NCAA NIL era brings cautious optimism to college-town businesses

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—Bret Oliverio says he wants college athletes to endorse his Sup Dogs restaurant along the main Franklin Street drag steps from the University of North Carolina.

He is just being patient before jumping into a brave new world.

Like other small business owners in college towns, Oliverio is sorting out just what it means to strike an endorsement deal with athletes who are now free to profit from the use of their name, image and likeness (NIL) for the first time.

“I don’t know if an athlete wants 20 bucks or 20,000,” he said, “so that’s what I’m trying to navigate.”

The NCAA’s decision to allow athletes to cash in arrived July 1 with a few restrictions and even less guidance. There is no “pay for play” allowed but many rulebook no-nos that once led to ineligibility are now largely fair game, provided the athlete provides some type of service – a social media shoutout, an appearance, a signature – in exchange for compensation.

Schools are cobbling together policies or leaning on state laws permitting NIL activities, along with having compliance staffers scrambling to ensure athletes follow guidelines.

“I would say it’s a beautiful mess,” said Kurt Svoboda, an associate athletic director at Michigan. “It truly is. These are uncharted waters.”

It certainly is for schools and for businesses assessing a market that is less than a month old.

How much is it worth to have an athlete endorse the local pizzeria on social media? What about appearances at a car dealership or tattoo parlor – popular subjects of past NCAA infractions investigations – for a fee? How much will those moves boost the bottom line, if at all?

That uncertainty explains why Aaron Nelson, president and chief executive of The Chamber For a Greater Chapel Hill-Carrboro, said business owners near UNC are “looking to learn more before they go fullcourt press on it.” They aren’t alone.

At Lucky 13 Tattoos on Broad Street in Richmond, Virginia, just a short walk from where Virginia Commonwealth plays its home basketball games, a framed Milwaukee Bucks jersey of former VCU star Larry Sanders hangs on the wall. Manager Bob Knox said it was a gift from Sanders, who had several tattoos done at the shop and still drops by.

Knox said his staff has put ink on a lot of VCU and Richmond athletes over the years, but he wasn’t sure about the value of striking deals with college athletes from a marketing point of view – even a popular one.

“Tattooing is different than a lot of other businesses. Tattooing is all word of mouth,” Knox said. “You don’t go where you’ve heard about, you go where your buddy went.”

On the table for athletes, of course, are deals with auto dealerships and tattoo shops, an ironic twist given some of the past infractions scandals. For his part, Knox said he was unfamiliar with the so-called “tattoo five” from Ohio State, who traded memorabilia in exchange for tattoos. Former Buckeyes quarterback Terrelle Pryor, like former USC star Reggie Bush, have suggested past rules violations should be wiped clean now that things have changed.

A number of companies have emerged in the past few years with an eye on connecting college athletes to business deals, and they have been busy the past few months. To Athliance CEO Peter Schoenthal, whose company designed “disclosure and education” software helping schools review and athletes close NIL deals, the right time is now.

“If I’m a local business, it’s probably cheaper for me to partner with these student-athletes and use their social-media engagement to drive traffic to my business rather than put up a billboard pay for radio, do Google AdWords,” he said. “This is actually not only a more fun way to advertise, because you get to the be first ones in NIL, but also a cheaper and more effective way.”

Deals thus far have taken a variety of forms. Fresno State twin basketball players Haley and Hanna Cavinder reached an agreement with a wireless company. Kansas basketball player Mitch Lightfoot has endorsed a junk-removal service and a roofing contractor. A Florida chain of mixed martial arts gyms owned by a longtime Miami fan offered a $500 monthly contract to Hurricanes football players for social-media advertising.

Other moves have been smaller, with a clever charm.

Jordan Wright, owner of Wright’s Barbecue near the Arkansas campus in Fayetteville, reached deals with members of the Razorbacks offensive line as “Protectors of the Pit.” A few days later, the Wisconsin offensive line struck a similar BBQ deal of their own.

Wright started with restaurant gift cards as well as merchandise for compensation. He wants to work with as many Razorbacks athletes as possible, though he has expanded to a deal with UCF linebacker Quade Mosier, whose hometown is Fayetteville.

“I’m a local guy, I’m a barbecue dude,” Wright said. “I’m just a guy that’s got a family who has a cool barbecue place who likes to do cool things. . I think it is good for the brand.”

At the Parker Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram dealership near Mississippi State’s Starkville campus, general manager Kristi Snyder was mulling money, merchandise or even vehicle servicing as compensation. She said she was planning meetings with Bulldogs athletes and is eager to align with the newly crowned NCAA champion baseball team while “spreading the love” among multiple sports.

She said she wants to know what the athletes are expecting from her – and how much time they will have to do the work.

“I’m really just more curious: What can you do for me?” she said. “Because at the end of the day, I’m looking for a return on an investment as well, right? I want it to be a really good mutual agreement with a student who could represent us well on this smaller stage.”

In Michigan, Ann Arbor-based company Underground Printing sells apparel and other products online through its 25 stores from Chapel Hill to Norman, Oklahoma. Owner Rishi Narayan said it is a natural avenue for athlete entrepreneurs but he is taking a wait-and-see approach: “We’re unsure what the market is or what’s the right way to do things.”

Nearby, general manager Phil Clark of Ray’s Red Hots – which sells Chicago-style hot dogs near the Michigan campus – described “very exploratory” conversations when it comes to NIL, including potentially signing an entire Wolverines women’s team to a deal.

“It’s sort of the Wild West out here,” Clark said. “I’ve heard tale of people pursuing all kinds of deals from money payouts to free food for life.”

Back in North Carolina, Oliverio is closely watching NIL developments with an eye on his two college-town restaurants (the other is in Greenville, near East Carolina University).

The right opportunities will come in time, he figures.

“I think it’s great for the student-athlete – it’s about time they make some money,” he said. “I think it’s awesome for small businesses like ours because we have a huge advertising channel that just opened up that has never been there. So just like anything else, it’s all about finding the right value.”

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.

South Carolina, Staley cancel BYU games over racial incident

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COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina and women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley have canceled a home-and-home series with BYU over a recent racial incident where a Cougars fan yelled slurs at a Duke volleyball player.

The Gamecocks were scheduled to start the season at home against BYU on Nov. 7, then play at the Utah campus during the 2023-24 season.

But Staley cited BYU’s home volleyball match last month as reason for calling off the series.

“As a head coach, my job is to do what’s best for my players and staff,” Staley said in a statement released by South Carolina on Friday. “The incident at BYU has led me to reevaluate our home-and-home, and I don’t feel that this is the right time for us to engage in this series.”

Duke sophomore Rachel Richardson, a Black member of the school’s volleyball team, said she heard racial slurs from the stands during the match.

BYU apologized for the incident and Richardson said the school’s volleyball players reached out to her in support.

South Carolina said it was searching for another home opponent to start the season.

Gamecocks athletic director Ray Tanner spoke with Staley about the series and supported the decision to call off the games.