 million plus; it may be more than that now, but the charitable component of his brand is connected with people in sports; that’s Pillar four.

Pillar five is precise to your question, which is financial literacy. And I think young adults, whether they’re athletes or not, probably don’t get enough financial literacy in this day and age, whether it’s, interest payments, what’s compounding interest, you know, what’s a mortgage look like? What does it cost to have a credit card? What does long-term investment look like? What’s the difference between a loan, and other vehicles, for getting money? And how do you invest that? So those are the five pillars. And I think if you go to our website, there’s lots of free information. If you talk about that, follow me on LinkedIn, I post almost every day interesting opinions about where we’re in this space.

Darian: I’m glad you broke down those five pillars because each one offers specific value for college athletes. I understand the Player’s NIL, you know, has NIL storytellers, a development program to support athletes and how they tell their stories. You all just partnered with Athletes to Athletes on an educational platform.  Moving forward, what is the most significant area of opportunity for the Player’s NIL as NIL continues to grow, given that we’re coming up on two years? What is that area of opportunity that Player’s NIL to serve athletes moving forward as this develops?

Mark:  Well, I think in the first 19 months of NIL, we’ve sensationalized the 13 million deals goal offensive linemen that are getting 50,000 a year just to be part of the Power Five program. Those are great stories; and those kids, God bless them; number one, they have the talent, and they deserve it. Number two, they’re at schools that can provide it and support. But that’s maybe less than 2% of college athletes. What about the 98% that maybe they’re not a Power Five athlete, maybe they’re not a revenue athlete, maybe they’re an Olympic sport athlete, even if they’re a Power five score, what if they don’t have the NIL resources that an Ohio State or a Michigan, the Texas and Alabama Clemson have, ok, Florida, Florida State big schools.

What if they’re a mid-major school? What if they’re a division two, division three athlete? So, we’re focused on we would love the supply education to everyone, but we understand that those top kids probably have resources. What about the 98%? And so, our challenge, Darian, is how do we get the message out that there is a NIL deal for everyone? And it may be a hundred dollars, it may be a thousand dollars, or it may not be close to $10,000. It may be something that doesn’t involve money, again, personal development. So, we’ve developed a curriculum around NIL for all. I just finished writing a book; it’ll be out in the next couple of weeks called ‘NIL for All’. it’s a 30-minute read on educating high school athletes and families, in particular, that starting in high school is the right thing to do, build your brand, and tell your story. And no matter what your athletic accomplishments or your dreams may be, there’s a NIL opportunity, or there’s an opportunity for you to use NIL to better your life.

Darian: No, I agree. I think that one of the things that I heard also previously in another podcast in which you spoke on how NIL has changed the relationship between athletes and brand advertisement, there’s a NIL deal out there for everyone. It may just be a hundred dollars.

But I think the important thing is, is for college athletes to understand the relationship that they have with brands. How do you think that that is going to change the relationship between not just collectives and college athletes, but also maybe athletic departments; that that have their own set of sponsorships or relationships as well?

What do you see foresee kind of that dynamic relationship between the college athletes and their brands as far as, from an advertising perspective, how do you see that relationship changing as we move forward?

Mark: I spent the last 15 years here in Los Angeles producing television shows, movies, and commercials for sports-related partners. Specifically the NFL, MLB, NBA, major league baseball, or major league soccer, US soccer. So I was at the intersection of sports and entertainment, brands, athletes, production companies, agencies, and sports leagues. I had a firsthand look at how brands use athletes to sell products. You know, think about Shaquille O’Neal, think about Aaron Rogers, think about all these athletes that do all of these amazing commercials. What I have seen since NIL and is in concert with NIL is that brands are saying, Hey, you know, I can spend 7 million on a commercial campaign, or I could take 2 million, find some college athletes that have a very focused following and maybe get a better return on investment.

Now we know with artificial intelligence and internet scraping and all of these technologies; we know Darian exactly who your audience is that follows you. We know where they live, their age, and their sex. We probably know how old they are. We probably know what their income is. We probably know where they shop and what they do. So, let’s say Darian Kelly has 1200 followers, okay, which in the scope of the influence of the world, doesn’t seem like a lot of followers. But let’s say he lives in a community where 800 followers are from that immediate community. And let’s say he talks about things of interest to a particular brand. Let’s say it’s a local restaurant, a local car dealership and insurance agency, a local grocery store. Your 800 followers, that are very specific and very qualified in your region, in your geographic region, are very valuable to that grant.

So, they can go and get a professional athlete from your local sports team to talk about their brand and pay a lot of money, or they can contract with Darien Kelly for a specific audience and get a better return on investment potential. So that’s what I wrote about. That’s how advertising has changed. Brands and colleges are going to go through a dance. I don’t know where it’s gonna end up. The traditional relationship involved signage; it involved, you know, putting ads in the program; it involved donating money to, you know, construction projects and new athletic facilities. It involved donating money to LLC, an additional payment for college coaches. So think about Learfield and IMG, which manages the rights of colleges. If I’m a brand now and I say, look, I spend x number of thousand dollars year to have my in stadiums of the arena, I get so many eyeballs that look at that whether it be on television, whether it be people in the seats, how about if I go to a bunch of athletes again with this specific audience, and instead of spending money on signage, I spend money with athletes through a collective to get them to do community service, to get them to do talk about my brand. Is that a better return on investment? I don’t know the answer. There’s been some early data that says that has not happened yet. But I have gotta believe at some point there’s gonna be that conversation, and that will be very interesting how the schools react to that.

Darian: I’m noticing that it’s a lot of things … the relationships between the collectives, which you’ve always said, or not that you always said, but you mentioned that collectors are just booster clubs on steroids.  It just has expanded, you know, with the collectives. But at the same time, you know, the institution also plays a role as well because they have partnerships with brands. So I think that that’s a dance that, you know, that will continue to take place, as you said, but I’m anxious to see if there are legal relationships that’ll take place between the actual athlete, you know, versus acting as an independent versus the school.

I’m interested to see how that evolves and takes shape; going back to what you were talking about, you have a background, particularly in the advertisement space, working directly with athletes. When you work with college athletes, as you look at the landscape, what things can I guess they can do better?

Mark: At the beginning of NIL, I think the number is a little bit north of 70% of NIL deals based on social media. So, influencer-type relationships; ok. So, if that remains, and I think that will come down, we’re gonna find other ways to monetize NIL and use NIL to create brand value. And so, if the social media is 70 plus percent, improve your social media. So we professed, and part of our discussion with athletes and athletes who focus on high school athletes is whether your state allows NIL or not is not what the question is. When do you start building your brand and telling your story? And I believe it should be in high school. Cause if you wait till the day, you step on campus, you’re already behind.

You don’t have the following; you don’t have the leverage; you don’t have the brand awareness. Or if you go to a school with a collective, you’re going get a certain amount of money cause of your accomplishment. Why would you not want to monetize those two threefold, right? Why would you not want to take that to the next level? And so we advise athletes to start telling their stories. And we have two simple steps that we take. The first one is starting today; start this minute, write down every brand and, go into the notes section of your iPhone, write down every brand you see for the next 24 hours. You drive by a sign; you’re in a restaurant. You’re walking down a hallway; you’re walking down the street. Just list all of the brands, and there’ll be a lot of them. It’s a little bit of an exercise, but here, the second part is to write down all the brands you use separately.

Are you a Frito Lays potato chips guy or a Doritos guy? Are you a Coke guy? You’re a Pepsi guy. Are you Powerade or are you a Gatorade? Do you like Nike? Do you like Adidas, you know, what is it? You know, what are your hair products? What is your, you know, what is your apparel? You know, write down the brands you use and see if there’s an intersection. And if there is, start to tell a story about why I use this product. I happen to like, you know, Lubriderm skin cream. You know, there’s a zillion skin creams out there. But for me, with my pasty white skin, it works. Why not tell that story? And by the way, tag Lubriderm and start to create a relationship. Who knows, they may come back to you and say, that’s a great idea. You know, be creative.

So those two are the first two things. The second thing is to get involved with your community, particularly your high school community. You know, call your high school coach. What’s the camp schedule look like this summer? What are the hours of the week? Can I volunteer? Can I come back? Can I mentor a kid trying to figure out his college experience? Are there camps that you can participate in for pay? Is there an opportunity to start a camp? Knock on the doors of your local Main Street retail businesses: pizza shop, insurance company, subway, jersey mikes local grocery store, mom-pop shop. Tell them you’re going to do a camp, you’re going to teach kids about life skills as well as how to throw a baseball or kick a football or play basketball. And then the third thing would be to engage with a charity and create a goodwill opportunity.

And this could be, this is personal, and this is certainly subjective, but do you care about kidney disease? Do you care about cancer? Do you care about literacy? Do you care about foster kids? Are you a religious person? Go volunteer at that charity. Involve that and incorporate that into storytelling. And so, you got three things. You’ve got the brand exercise, you’ve got the high school exercise, you’ve got the local charity exercise. You put those three together. You will become a brand ambassador for someone. Someone will recognize you, someone will appreciate you, and it can all start in high school.

Darian: Absolutely. One of the things that I was always curious about with you all building in a NIL education platform is that the college athlete today is essentially a walking business within itself, no matter what, because of the new law, whether it’s D1, D2, D3, you’re a walking business. But when we talk about the education component, I’m pretty sure that when we think about… look at the D1 level, you have conference realignment that’s taking place where the big ten is expanding. So now you’re going to have college athletes commuting, you know, playing, you know, different games. So the question is, okay, are they going to be able to get specific requirements done? From an academic standpoint, it’s taking a step further how, you know, how are, you know, when we talk about the NIL education, is that do you see that now superseding for college athletes specifically, not necessarily academic requirements, but does that become now a bigger priority given the amount of money and amount of things that college athletes have to manage within this NIL era and landscape? Like does that become more of a priority at this point for them?

Mark:  Well, it could, and there’s a risk. So I think that the premise of your question is whether NIL will affect their academic progress or their eligibility cause they’re distracted or it doesn’t become a distraction. And I think just like any social behavior, you know, it could be gaming or social media itself. It could be vices, do you drink too much? Do you party too much? There’re always distractions, especially for young kids trying to figure out who they’re and their place in the community. And you’re going to have some that can handle it, some that manage it, and some that can’t handle it. That’s the way it is.

I think the conference realignment thing, I don’t believe that travel will affect them because these kids have resources in terms of tutors. They have computers these days. Many class workers are remote anyhow, especially if they’re athletes. Cause that way. They can manage their time better. But is it a pitfall? I think it’s no more a pitfall than all the other things I described, but it is an additional pitfall that needs to be considered. And I think it needs to be appropriately administrated so that kids keep balancing their life . You know, balance is essential, and so I think it’s an important question and one that needs to be addressed.

Darian: Mark, I appreciate you so much for making the time for me, you know, to speak today and get these questions answered. And I’m very excited about this NIL education platform and what it will do for college athletes. I want to continue the conversation and be an outlet for more development.

Mark:  Well, thank you for that. I appreciate the opportunity to share, and I appreciate what you’re doing. And that is, you know, remember NIL for All. And so it’s trying to make it relatable and attainable. Relatable is that every athlete says, oh, there’s a NIL deal for me. And attainable is, it could be a hundred dollars, a thousand dollars, whatever it may be. There’s something realistically attainable that I can use NIL to better my life and maybe better the lives of people around us. And I appreciate the opportunity to share that vision with you.

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