The First Days of the NIL Era

Last Updated on February 3, 2023

I’m joined on this episode by Drew Butler, EVP of Collegiate at Icon Source, a platform where student athletes (and professional athletes) can connect with brands for partnerships. We recorded on the second day of this new NIL Era and talked all about how it’s going so far.

One of our main focuses in this podcast is how female student athletes will fare in this new system. Drew talked about why some of the women are even more valuable in the marketplace than the male student athletes and what they’re hearing from brands so far.

We also talked about why Icon Source was already in a great position to serve student athletes and why Drew wanted to join the company.

Drew is a former NFL punter for the Arizona Cardinals & Pittsburgh Steelers. While at UGA, Drew was twice First-Team Academic All-American. He is the host of the highly popular “Punt & Pass” podcast and additional shows.

My open letter to female student athletes on NIL

Some trackers I mentioned that may be of interest:

State-by-State Legislation Tracker

School Policy Tracker

NIL Marketplace Tracker

You can follow IconSource on FacebookTwitterInstagram or LinkedIn.

You can listen below or click the Subscribe button at the end of this post to be taken to your favorite podcast app to listen. There’s also an abridged transcript below.

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Listen to more episodes of the Business of College Sports podcast here.

Abridged Transcript

We’ve edited the full transcript below to focus on the highlights from the podcast.

Kristi Dosh

Tell us just a little bit about Icon Source and what it does.

Drew Butler

Yeah, Icon Source is an on-demand digital marketplace that connects brands with athletes. Our founder and CEO Chase Garrett founded Icon Source in 2018 when he left Red Bull. He was Red Bull’s athlete marketing manager and had signed athletes like Reggie Bush, Kris Bryant, Red Gerard, the Olympic gold medalist snowboarder, he understood what it was like to be a sports marketer.

He was a professional athlete, he raced motocross, he was a professional agent. So he’s been in and around pro sports at a very high level his entire life, and in working at Red Bull, he knew that he could walk to any athlete or any agent and get a deal done. That’s the kind of brand equity that Red Bull has.

In knowing that, he understood that 99% of brands and athletes didn’t have that opportunity. So he left a dream job at Red Bull and founded Icon Source. What Icon Source does is bring those brands directly to the athletes or to the agents to facilitate endorsement deals in a streamlined and efficient manner.

So for the past two years, Icon Source has provided this platform for over 2,000 professional athletes and their sports agents and high-profile brands and hyper-local brands utilize the platform to engage directly with the athletes to come to faster agreements and get them done in that streamlined and efficient manner. Well, last year COVID happened you know, sports marketing took a huge rain delay. 

In that time, Chase and the team were smart enough and had the foresight to say, we have what is exactly needed  for the college NIL situation. We are the only proven solution as a marketplace that was ready to take advantage of July 1st (the first day where athletes can benefit from name, image and likeness). So over 1,000 student athletes have signed up on the platform.

It’s never been allowed before. It’s so exciting, and yesterday (July 1st) kicked off with a bang and Icon Service is ready, which was so awesome. Our app is seamless, our web-based platform is awesome, and we got overwhelmingly positive reviews yesterday.

The Brands Jumping in on NIL Early

Kristi Dosh

I saw a lot of tweets that involved you (Icon Source) throughout the day, so congratulations on a very successful day one of the NIL era. When you think about the brands who are lining up to work with student athletes, are there certain industries or types of products or categories you’re seeing that are more interested maybe in student athletes than others?

Drew Butler

I think at the onset, there was a good mix of hyper-local brands, there was a good mix of aspiring brands that wanted to create some positive PR, and then there was a great mix of high-profile brands. Icon Source facilitated an agreement between Boost Mobile and the Cavinder twins who are Fresno State basketball players. They both averaged 20 points a game, they have an immense following on tik tok and social media.

Butler continues:

And we did an interview with CNBC yesterday and they asked Stephen Stokols, the CEO of Boost Mobile, “Why the Cavinder twins”? And he said, look, Boost Mobile is the fourth largest wireless provider in America but there’s a pretty big gap between number four and number three. The Cavinder twins are female basketball players at a Mountain West school playing a non-revenue sport–they’re underdogs. So it was only natural for a brand like Boost to align with the Cavinder twins.

That is a natural and authentic engagement because what are the Cavinder twins known for? Utilizing social media. What do you use to get on social media? Your phone. I mean, that’s brilliant, and they did it and they had a blast.

The Cavinder twins were on a huge billboard in Times Square yesterday–Boost Mobile loved it. I mean, these are things where there was a really heavy moment yesterday because history was made. The Cavinder twins had never been in New York City before, and now they’re shooting Tik Tok’s while on a billboard in Times Square.

Butler continues:

It was so cool to be a part of that movement, and to your point, yes, those things happen on July 1st, and they were publicly made available and it was great for everybody involved. This web is going to spread so wide. Female student athletes, diversity inclusion, just really focused brands, and then of course, your big premier 1% (of student athletes), but there are so many opportunities. There’s so many exciting activations being done by brands, and they’re finding out that Icon Source is the preferred way to activate this new NIL market.

What Does the NIL Landscape Look Like for Female Student Athletes?

Kristi Dosh

It has been really refreshing to see that female athletes have been getting just as many deals as male athletes. I kept up with every single deal I could keep up with on Twitter yesterday, and I foolishly tried to started writing them all down–and it took about an hour yesterday before I was never going to be able to keep track of all of them which is awesome. I want to ask you, do you think that’s (the volume of deals) something that’s going to continue?

Drew Butler

No, it’s going to continue to play out like this, and I think the brilliance of this entire new opportunity is that brands saw what type of great activations happen yesterday and they’re already contacting Icon Source again saying we want to do it again.

Milner, which is an IT company based out of Atlanta, sent four opportunities to female student-athletes in Florida. Four female student athletes in Florida got offers to go spend time at a YMCA, and Milner said this is what we think will be great. We want to align with these girls, we want them to be active in the community, and we can compensate them for it now. It’s brilliant. They got to know the girls, the girls got out in the community, Milner wants to do it again and they will do it again. So to answer your question, it’s going to keep happening and female student athletes specifically have immense value. I think it’s just unbelievable.

I see a quote going around regarding the Cavinder twins who we were with yesterday, and the quote has something to do with the fact that the Cavinder twins have almost the same amount of social media influence as Trevor Lawrence. That’s false, they have more! I mean, we see the engagement that they have, and that’s what’s exciting because their brand is only continuing to skyrocket. I know Boost was thrilled at the deliverables that they got yesterday. That’s going to be an awesome partnership.

I did an Instagram Live with a softball player named Kendyl Lindaman. She’s a three-time All-American from Florida, and Kristi, I think she had 8,700 followers (on Instagram). I’ve done IG Lives with quarterbacks, guys with 150,000 followers, first-round draft picks, basketball players who just won the national championship, And the engagement we have with Kendyl Lindaman 10xed any other Instagram Live that we’ve done. I’m not even lying to you, she had 8,700 followers, and if that was the number, then 8,000 of them followed Kendyl Lindaman, it was awesome. And I asked Kendyl, specifically, “When you were a female student athlete at Florida, what brands would you have wanted to work with?

And her answer was this. I would listen to any brand that sent me an opportunity because if they want to take a chance on me, I’m willing to listen and possibly work hard for them, and that’s what this new opportunity is. And that’s really exciting.

Kristi Dosh

You know, a lot of the women are killing it on social media. Like no offense to the guys, but a lot of them are big on one platform (of social media). A lot of these women are big on three or four different platforms, Instagram, and they’re doing Pinterest, and they’re doing Tik Tok and you know, they’re everywhere. And they were doing that before there were monetization opportunities, it’s just now they’re gonna make money for doing it.

Drew Butler  12:11

Yeah, you’re totally right. We asked that to the twins yesterday. They’re (the Cavinder’s) gonna have so much opportunity. But now they’re actually going to have business opportunities, and they said, hey, Icon Source is great– It’s on my app, I get a notification on my phone, I can choose yes or no, or just talk to the brand directly and say I don’t have time.

So they will have one spot to now funnel their deal flow. Their sister who’s their manager can actively manage their profiles, speak on behalf for them (the twins). That’s what these student athletes see. Guess what? Student athletes are smart. They work hard, they succeed in the classroom and on the playing field, and I think this is just empowering them to make those decisions. But to your point in final, yes, they can handle it–they just need something that’s going to allow them to do it most efficiently.

What Kinds of Opportunities are Available?

Kristi Dosh

What kind of things can brands partner with student athletes for through Icon Source? You know, I always think about it is through social media marketing and the posts and the stories and the (Instagram) lives, but what other types of things can brands talk to student athletes about doing with them? Or serving as an ambassador for them?

Drew Butler

Yeah, so on Icon Source, we are the one stop shop for any NIL endorsement opportunity. You can build out those social media activations on just about every single platform out there and send that opportunity to a student athlete. You can build out a digital media shoot, like shooting a commercial, or a digital video, or a photo shoot. You can build out an in-person appearance. All of these things can be built out and sent to student athletes on Icon Source, and we have contract wizards that protect the student athlete in those contracts which have been signed off by the biggest sports agencies in America.

How Icon Source Protects Student Athletes

They (the contracts) are not editable by the brands so student athletes will be protected. When the brands start to build out the opportunities, we forced them to answer a series of questions, kind of like they’re filling out their taxes on that makes them think like a brand that’s worked with hundreds of athletes before. So even if you’re a mom-and-pop restaurant in a hyper-local college town, you can sign up on Icon Source for free and send a really curated detailed opportunity to a student athlete. Once it’s signed on the platform, we process the payment, and the student athlete gets paid, the brand gets huge value with an endorsement opportunity, and they go on their merry way.

Kristi Dosh

I think that’s super refreshing though. I really like what you said about the way that contract is working on your site because it protects both sides, and a lot of social media marketing firms that are out there represent the brand. Not necessarily in this space, but in the past few years as I’ve been watching influencers that I know sign and do deals through social media marketing agencies, a lot of those (companies), they work for the brand, they are protecting the brand, not the influencer. And I think in this space, it’s really important that companies are watching out for the student athletes in protecting them.

Drew Butler

Yeah, and that’s what we do. We’re built by athletes to protect athletes. We don’t speak on behalf of the athletes, we don’t speak on behalf of the brands, we don’t price the athletes, we allow the brands to connect with them and vice versa.

Butler continues:

You bring up a great point about the DM’s (direct messages on social media). That is an example that I gave to athletic directors and compliance officers all the time. If a brand slides into a student athlete’s DM and says, hey, please post this on Instagram, I’ll Venmo you $500. Okay, let’s go through a hypothetical here. You love the brand, you’re excited because you want $500, you’re ready to go. They say perfect, sign this contract. Well, you’re so excited, you might not read the contract, you just look at the first couple pages. You sign it. You go what was in the contract? I hope it was good, we’ll see what happens.

Now, you post the Instagram. How are you gonna get the payment? Are you just gonna keep sliding in his DM’s saying, “Where’s my payment? Where’s my payment? Where’s my payment?

Well, now you got a game coming up, and you’re so mad, you haven’t got your $500, you’re not focused. That is a big windfall and a pitfall that I think student athletes don’t want to deal with.

So what we do at Icon Source, we say we’re going to keep the compliance officers happy. We’re going to give them their login, they can see the contracts, we’re going to integrate with companies that do disclose your software. We want to make it as easy as possible for the student athlete to capitalize so they can focus on their academics and on their athletics. That’s the most important thing here because as the legislation is written in a lot of states, and most likely when the federal legislation comes out, schools can educate the student athletes, schools can hire brand building and marketing companies to provide content and boost their student athlete’s brands.

We at Icon Source are agnostic. We don’t partner with universities because we don’t want any conflict of interest or conflict of legislation. We want to give student athletes the platform to capitalize on their name image and likeness the right way.

 Kristi Dosh

I don’t think people understand all the little things that can come up when you agree to do this.  And to see student athletes come into this, they’re obviously familiar with being on the social media platforms and creating the content, but probably not as familiar with all the things that can go wrong.

Drew Butler

Yeah, you’re totally right, and we at Icon Source make sure these brands fill out those questions. I mean, it’s fascinating. I saw this technology a year ago as a former professional athlete, and I messaged Chase Garrett, cold on LinkedIn, and I said, “Your software is brilliant, have you thought about how this can be used at the college level?” And essentially, I forced my way in to act as a consultant for him. 

So I saw what was happening, and I was like, “This is awesome for pro athletes and their agents.” Now even more so with student athletes and their agents, because let’s face it, agents and agencies don’t have enough human capital to walk hand-in-hand with these student athletes through every single deal. They want to put them on a platform like Icon Source, and then when opportunities come, they can do their due diligence in a streamlined manner and make sure that their clients are taken care of.

Kristi Dosh

Well, there’s going to be so many student athletes that aren’t getting deals big enough to have an agent, and they’re not going to have that access to an advisor who’s looking out for them at that level. So to have something like this (application), it’s not just Icon Source. I’ve seen other companies that are doing a fabulous job in this space too, and it is really nice to see how many former student athletes are getting involved with these companies, whether they’re founding them or they’re coming in as management, it’s really refreshing to see them coming in because you know, they’re going to have the student athletes interests at heart. It just felt like everybody was trying to get in on this, and the more I dig into the companies that are kind of rising to the top even just in this first 24 hours, almost every single one of them has a student athlete either as the founder, or they’ve got them on their senior management team which I think is great for student athletes.

Drew Butler

I think it just speaks to experience, understanding what these kids go through on a daily basis and how you can best provide for them. We’re here to help the brands, help the student athletes, and make sure that the university’s heads aren’t spinning so hard that they come off their bodies.

I mean, it’s a wild time right now, and we just want to be there and say, “What can we do to make this easier for you the best way possible?” And so far, you know, 36 hours in, we feel like we’re doing the best job.

Kristi Dosh

Did you have any NAIA student athletes using the platform before it went live for NCAA athletes?

Which Student Athletes Should Use a Platform like Icon Source?

Drew Butler

I’m sure we (Icon Source) did by 12:01 a.m. when it did go live. We have every single division and every single sport on our platform so student athletes can sign up and be able to be searched by those. I’m almost certain we do. And we don’t block anybody out because as I like to say, we’re built to scale. We are here to house all 460,000 plus student athletes and thousands of brands to make it the most efficient marketplace possible.

Kristi Dosh

I think that some student athletes need to hear that. I think there’s some student athletes out there who aren’t in the power five, who maybe aren’t even at the division one level who need to hear that these platforms are for them too, and that there are opportunities there for them as well and that they should put themselves out there and see what happens.

Drew Butler

Yeah, no, I totally agree because we have done a huge outreach to student athletes and we’ve gotten a lot of those responses. I’m like, that’s just simply not the case. There is no downside to having a profile on Icon Source. It doesn’t cost you anything, you get exposed to a ton of brands and NIL in general is this: What you put in is you will get out.

Butler continues:

If you are more involved in your community, if you are more active on social media, if you do well in the classroom and win some accolades, or if you ball out on your competitive field and win some awards, your NIL value goes up. If you take five minutes to individualize your Icon Source profile, rather than just filling out the bare bones. brands can use our AI technology and you will pop up. if I’m looking for a student athlete who’s from Amelia Island, who’s into seafood and I put that on my profile and there’s a new seafood restaurant opening up in Fernandina, that’s looking for an Amelia Island local student athlete, you’ll pop up and they’ll be able to reach out to you. That is what we’re built to do. We are there to connect the brands with the athletes and allow them to facilitate these deals in a streamlined manner.

Kristi Dosh

Anything else we need to know about Icon Source?

Drew Butler

You know, I just think it’s been absolutely fascinating to see the reception that we’ve gotten. You know, student athletes are so excited, and what I would ask them before I joined them with Icon Source is what are you most excited about this NIL rule change? They said the opportunity to get paid. I’m like, “Yeah! And that’s what we’re here to do.” We’re here to help them capitalize and monetize.

I mean, it is wild out there, and what we tell everybody is this: We are the marketplace. We’ve been doing it for two years for professional athletes. Our college platform launched yesterday, we do one thing and we do it at the highest level. We want to do what’s best for your student athletes, and that’s allow them to take that education, take that brand building and come to Icon Source to capitalize–and we’re happy because we know that we’re best positioned to be a winner.

Thanks to my intern Will Whitmore for assistance with this episode.

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