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Notre Dame Football

AJ Vaynerchuk Seeing Corporate America Embrace NIL

July 22, 2021

The NIL - Name, Image, Likeness - era of college athletics isn't 30 days old, but it's clear student-athletes gained power over their brands as deal after deal has been announced.

It's a world of few guidelines, and there are few people with a clear vision on where NIL can take college athletics.

AJ Vaynerchuk is one of those people who has not only educated himself on NIL opportunities but he's fully immersed himself into it over the last five years as he's built VaynerSports with his brother Gary Vaynerchuk (Gary Vee).

AJ Vaynerchuk | VaynerSports

"It's something that we always had hoped would come true," Vaynerchuk told ISD. "It was a bit of a mythological unicorn if it would actually ever happen, but we only promised ourselves internally that if it did happen, we would be ready."

VaynerSports was ready.

DJ Uiagalelei (Clemson). Jayson and Justin Ademilola (Notre Dame). Desmond Ridder (Cincinnati). Jaxon Smith-Njigba (Ohio State).

Those are just a few of the names VaynerSports represents in the new age of NIL, and it's a company with a plan.

"I think we were so well positioned," explained Vaynerchuk. "Prior to starting Vayner Sports, my brother, Gary, and I, started a company called Vayner Media, which is now a holding company called Vayner X.

"We're one of the largest ad agencies in the world, working with hundreds of great brands. We really have this incredible opportunity where we understand  the student-athlete and we understand the corporate brands and we can play matchmaker."

Last week the Ademilola twins announced a deal with Six Star Pro Nutrition that paid both student-athletes five figures.

The twins made a simple Instagram post and got paid.

Social Media, the potential influences or whatever label is preferred is much bigger than perhapa most people realize - and it's not limited to national brands as local businesses can benefit from endorsing a student-athlete.

"I wouldn't necessarily downplay the regional scene because I do think that for a large percentage of student-athletes, the regional area, the restaurants, the car dealership, etc. is going to be a big factor," stated Vaynerchuk. "I think people really underestimated the fact that influencer marketing is a real part of the marketing mix.

"When NIL went live, a group that is very influential to a key target audience, that was always inaccessible, got unlocked. Right? College sports is such a huge part of the fabric of our society."

It was just over three weeks ago a student-athlete couldn't get free food for a Social Media post or get paid to wear a brand of clothes.

And yes, the hype will die down and most won't think twice about an athlete posting an ad. It will be the new norm, and that's a great thing for college athletics.

"You couldn't touch the most influential people in college sports until July 1st," Vaynerchuk said. "And so I think just that can of worms opening is why you're seeing so much opportunity for the student-athletes so far.

"I think it'll temper eventually, but I think it's something that with direct-to-consumer brands and e-commerce growing every year, I think people probably underestimated the national appeal of a college athlete."

The deal for the Ademilola twins is expected to be the first of many as VaynerSports isn't stopping there for the Notre Dame defensive linemen.

Vaynerchuk admits the twins don't play one of the sexy positions, but as a tandem, the Ademilolas have a unique opportunity.

"The twins are near and dear for me," explained Vaynerchuk. "They're Jersey kids like I am, so that's one thing that gravitated me towards them. What I told the twins and their parents is at the end of the day, the defensive side of the ball doesn't get the same amount of love that what I call fantasy football players - the quarterbacks, the running backs, the receivers, the occasional tight end. It can be tough for a defensive player to break through and create a brand to be marketable.

"The twin component is unique. The opportunity for them to utilize that as something that differentiates them from other defensive players in the country. That's going to be a primary focus for how we approach their marketing and their branding opportunities."

Star power will definitely help as the top quarterback is always a positive. Yet, Vaynerchuk believes there is a chance for others to make money based on being marketable.

VaynerSports and New Orleans Saints receiver Juwan Johnson together is a prime example. Johnson made four receptions for 39 yards last year as a rookie, but he and his wife have become one of the NFL's top TikTok influencers with 1.9 million followers. 

"Juwan's actually doing very well off the field from a marketing perspective because he's really been incredible with content creation," explained Vaynerchuk. "He and his wife have a joint account. That has driven close to 2 million followers now on TikTok.

"That stems from them being really creative and being consistent with content production and building a community. Not every athlete needs to be a Pro Bowler to drive marketing dollars, and I think Juwan is a good example of that.

"If you're an athlete that maybe doesn't play at the biggest school, or doesn't play a primary position, there's still an opportunity to build a brand and get your name out there."

Vaynerchuk has also been surprised with the shift from businesses as it relates to NIL's three-week existence after months of hesitation.

"I spent like the year leading to NIL really advocating to brands that I thought there was a great opportunity," Vaynerchuk said. "I felt like my efforts were kind of falling on deaf ears. The energy from corporate America, brands and companies once it went live and once 24 hours passed, I felt like on July 2nd corporate America felt comfortable with NIL. I almost feel as if they kind of got lulled to sleep given how long this conversation has existed, that they almost didn't believe that it was going to happen.

"I've been pleasantly surprised by the activity, the enthusiasm from brands to work with these kids. I think the temperature prior to July 2nd wasn't as rosy, so it's been a good few weeks in that regard."

Yes, some businesses are still on the edge because paying student-athletes hasn’t been legal, but they might miss the boat if they hesitate too much longer.

"I think corporate America couldn't believe it happened," said Vaynerchuk. “They were a little hesitant that it would be over-complicated, but once it was demystified and once they saw some of these press announcements of deals getting done, I feel like brands decided to hop in and join the ride."

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