On July 20, just three weeks after new name, image and likeness laws went into effect in several states, The Brandr Group and the University of North Carolina announced the first-ever group licensing deal for current college athletes. The conventional wisdom surrounding NIL was that such arrangements were at least a year away, if not more.
In the five months since, The Brandr Group, a “boutique” sports marketing and licensing agency based outside of Jacksonville, Fla., has racked up exclusive agreements with at least 30 Division I schools—including other Power Five programs like Ohio State, Florida, Georgia, Texas and LSU—making it the most active company to pursue the concept nationwide.
Brandr’s endeavor has instantly raised its profile in college sports, a space it hadn’t even scratched before this year. But it has also caused consternation from at least one major player in NCAA deal-making: Learfield.
While Brandr and Learfield can coexist in the pioneering world of college NIL, and publicly say there’s no inherent beef between them, they have conflicting views of the how the game is refereed—particularly around sponsorships and advertising. From the perspective of Learfield, a company with deep, decades-long relationships across all levels of college sports, its jurisdiction is abundantly clear: If you want to execute a sponsorship with IP from a school wherein Learfield holds the multimedia rights, you have to go through Learfield.
“Frankly, Brandr or anyone who wants to access school marks, would need to gain the right to use that intellectual property from the school, and then as their representative, from us,” said John Brody, Learfield’s chief revenue officer. Brody characterized this approval-seeking, which can be more expensive for brands, as “an important part of the process.”
The Brandr Group, however, believes that for the group licensing deals it is structuring, it only needs to seek the school’s approval, not the multimedia rights representative.
Without specifically invoking Learfield, Brandr CEO Wesley Haynes frames his company’s work as inherently pro-athlete, and thus decries any forces that would bog down Brandr’s efforts.
“We have always believed that the potential use of student-athletes in co-branded campaigns will only increase the school IP value over time,” said Haynes, “and we disagree with any program that will create a usage surcharge or unreasonable hurdle to using student-athletes in co-branded campaigns. We have and are always going to be on the side of student-athletes.”
Sportico has learned that a few months ago, Learfield CEO Cole Gahagan directly confronted Haynes on a phone call over how Brandr was pitching schools, which Gahagan suggested was in violation of his company’s contracts.
“We want there to be clarity, consistency and a framework,” said Learfield’s Brody, “so our school and university partners and our brand partners understand their rights and the opportunities in this…quickly evolving landscape.”
Nevertheless, the territorial dispute remains a sticking point and would presumably grow more contentious if Brandr ends up executing a sponsorship deal at a Learfield school—they currently overlap at more than 15 institutions—without first getting approval from Learfield.
Such confrontation could become more common in the changing world of college sports marketing, as nascent NIL firms move into the space with a certain sense of autonomy, while the old-guard incumbents seek to enforce previously defined borders of the status quo.
How the turf wars play out may depend on how profitable a college athlete NIL market turns out to be.
While Learfield has suggested it sees minimal financial incentive in this space—and insists it has no interest in college athlete group licensing, Brandr’s stock-in-trade—the marketing giant has planted several NIL flags. Last month it announced the launch of its Allied program, which helps schools establish set guidelines for the use of their marks and logos in sponsorship and advertising deals involving athletes.
Learfield has also unveiled a partnership between its subsidiary, the Collegiate Licensing Company, and OneTeam Partners—which happens to be a Brandr investor and collaborator—for helping athletes opt into licensing deals for trading cards and video games. Meanwhile, CLC’s licensing tech service, Compass, has expanded its platform to help schools with NIL compliance. For product licensing agreements negotiated by Brandr at CLC schools, the group has been willing to source school IP through the Learfield-owned company. That’s already happened a few times, including athlete deals at Gonzaga, Marquette and UNC.
While Learfield is not directly facilitating deals with athletes, for now, both Brody and Gahagan have said it’s possible the company could do so down the line. Similarly, while Haynes says his company is “not actively searching” to do non-group NIL deals, he doesn’t rule them out in the future.
“We specialize in group licensing deals, as it’s been part of our company for more than seven years,” said Haynes. “While we are bullish in our ability to lead in this space, we are certainly open to other opportunities if they present themselves.”
Haynes founded Brandr in 2015, initially establishing his firm as the agent of record for the NFL Players Association’s college licensing and sponsorship programs. Prior to launching Brandr, Haynes served a senior vice president for licensing at IMG, departing the company three years before IMG College merged with Learfield.
Brandr’s first foray into the college market came in April, when it struck a voluntary group licensing deal for UNC alums.
Through public records requests, Sportico obtained Brandr agreements from nine D-I institutions.
The deals are, for the most part, similar from school to school, stating Brandr will help secure sponsors and licensees, and then manage the distribution of funds to the athlete participants. The agreements stipulate that 80% of the revenue goes to the participating athletes and 20% goes to Brandr, except in specific categories such as video games and trading cards, where the royalties have a 70/30 split. Haynes says this information is codified in the agreements only for the sake of “transparency,” and not because the schools are actively involved in negotiating the market shares of the group licensing deals.
One notable exception is Maryland, whose Brandr agreement, signed in September, includes explicit language about the company paying the university half of the revenue derived from “expanded opportunities” with the Maryland’s current sponsors. Maryland’s MMR partner is PlayFly Sports, not Learfield.
UNC’s Brandr agreement also specifies a 10% revenue return to the university, for the purpose of funding need-based financial aid, but a school spokesperson said those terms mimic the standard royalty rates for North Carolina’s marks and logos.
“Broadly speaking, some schools felt the need to be more detailed in their agreements than others,” Haynes said.
Brandr’s barnstorming commenced at a point over the summer when there was widespread confusion over how much involvement schools’ multimedia rights holders could even have with NIL.
Last year, an NCAA board of governors working group submitted NIL recommendations, an early version of what was expected to be formally adopted, which specifically prohibited an institution’s involvement in student deals. Therefore, it was perceived by schools that if their athletic departments were forbidden from being in any way involved in player NIL deals, so, too, were any of their affiliated third-party agents. Those proposals were shelved by the governing body at the start of this year, just before a vote.
On June 30, one day before NIL rights were set to go live in a handful of states, the NCAA came out instead with a much more laissez faire set of interim NIL guidelines, which did not expressly prohibit schools’ involvement. Nonetheless, given the ongoing uncertainty about what provisions will ultimately carry the day, a number of schools have continued to proceed with trepidation when it has come to involving its MMR partners with its NIL program. (Conversely, schools like BYU have openly been engaged in facilitating group NIL deals for athletes, which the NCAA is now probing for potential violations of pay-to-play prohibitions.)
Learfield has acknowledged it may not be able to roll out its Allied program everywhere, depending on the provisions of specific state-based NIL statutes. South Carolina’s law, for example, prohibits athletes from signing deals that involve school logos or uniforms.
Beyond what those laws say, concerns remain about the NCAA’s position on MMR partners and NIL. Two Power Five school compliance directors recently told Sportico that, without additional guidance from the association, they were operating on the assumption that MMR partners could not be engaged in any NIL activities whatsoever. The NCAA’s interim rules, however, are vague, and Learfield insists they don’t restrict the company in any way.
Indeed, “clarity” has become Learfield’s mantra, as it tries to keep its bearings while new players like Brandr advance in the uncertainty of the moment.
“If there is lack of clarity in the market, or ambiguity, that’s what I’m focused on clearing up,” said Brody. “We understand the role that we play. We understand the rights that we represent. We’re not interested in creating tumult for tumult’s sake.”
With reporting from Emily Caron