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‘Nobody Even Knows What Questions to Ask’: Inside Florida State’s NIL Prep

TALLAHASSEE, Fla.—Last Tuesday, about 120 Florida State athletes gathered in an auditorium inside Doak Campbell Stadium for a presentation on college sports’ hottest new topic: athlete marketing rights.

INFLCR CEO Jim Cavale spoke for 30 minutes about his platform’s partnership with the Seminoles, and how athletes could prepare to be compensated for social media posts, sponsorships and autographs. Then he opened the floor for any questions the students might have regarding one of the biggest changes to the college athlete experience in decades.

After a long pause, a Seminole towards the front broke the silence: “Can you help us get verified?”

The inquiry, a reference to the coveted blue check on Twitter and Instagram, drew laughter from around the room. It also captured the absurdity of this crazy moment in college sports, where so much is about to change, but no one really understand how or how much. Athletes in at least six states, including Florida and Texas, will wake up on July 1 with marketing rights they’ve never had before, but two weeks out, it’s still unclear exactly what it all means.

“Nobody even knows what questions to ask at this point,” Seminoles senior associate athletic director Jim Curry said that same day while addressing the department’s media directors and videographers. “And that’s fine. We’re all going to learn this together.”

Activists have spent decades arguing that college athletes, who help generate billions annually for their schools, should be allowed to profit off their name, image and likeness, known colloquially as NIL rights. That push took on new urgency over the past few years, and while the NCAA has repeatedly dragged its feet on the topic, including another delay this week, individual state legislatures have not. Dozens already have NIL laws on the books, while the federal government also considers some nationwide framework.

“Nobody even knows what questions to ask at this point,” Seminoles senior associate athletic director Jim Curry said. “And that’s fine. We’re all going to learn this together.”

The NCAA has spent the last year balancing the weight of NIL reform against the COVID-19 pandemic and a Supreme Court case about academic-related benefits. In the wake of Monday’s SCOTUS ruling, a unanimous 9-0 opinion that found the NCAA to be in violation of anti-trust law, NCAA leadership turned the attention back to NIL.

“Even though the decision does not directly address name, image and likeness, the NCAA remains committed to supporting NIL benefits for student-athletes,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said Monday. “Additionally, we remain committed to working with Congress to chart a path forward, which is a point the Supreme Court expressly stated in its ruling.”

As it waits on the NCAA or Congress, FSU is moving forward under the specifics of the Florida state law, knowing that the framework could shift at any moment. That makes education the top priority. The school wants its athletes to understand what they can and cannot do, and also how those decisions might affect things like taxes and financial aid.

Some basics, much of which are specific to Florida’s law:

  • Athletes can have agents, but only those with the proper license and registered with the Florida Bar.
  • Athletes can technically sign deals with competitors of the school’s partners, but only if it doesn’t violate the terms of that school partnership.
  • All deals, for cash or goods, must be reported to the institution.
  • Athletes under 18 must have deals approved by a parent or guardian.
  • Compensation must be commensurate with the athlete’s fair market value, and cannot be contingent on attendance or performance.
  • No school, its employees or representatives can pay athletes or “cause compensation” for athletes.

To help communicate those nuances, Florida State has an NIL Task Force comprised of on-campus experts, and in April it announced its formal NIL program, called Apex (similar programs are popping up across the NCAA under names like AMPLIFY, SPIRIT and LEVERAGE). Apex includes an educational partnership with FSU’s college of entrepreneurship and its business school, with two for-credit courses centered around NIL rights and brand-building, plus additional resources for athletes to take advantage of the new laws.

The Apex program also includes a partnership with INFLCR, which has built an app for FSU athletes to access personalized photos and videos from the athletic department, learn about the Florida state law, and connect to platforms like Cameo, The Players Trunk and OpenSponsorship, where they can be compensated under the new rules. The INFLCR app, in use by dozens of schools around the country, also has a calculator for athletes to determine their fair market value for deals that involve social media promotion.

The approach won’t satisfy everyone. FSU quarterback McKenzie Milton, for example, recently said he wouldn’t be working with OpenSponsorship or Playbooked. “I am looking for a platform that gives the power to the athletes to set the marketplace on what they feel their value is,” he said on Twitter.

It’s easy to focus on the flashiest NIL hypotheticals: How many millions might Clemson mega-star Trevor Lawrence have made? What if an NBA prospect’s agent is pressuring a coach for more playing time? Meanwhile, FSU is trying to spend more time preparing for the mundane. Athletes like Lawrence are rare, maybe once a decade in Tallahassee, but dozens (if not hundreds) of Seminoles will be doing deals of some sort in the next few months.

“I do worry that we spend a lot of time here thinking about the extreme outlier examples or scenarios, when really we’re mostly going to see a lot of these nominal transactions occur,” Curry said. “You don’t want to set policy for the exceptions. You want to set it for the norm.”

Here are the two scenarios batted around most often in FSU meetings: an athlete making $30 to do a Cameo appearance for a fan, and a group of Seminoles receiving comped meals at a local restaurant in exchange for a quick social media post about their experience. Both are low monetary value; one is paid in cash, the other in goods; but both need to be disclosed by the athlete.

“It’s not like on July 1 a windfall of financial activity is going to occur,” Cavale said in a meeting with Seminoles lawyers and senior executives. “Student-athletes are going to have to educate themselves, and take a lot of action for this to work. It’s not just going to fall in their lap, no matter how good they are.”

That education extends to staffers as well, and Florida State is making sure its employees also know the new rules.

Take, for example, the athletic department’s media teams, which spend a lot of time creating content for athletes. Nothing those university staffers make can be used for commercial purposes, so FSU has repeatedly emphasized an arm’s-length approach when it comes to photographers and videographers. It’s unclear how tight enforcement of the rules will be, but NIL missteps mean violating state law, a totally different animal than violating NCAA rules.

“It’s not like on July 1 a windfall of financial activity is going to occur,” INFLCR CEO Jim Cavale said.

The NIL era will ultimately be defined by the athletes and how much they’re willing (and able) to take advantage of their new rights. Sportico sat in on two separate presentations with FSU athletes in Tallahassee, and their questions focused primarily on the payments themselves: Is it cash? Can it come in Bitcoin? How big a social following do I need to make money? What’s the cut on platforms like Cameo?

In the second session, after the question about getting verified, Cavale turned the conversation back to the matter at hand.

“You guys all want to get verified, but if I gave you a choice, make $10,000 or get that blue check mark, which are you going to choose?” he asked. “You’re going to choose the $10,000! So the blue check is cool, but it’s not the standard when people are making money. The new standard is, Am I a real brand or am I fake?”

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