By David Simpson

On July 1, 2021, after a nudge from the U.S. Supreme Court, the NCAA cleared the path for college athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness (NIL). Soon, players at sports powerhouses like Alabama, Michigan and UCLA were scooping up endorsement deals.

But at Old Dominion University, student-athletes found that no one was waiting in line to hand them cash or products. Many needed help figuring out how to seek sponsorships on their own.

Enter two ODU faculty members and their research-savvy students.

Brendan O’Hallarn’s Sport and Strategic Communication class spent the fall 2022 semester crafting The ODU Name, Image, and Likeness Knowledge Hub – a trove of information, best practices, recommendations and links to further expertise.

“For our student-athletes, it’s a terrific tool that supplements the educational resources the Athletics Department offers,” said O’Hallarn, a senior lecturer in the Department of Communication and Theatre Arts. "For me and my students, it’s turned into just a fantastic learning experience.”

Meanwhile, Michelle Carpenter’s Marketing Policy and Strategy class conducted personal branding research for six ODU student-athletes. Compiled after interviews with players, each profile recommends companies best suited to the person’s interests, values, passions and hopes. One of those reports is spotlighted in the knowledge hub.

“This project has not only taught our students about how to help student-athletes,” said Carpenter, a senior lecturer in the Department of Marketing, “but it's also given them a much fuller picture of branding that they can apply to themselves, to their future work with companies and to helping athletes realize their full potential before they graduate.”

Components of the knowledge hub include:

  • Contracts and Legal Considerations 
  • Media Rights 
  • NIL Best Practices 
  • Advice for the ODU Student-Athlete 
  • Student-Athlete Personal Brands 
  • Additional Resources

After researching NCAA, Virginia and ODU rules, students in the Sport and Strategic Communication class concluded: “ODU athletes should lean on their personal brand to obtain a deal and rely less on the fact that they are an ODU athlete. A common trend we have noticed through student-athletes we know personally is that they reached out to the brands they work with. Seldom do the brands reach out to them unless they are an exceptional athlete.”

The knowledge hub also recommends that student-athletes build their social media following before approaching companies, since most brands require them to have a big platform.

Students in O’Hallarn’s class found the research experience challenging but rewarding.

“This is certainly the most intensive and collaborative school project I have ever been a part of,” wrote Langley Peterson in an appendix to the report. “Working with the entire class has been a huge learning experience, but it is very satisfying to see the whole thing come together. I hope our work makes an impact on the athletes at ODU.”

Erin Carter: “It has been thrilling to be a part of something with such a large impact on the University and the Department of Athletics. It has also been frustrating at times as there is little to no ‘easy to find’ information because NIL is so new.” 

Some of the students in the two classes are also ODU athletes. Their research gave them a double perspective on the topic.

Moira Olexa, women’s lacrosse: “Being a student-athlete at ODU, I benefited tremendously from this report. Not only was I researching for my fellow athletes, but also learned how to market myself.”

Imo Essien, men’s basketball: “You see these big deals being aired out every other week, but people don’t understand everything that goes into that deal. On the same note, it has also been intriguing to gain more knowledge about the NIL process and be able to share with my teammates some of the lessons I’ve learned."

Despite the newness of NIL and the initial knowledge gap, 126 current ODU athletes have signed deals, according to Danielle Cohea, senior athletic director for compliance, conduct and regulatory affairs.

They include LaMareon James, football (PSD Underwear and Body Armour), Jason Wade, basketball (Patrick Buick GMC), Tara Enneking, women’s swimming (Freestyle Watches and Guayaki Yerba Mate), and some of their teammates, along with players from the baseball, field hockey, men’s soccer, men’s swimming, men’s tennis, sailing, women’s basketball, women’s golf, women’s lacrosse, women’s soccer and women’s volleyball teams.

Enneking said she enjoyed being the subject of one of the marketing class’s brand profiles. Though she already had relationships with brands, talking with the four marketing students who interviewed her “really helped me reassess my interests and take a step back before looking at more companies."

Also in the fall semester, the Department of Athletics announced the establishment of a group licensing program for student-athletes in partnership with The Brandr Group (TBG). In addition, the University partners with Icon Source, a third-party marketplace where student-athletes can engage in NIL activities, Cohea said.

ODU Athletics’ resources for student-athletes, boosters and businesses include:

Meanwhile, the research partnership continues. O’Hallarn and Carpenter incorporated NIL into their classes again this semester, and Carpenter has 11 more student-athletes lined up for brand profiles.

The two lecturers plan to present the fall 2022 project at conferences this year. They believe the ODU research could help other colleges and universities struggling with the issue.

“A lot of people are investigating this space, but they don’t quite know what’s going on with it,” Carpenter said. “I think we’re definitely on the leading edge.”