While college students are uniquely positioned to explore entrepreneurial pursuits, student-athletes have waited for decades for the chance to capitalize on their name, image, and likeness (NIL). With new NCAA rules, these student-athletes are poised to become the biggest new wave of young entrepreneurs –– if they can successfully navigate the journey.
To help make your transition into the world of innovation seamless, below are tips, tricks, and missteps you should know. They come from interviews with experienced student-athlete entrepreneurs and experts at the University of Utah, a top-ranked school for entrepreneurship, home of the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute, and leader at assisting student-athletes with efforts like the Elevate U program.
Student-athletes have a lot of potential to become entrepreneurs. They can find endorsement deals, start sports camps, develop projects, commentate, and much more. The tips below should help you get started and give you some ideas of how to proceed and find success.
Find a Supportive University and Network
Not all cities or schools are the same. Student-athletes need to find universities and communities that will support their entrepreneurial efforts and help them reach their goals.
Select a university that wants to see you succeed on and off the field. Look for programs, professors, and curriculum that help you to see things through an entrepreneurial lens, offer room for you to explore a variety of interests.
“Student-athletes interested in entrepreneurship should be looking at schools with a history of entrepreneurship and established programs to help them get their idea off the ground,” said Troy D’Ambrosio, executive director of the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute. “They should also be looking for communities that embrace entrepreneurship and has resources to support new businesses.”
In addition, student-athletes need to find mentors who have face similar challenges and will be available for them to navigate difficult questions and decisions.
“All entrepreneurs need to surround themselves with experienced people who will support them and provide useful advice and support,” D’Ambrosio said. “At the University of Utah, we have many programs and opportunities to help student entrepreneurs get the feedback they need to advance their ideas and find peers, faculty, and professionals to support them.”
Know the Law
Even with the best support system, the journey to entrepreneuring a student-athlete brand won’t be easy –– especially with all the legal red tape that accompanies the NIL legislation that allows monetization in the first place.
“I cannot emphasize enough the need to be intentional and careful,” said Charmelle Green, deputy athletics director for internal operations at the University of Utah. “Entrepreneurship is not something you can jump into without a plan and a deep understanding of the laws surrounding your venture.”
NIL deals that conflict with pre-existing school agreements, those that require pay-for-play to involve inducements or recruitment efforts won’t just jeopardize the brand deals –– they can end an athlete’s career.
“It’s the Wild West in terms of legality,” Green said. “We’re very early in the NIL process, and so it’s important that students don’t put their entire worth into these endeavors, that they are careful to separate their identity from their entrepreneurial efforts, because a misstep can make it all disappear.”
Green’s advice is to take advantage of educational opportunities offered by your state or university. Elevate U, the University of Utah’s program for student-athletes, equips students with the tools to combine the opportunities offered by the NIL legislation and their business ideas.
Through the partnership with the David Eccles School of Business and the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute, Green said students at the U are avoiding mistakes with long-term impacts.
“We’re not executing deals, we’re not brokering trades,” she said. “Student-athletes are students first, and it’s our obligation to educate them. Knowledge is power, and when an entrepreneur of any kind can approach a new situation with a well-rounded understanding of its risks and rewards, they’re much more likely to find success.”
Define Your Brand
Samery Moras is a six-time member of the United States’ Taekwondo Team, creator of Live Martial Arts training.
When she saw other athletes running YouTube channels and getting sponsored on Instagram, she wanted to try it too. That’s why she applied for the Master of Business Creation at the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business. She graduated from that program in 2020 –– the same year her channel hit 100,000 subscribers.
Now, while she runs her online studio and coaches clients through the basics of Taekwondo, she partners with brands like Degree.
Her first piece of advice for getting started? Figure out what you stand for.
“I’m all about healthy minds and healthy bodies,” Moras said. “That’s the story behind who I am –– positive, motivating. When I wanted to define my brand, I thought of 10 different words that embodied me, and that’s what I narrowed it down to. My brand is who I am.”
It doesn’t matter if you’re pursuing Instagram sponsorships or television ad campaigns –– what partnerships you make can build your brand for the better.
“People see who you decide to work with, and that can lead to more partnerships down the road,” Moras said.
You can be Guilty by Association
Once you decide what brands you identify with, you should also decide which ones you don’t.
“Your brand will attract certain types of companies and people,” Green said. “We certainly don’t want our student-athletes engaging in anything that’s associated with products and other activity that conflicts with the University’s and Athletics Program values.”
Moras said she’s seen the fallout of bad brand partnerships and athletes who use social media inappropriately.
“There are activities and behaviors that schools and brands want to avoid,” she said. “People have lost contracts over their posts, and that shouldn’t happen if you’re thoughtful about who and when you partner.”
Know What Your Audience Wants
Once you’ve established who you will and won’t partner with or accept funding from, you can start to build your audience.
Moras said that this might be easier than you expect –– if you already have a following, keep it.
“If you haven’t been posting on Instagram or Facebook with intention, you can always start now,” she said. “Take time to clean up your accounts to align with your branding decision, and you can retain that audience of people who already like you, who already decided to follow you. It’s much harder to start from scratch.”
To keep that audience engaged, though, you need to start posting strategically.
“Think of what kind of people already follow you and who you want to add to that count,” Moras said. “Are you hoping to reach teenagers, or other college athletes? Or will your content be better for people just starting to get into fitness? Tailor what you share to what unique things you can offer, and your audience will stick around.”
You want to do more than retain your audience, though: you want to build it. Moras said she did that by making her YouTube videos feel conversational.
“You want to come off as a real person,” she said. “I make my videos and my social media presence interactive so that I don’t feel like a face behind a camera, but like someone my audience actually knows.”
Use Your Smartphone
You don’t need a film degree or a fancy camera to be yourself. Moras said she started filming her social media and YouTube content on her iPhone.
“I didn’t even have anyone to take pictures of me,” she said. “I got really creative with self-timers and makeshift tripods to get the earliest shots of me doing kicks.”
Student-athletes, especially, have the advantage of school-funded editing programs.
“Take videos on your phone, and use the Adobe suite, things like Premiere and Photoshop, to make them look perfect,” she said. “There are so many resources at your disposal – use them.”
Make Diverse, Sustainable Content
Once you get your audience and your first few posts, Moras said it might be a good idea to mix up the content you offer.
“You want to make content that’s shareable,” she said. “That means that you collaborate with other channels, mix and match ideas to draw people from different places. My niche is Taekwondo, but I have gone into other activities, like yoga, and seen a lot of success from it.”
Shareable content isn’t always sustainable though –– Moras cautioned that you’ve got to be in for the long-haul.
“It takes a while to get to the point where you can start to make consistent money from ads and partnerships,” she said. “Whatever you decide to create, make sure it can grow into something else.”
Moras said the focus she’s put into her YouTube channel and online training studio is so that she has an audience to expand into more kinds of training in the future.
“I want to add more instructors to my studio and develop more content than I am now,” she said. “What I make now fans love, and I know I can continue to make more of it.”
Recognize Your Power
Confidence is something that Green said more student-athletes need as they venture into monetizing their brands.
“Companies and brands are going to approach you because of what you’ve achieved,” she said. “Don’t lose sight of how hard you’ve worked to get to where you are, where people want to work with you, where you have a following. You need to remember that you have the upper hand.”
All student-athletes have the potential to become entrepreneurs, D’Ambrosio said.
“We have worked with thousands of student entrepreneurs, and many don’t know how much opportunity and support they have to explore entrepreneurship,” D’Ambrosio said. “We encourage all students to experience entrepreneurship. They might be successful and make a lot of money, or they just get a lot of valuable business experience they use in other areas. Either way, the experience is lifechanging.”
It Doesn’t Have to be about Sports
Even though Moras turned her athlete experience into a brand and business, that’s not the only path. Green said she’s seen more student-athletes start different kinds of businesses using their name, image, and likeness outside of sports.
“Lots of our student-athletes have moved to social media influencing,” she said. “But I’ve also seen them start producing music, endorse makeup and hair products, work in the retail space, even develop trading cards. You may have a specific skill-set associated with athletics, but that determination and grit that you learned while participating in sports can translate to thousands of other interests.”
Moras said it’s all about your love of what you do –– just like any other entrepreneur.
“What’s important is that the content you’re creating comes from a genuine place of passion,” Moras said. “When you’re passionate, people can tell. You make more authentic, interesting content, and people naturally want to engage with what you do.”
Learn more about Elevate U student-athlete program at utahutes.com/elevate. Learn more about programs for all student entrepreneurs at the University of Utah on the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute website at lassonde.utah.edu.