Called Student Athlete Empowerment (SAE), the company is positioning itself as a school-friendly option for local companies and big donors who want to spend money with their athletes. SAE would then negotiate and facilitate those NIL deals as a third party.
SAE is wholly owned by Student Athlete NIL, an Atlanta-based agency created earlier this year. Its partners include agent and media publisher Jason Belzer, marketing executive Vince Thompson, and Matt Roberts, founder of the popular college sports news platform D1.ticker.
“Schools are being bombarded with requests by brands, donors and other entities that want to support their student-athletes through NIL, but due to state laws and NCAA rules their hands are tied,” said Belzer, who is CEO of Student Athlete NIL. “Student Athlete Empowerment is the solution that universities have been desperately seeking—they can feel confident in referring these groups to us to evaluate and manage their NIL requests, and can rest assured that they will have full disclosure of each one of the opportunities we present their student-athletes, while the school remains conflict free.”
SAE plans to facilitate both traditional NIL deals and less traditional ones like pools of booster money. Already being used in places like Florida, these vehicles are an option for donors who want to support a school’s athletes without having a direct deal in mind. As an example, Belzer said SAE could collect money from a series of donors committed to supporting a school’s women’s basketball players, then set up a camp for those athletes to coach in, or pay them to sign autographs at a tailgate event.
The group already has agreements in place with four schools: Florida, Fordham, Robert Morris and Loyola Marymount. There’s no money changing hands between the schools and SAE, and the agreements make it clear that SAE is not a representative of the institution. The signed memorandums essentially represent non-exclusive rights to deal flow. The schools have committed to letting sponsors and donors know that SAE is a “preferred” intermediary for NIL deals, and sharing contact info for athletes and brands.
In return, SAE will build a custom portal for deals at each institution (here is Florida’s), submit all the necessary disclosures to the schools, and give the institution final approval over the deals, Belzer said. SAE will take a cut from the brand or donor, though Belzer declined to comment on the structure of those fees.
SAE is wading into an already crowded field. The NCAA’s unwillingness to fully legislate or enforce these new marketing rights has left students, brands, donors and schools to mostly fend for themselves, some working off state laws, others without even that framework. Dozens of businesses have launched in the last year or so looking to play a role in the new economy.
Looming behind each of their business models is a wider question about what role a school should, or can, play in making these deals happen. The NCAA’s own interim NIL policy is vague on the point. And while most institutions are taking a hands-off approach, almost all of them are partnering with third-party platforms in some capacity. They’re also using those partnerships to help lure recruits from high schools across the country.
“Because the university cannot be involved in in these transactions, it’s tremendously beneficial for us to have a third-party we can trust to look out for the best interests of our student-athletes, and ensure that they remain compliant with all rules and regulations concerning their NIL activities,” Robert Morris AD Chris King said in a statement.
SANIL’s main partners all have prominent roles elsewhere in the college sports and marketing ecosystems. Belzer will continue to represent college coaches, and said he would be okay with SAE negotiating deals for athletes on teams where he represents the coach. He added that Thompson’s role as CEO of Melt, which works with some of the country’s biggest brands, also wouldn’t preclude SAE from working with Melt’s clients, or competitors of Melt’s clients.
“If there happens to be a situation or a circumstance in which we have to conflict ourselves out, we will,” Belzer said. “Because we’re not an exclusive partner, we have no obligation to accept any business from anybody.”
SAE will defer to the schools on what’s allowed and what isn’t, he said. Some schools have forbid SAE from talking to coaches; others have been more lax about that communication.
“Our intent is to create a situation where there is as much transparency as possible,” Belzer said. “We’re not naïve about what’s happening in this industry, I don’t think anyone is comfortable with it, and we want to become a trusted entity that helps a school navigate a lot of things currently happening under the table, where they’re not seeing it.”