OLEAN, N.Y. — The clock struck noon on an otherwise uneventful Thursday, July 1.
And just like that, priorities and perspectives began to shift dramatically, for thousands of collegiate athletes across the country, for their athletic departments, which now have the added task of trying to make sense of it all ...
And for local businesses.
In this moment, the NCAA’s initial, and long-anticipated, “NIL” policy officially came into effect, allowing athletes the ability to profit — within certain parameters — from their name, image and likeness while marking one of the most significant legislative changes in collegiate sports history.
Given this unprecedented green light, Matt Fidurko made his move. The Allegany native, now the marketing director at Sports Locker, reached out to St. Bonaventure, with whom the local sporting goods company has had a long and well-established relationship.
Very quickly, and predictably, multiple “deals” were struck.
ON SATURDAY, Sports Locker announced it had signed Bona center Osun Osunniyi to an endorsement and apparel contract, revealing a line of “Shoon Squad 21” merchandise, based off the Space Jam movie’s “Tune Squad.” By the end of the weekend, it had reached similar agreements with fellow Bona standouts Kyle Lofton, Jaren Holmes and Dominick Welch.
It was the first instance, on record, that both a local business and members of the Bona basketball team had taken advantage of the new “NIL” rules. And almost assuredly, a number more will follow.
“It took a couple days to process what was really going on and that it was actually legal to do what we were doing, because it’s been such a long wait,” Fidurko noted. “But I think we all kind of had a mutual interest, at least here at Sports Locker, in pursuing this. Bonaventure obviously is an extremely big part of our business and one we’re very proud of … and that’s kind of how it came to be.
“It kind of fell in our lap. I don’t think anybody ever saw it being legal this fast, this year. Congress couldn’t get a bill through. We’re obviously extremely excited that it did get approved.”
NAVIGATING the NCAA’s initial framework, for both local companies and athletic departments, has been a challenge.
Individual states and schools have put their own rules into place. Collegiate programs have been, and will continue, to develop their own guidance on the fly. Very little has been fully settled across the board.
And while a number of those “bigger picture” questions will have to be answered in time, the black and white of it is that players and businesses have the freedom to begin working with one another right now.
“Obviously, we want to communicate with Bonaventure as far as how they want to handle things, meaning, what are they going to allow in a certain situation?” Fidurko said. “And since there’s no overarching law at the moment, and there’s no law in New York State, the schools are left to make up their own guidance.
“We communicated with Bona from a guidance perspective, but not from a player perspective.”
And now, at least four-fifths of the Bonnies’ celebrated starting five will be earning some level of income based on their celebrity.
As part of those deals, players’ names, numbers and images will materialize on specifically tailored apparel for each individual. Players will also begin appearing in commercials and digital content for social media.
“We’re excited about that too … getting those guys down here and shooting some fun stuff with them,” Fidurko noted. “You’ll see them in our store, but that’s all part of what we’ve agreed to with them and we’re super excited (about what’s to come).”
“Shoon Squad 21” apparel has since been made available online, with Holmes and Lofton-related gear set for release later this week. And for both sides, it’s already become a rousing endeavor.
AT SPORTS Locker, “the weekend was very good,” as far as social media traction and initial sales, Fidurko said. A big part of that for any business will be player involvement on those platforms, and it’s begun to see that. “GET YOUR MERCH BABY,” Osunniyi posted Saturday, while quote-tweeting a Sports Locker ad.
And the players will not only earn a cut of the profits -- which has long been denied to major Division I athletes despite the big bucks they bring into their respective schools -- but get to be involved in the creative process.
“Obviously, we’re really excited from our standpoint, but we’re more excited for the players,” Fidurko said. “This has been a long time coming. I mean, the excitement (in) talking to these guys over the phone and via text about ideas, what they want to see, they’re all super excited.
“We’re happy to help them and all that kind of stuff, but it’s a two-way street, ideas flow in both ways. Everything we do has to be approved by not only us, but the players themselves, (and that’s great) for them. They deserve it; those guys have put in their time at Bonaventure, and they deserve to profit off their names 100 percent.”
He added, “it’s a mutually beneficial partnership that we’re working on.”
FOR THE Bonnies, this marks an opportunity never afforded to its predecessors (think of the myriad “scandal” stories involving former prominent D-I athletes, whose exploits would now be considered legal).
But, given the time that athletes might now be devoting to collaborative efforts, appearances and marketing campaigns, will it also become something of an unwanted distraction (surely, a question for coach Mark Schmidt when the time comes).
Fidurko doesn’t think so.
“I don’t think it will be a problem for them,” he said. “We’re here to help facilitate what they want to do … and we both have visions, but it’s a combined vision. Those guys are solely focused on the season; they know what’s at stake this year, and they just want to make everybody proud.”
(J.P. Butler, Bradford Publishing Company group sports editor, can be reached at email@example.com)