WSU athletes develop their personal brands through name, image, and likeness
Dean Janikowski’s powerful kick sends footballs soaring over goal posts. His social media posts highlight his field goals for the Cougars, including a 50-yard career best at last year’s Apple Cup.
But there’s also a whimsical Instagram video of Janikowski taking aim at a McDonald’s bag. As his foot connects, Chicken McNuggets explode across the screen.
The posts reveal Janikowski’s dual personas. He’s a Washington State University student-athlete and a social media influencer who gets paid for promoting brands.
Since July 2021, college athletes have been able to benefit financially from the use of their name, image, and likeness (NIL) as long as their activities are consistent with the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s interim rules and relevant state laws.
WSU was among the first universities to offer a one-credit NIL class for student-athletes, introducing them to topics like personal branding, intellectual property, contracts, budgeting, and taxes. Janikowski took the class as as a redshirt freshman.
“When I found out about NIL, I hit it hard,’” says Janikowski, who majored in digital technology and culture as an undergraduate and is now pursing an MBA. “I had a head start because I was already interested in business.”
Janikowski started small, promoting brands in videos he produced in exchange for free products. As his reputation grew, he became more selective. “Now I’m working with brands that will pay or offer me higher-value items.”
Years of legal wrangling preceded NCAA v. Alston, the US Supreme Court decision that laid the groundwork for college athletes to profit from their name, image, and likeness. The court ruled that the NCAA couldn’t bar member schools from offering certain education-related benefits to student-athletes, which were previously capped at “the cost of attendance,” such as tuition, textbooks, and room and board.
Opponents argued that elite college athletes’ “market value” was much higher, particularly for star players in high-revenue sports like football and basketball. Supreme Court justices agreed.
The “NCAA and its member colleges are suppressing the pay of student-athletes who collectively generate billions of dollars in revenues for colleges every year,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote. “Those enormous sums of money flow to seemingly everyone except for student-athletes.”
Shortly after the Supreme Court decision, the NCAA adopted its interim NIL rules.
WSU’s NIL class is a cooperative effort between the Athletics department and the Center for Entrepreneurship in the Carson College of Business. About 200 student-athletes have taken it. Roughly half went on to participate in some type of NIL opportunity, says Nick Garner, WSU’s director of student-athlete innovation.
Most college athletes won’t land the kind of deals that make ESPN headlines. But the ability to profit from NIL creates the perfect window to teach student-athletes about business, says Marie Mayes (’87 Poli. Sci., ’04 MBA), the Center for Entrepreneurship’s director.
“They can sign autographs at a car dealership, run sports camps in their hometowns, or provide individualized coaching,” Mayes says. “Maybe they sign a contract and make some money. Suddenly, they see how knowing about business and personal finance is relevant to their lives.”
Lifting NIL restrictions also helped athletes with existing business ventures. Cami March, the former captain of the WSU women’s golf team, developed an app that allows friends to connect for social activities. Before NIL took effect, March couldn’t advertise the app on her social media accounts.
“I would have had to scrub all references to WSU golf from my social media,” says March, who now competes professionally. “I talked to my teammates about doing that, but it felt disloyal to them.”
WSU is still looking for clarity on many aspects of NIL, says Athletic Director Pat Chun, who testified before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee in late March. In the emerging NIL landscape, academics remain the university’s priority, he says.
“While college athletics has evolved into a multibillion-dollar industry, our mission remains to educate young people and prepare them for their respective futures,” Chun testified. “The greatest factor today in social mobility is still a college education.”
Following court rulings, a patchwork of differing state NIL regulations took effect. Washington requires universities and student-athletes to abide by state ethics laws but has no NIL regulations.
WSU wants Congress to develop national NIL standards with input from the NCAA and universities. The lack of national regulations creates an unequal field for recruiting athletes and increases opportunities for abuse, Chun says.
Requiring disclosure of NIL deal arrangements and parity in women’s sports are also WSU priorities. Nationally, NIL deals are projected to exceed $1 billion this year, according to Opendorse, an NIL endorsement platform.
“We believe transparency benefits student-athletes by giving them a better understanding of the market,” Chun says. “From an institutional standpoint, disclosure helps ensure NCAA recruiting rules are being followed, and there’s no inducement or tampering.”
Although disclosure is limited, women athletes are reporting lower-value NIL deals. That’s a concern for compliance with federal Title IX regulations, which require equal opportunities for female student-athletes, Chun says.
Nationally, alumni have become influential players in NIL through collectives. Operating independently of universities, collectives are set up by well-known alumni and athletic boosters who raise funds and pool resources for NIL deals.
The Cougar Collective formed after quarterback Cameron Ward transferred to WSU in January 2022. A group of alumni put together an NIL deal for him, then wanted to extend opportunities to other WSU athletes.
“We’re not interested in being anyone’s agent,” says Rob Tobeck (’94 Ed.) a Cougar Collective cofounder and former Seattle Seahawks center. “But we have lots of Cougar-owned businesses, and we can connect them with student-athletes who are interested in NIL.”
Zach Thornton (’22 Finance), the collective’s development director, says he gets two texts per week from student-athletes asking about NIL opportunities. “When someone comes to us with a plan and is willing to put the work in, we’ve been able to help them find deals.”
Companies approaching the Cougar Collective generally want to work with both male and female athletes, Thornton says. The collective’s donors can also specify whether they want to support men’s or women’s sports.
Members of the women’s golf team made an NIL appearance at the CougsFirst! QB Golf Tournament, where they hit drives for tournament players.
“Unlike some universities, we don’t have a billion-dollar alumni backer,” Tobeck says. “We’re counting on all the fans who raise the flag on game day.”
Cougar Collective members meet regularly with the Athletics department compliance office. Tobeck says working through the collective helps prevent ethics violations by clarifying the rules for both businesses and athletes. Companies can’t simply funnel money to student-athletes. The athletes must provide a return value to the business through appearances, endorsements, or other work.
For many college sports fans, NIL deals remain controversial—diminishing the ideal of amateur student-athletes. But NIL is the future of recruiting talent in college sports, Tobeck says.
“It used to be about building new facilities and special weight rooms and locker rooms,” he says. “Recruits don’t ask about facilities anymore. They want to know about NIL opportunities, and so do their parents.”
Janikowski, now a redshirt junior, is working on a new NIL deal with Greenger Powersports. In exchange for social media promotion, the company shipped him two electric dirt bikes.
The dirt bikes join the growing list of products he’s promoted to his TikTok and Instagram followers: Onewheel skateboards, energy drinks, fast food, and trackers that allow people to locate stolen bikes.
“I started with small brands, getting free T-shirts, and worked my way up to $4,000 dirt bikes,” Janikowski says.
Through his NIL work, Janikowski says he’s getting real-world experience in marketing and design. Balancing a side gig with school and Cougar football forces him to stay organized.
“I’ve had a lot of fun with NIL,” Janikowski says. “At times, it’s a lot to manage, but it’s been a cool journey.”
NIL and the business of college sports (Fall 2023, Washington State Magazine)
Podcast: More than a kick (A conversation with Dean Janikowski)