The proliferation of athlete-owned media in the professional sports world has made its way to collegiate athletics. LeBron James’ Uninterrupted platform and Derek Jeter’s The Players’ Tribune sparked a movement that continues to birth new entities, like Alex Morgan and Sue Bird’s Togethxr platform; the media arm of Brandon Marshall’s House of Athlete, H3 Studios; and now, the nonprofit, college athlete-operated media platform UNCUT.
This month alone, chapters have launched at the University of Maryland and Wisconsin, the fifth and sixth UNCUT platforms on college campuses, respectively, since the first went live in Chapel Hill, N.C., in 2019.
UNC students Luke Buxton and Alex Mazer launched the original UNCUT as an unfiltered and unrestricted platform for athletes to tell their own stories. The concept quickly gained popularity—arriving at rival Duke, Virginia Tech and Appalachian State by 2020. Miami and UCLA will follow Wisconsin and Maryland’s recent launches, with platforms of their own in development.
Big Ten Athlete of the Year and UNCUT Madison co-founder Dana Rettke attributes the appeal to the power of controlling a narrative. “It’s powerful to be able to control that whole process and tell the story exactly how the student athlete would want by adding in the details that are most important,” Rettke said.
The platform’s power and rapid spread was a surprise—at least to its founders.
“We didn’t really expect it to grow the way that it did, but once we got that first expansion off the ground at Duke we saw that that model could work, but more so, that other athletes were wanting to bring it to their university,” Alex Mazer, UNCUT co-founder and former COO said in a phone interview. “So we had to figure out how make it happen. These stories are so personal that are being told and the athletes are being really vulnerable, so you want to make sure it’s done right.”
After what Mazer described as “a lot of trial and error” at Chapel Hill during the six months it took the founders to get the first UNCUT platform off the ground, they figured out what worked, in terms of business structure, tax regulations, NCAA compliance, branding and more. That turned into a general expansion framework for the business side, all of which is based on getting schools started at almost no cost at all, eliminating any barriers to entry. With the setup process streamlined, UNCUT then leaves the creative side up to each school.
“We want schools to be able to start making content however fast we’re able to get them there,” Mazer explained. “What typically works, and what we generally expect, is for the new schools to have a combination of students and student athletes on their team, because it’s so essential to have athletes at the core of that decision-making process. The rest they take from there.”
Each UNCUT chapter across the country is a 501(c)(3), entirely student-led and athlete-driven—and NCAA compliant. Current bylaws allow athletes to engage with non-profits and charitable organizations. Chapters operate independently of one another, with their own websites, social media accounts and means of funding.
Fundraising, grants, crowd-sourced donations—all are fair game as long as the money goes toward operating the nonprofit and not to lining the pockets of its athlete participants, as Olivia Hancock, a junior majoring in marketing and serving as UNCUT Madison’s head of operations, explained. Her team worked with Wisconsin’s athletics and compliance departments through every step of the chapter’s setup.
The funds raised and costs of operating each UNCUT chapter vary by need. Some, like Wisconsin, have paid for little more than a domain, using free word of mouth marketing at the start. Others, like UNC, for example, started out using school-loaned equipment to produce its content, but eventually put grant money toward production gear of its own. What all UNCUT platforms have in common is the increasingly popular first-person athlete storytelling, whether that’s through video features, podcasts or written content. Topics athletes have used UNCUT platforms to cover include sharing their personal stories, talking about mental health, addressing goals or other passions. Even alumni can pen pieces.
The concept hinges on the core principles of peer-to-peer communication and authenticity, cutting out the athletics department middlemen and providing a platform for athletes to highlight who they are as people. With NCAA name, image and likeness (NIL) allowances soon expected, what UNCUT offers college athletes appears particularly timely: an opportunity to build their own brands.
“The more avenues that student athletes have to build out a well-rounded brand and personal profile, the better,” said Altius Sports Partners CEO Casey Schwab, one of seven Wisconsin alumni on the UNCUT Madison advisory board. “You have athletes doing the traditional media through the athletic department, which I think is complementary [to UNCUT] and not competitive in any way, but this is just a different voice.”
The advisory board is Wisconsin’s own addition to the UNCUT model, crafted with the goal of maximizing Madison’s impact. The Badgers’ board includes NFL player agent Adisa Bakari, sports agency The Montag Group’s Jill Driban, NFL league exec Mitchell Pinta, Schwab, former NFL receiver Brandon Williams, Fox Sports’ exec Valerie Todryk Krebs and marketing vet Eric Shainock.
“UNCUT is another piece of the athlete empowerment movement,” Hancock said. “It’s continuing to pave the way to get a better look into the lives of student athletes beyond their sport.”