SFU football player Kristie Elliott says it can be difficult for student-athletes to know where to start in pursuing sponsorship deals. (Sean Benesh)

Seizing the opportunity: How will SFU athletes navigate the world of sponsorship deals?

How will SFU athletes take on the business of sports?

By Erin Gee | September 21, 2021 |5:00 am

Written for Burnaby Beacon by Erin Gee, a former SFU student-athlete and the co-host of the Bad + Bitchy Podcast. 

One of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) most historic decisions will have an impact on student-athletes at Simon Fraser University, as they will now be able to be part of paid sponsorship deals, and it has some athletes wondering how they will seize the opportunity.

The new rule allows student-athletes to leverage their name, image and likeness (NIL) to sign autographs, coach, and make personal appearances, in addition to for-profit sponsorship deals. This change stems from a 2014 ruling in a California District Court that found college sport-themed video games could no longer use the names or likenesses of student-athletes, after which state legislatures began exploring NIL laws, with several meant to go into effect on July 1 of this year. To level the playing field, the NCAA opted to change the rules for everyone, effective that same date.

SFU’s Senior Director of Athletics, Theresa Hanson, told Burnaby Beacon the NCAA is “in the midst of its most significant changes in a generation.” She added the school is “in the unique position to offer a different and exciting opportunity for Canadian student-athletes to participate in the NCAA and receive an education from the leading comprehensive university in Canada.”

A cultural shift

Hanson is not alone in her view that the NCAA is undergoing a massive cultural shift. Media outlets across the United States have been saying the same as the NIL rule is the organization’s biggest change since the Title IX gender-equity law came into effect nearly 50 years ago.

SFU is Canada’s only post-secondary institution and the only non-American university that competes in the NCAA, leaving both the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics and Canadian Interuniversity Sport in 2010.

For athletic administrators, including Hanson, the NIL rule change didn’t come as a surprise. “I have been following the NIL debate for several years now, and have been part of the legislative discussion within our division and conference for the last couple of years. Like many of my colleagues, I think it was more of a question of “how” it would be integrated into the student-athlete experience vs “if” it would be,” she said in an email.

With several state legislatures preparing to allow NIL changes, some NCAA Division I athletes in those states were prepared, announcing deals the day the NIL rules came into effect. Some US-based companies announced that they had millions (for example, Unilever announced $5 million) to offer student-athletes, while other smaller, more local businesses set a cap on the value and number of partnerships available.

SFU athletes navigating it differently

Football player Mason Glover had an advantage that many of his teammates didn’t: he’s American, with many of his friends attending US-based NCAA schools, thereby allowing him to have a better grasp of what the rule change meant. Because of that advanced understanding, Glover is already working on a couple of partnerships and is just “trying to get [his] name out there.”

Not all student-athletes had the same understanding as Glover.

Football player Kristie Elliott, who is also interested in pursuing NIL activities but isn’t currently working on any partnerships, told the Beacon that it can be difficult for student-athletes to know where to start in pursuing these deals.

“I feel like none of [my teammates] know where to reach out to, where to start looking–you need a base [of followers] and we don’t know how to get that base or where to start. So I think that might be one thing that we’re struggling with,” she said.

Factoring in mental health

But as the marketing of student-athletes grows and the opportunities head their way, it begs the question of whether or not they will start to experience the same burnout that other young social media creators have been experiencing. A June 2021 story from the New York Times details the challenges many Gen Z creators are facing due to contractual obligations and the need to continue creating content in order to remain relevant and, ultimately, financially secure.

While the impact remains to be seen, SFU added a mental health professional to the athletics staff. Hansen said this staff member “works directly with student-athletes” and “feedback [from student-athletes] has been really positive.”

Glover doesn’t seem to be concerned about the mental health implications NIL contracts might bring because of the support SFU has put in place.

“You have to make sure you’re not getting into something that’s going to be tough to agree to with your schedule. But if something like that were to happen, I feel like there’s definitely people we can talk to.”

On the business side, however, Elliott doesn’t know what type of partnerships she would pursue, but that she would make sure they promoted a healthy lifestyle.

“With my platform especially, I would want to be involved in helping women, like women’s empowerment,” she said.

Glover was equally as thoughtful, saying despite the rule change, he still needs to consider his options carefully. “I’m still not going to just pursue any sort of business that comes my way. There’s still my morals and more of my interests that come into factor there.”

Erin Gee

Erin Gee is a former SFU student-athlete and the co-host of the Bad + Bitchy Podcast.

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