Revolutionary changes came to college sports earlier this month. For the first time in the NCAA’s inequitable history, its student-athletes were afforded the opportunity to profit off of their names, images, and likenesses... legally. With that, everyone and their mother looked to enter into this unmarked territory, presenting business opportunities for brands without total understanding of potential ramifications. Granted, attempting to act in compliance with NCAA’s cryptic policy and scattered state/school regulations gives one less confidence than when filling out a March Madness bracket.
Barstool Sports, a popular digital media(?) company, wasted no time jumping into the fray. Founder Dave Portnoy announced that the company would create an athletics arm with the intention of signing college athletes. Student-athletes were immediately attracted to this idea. The Twitter handle Barstool Athletics (@stoolathletics) had garnered over 23,000 follows by July 3.
However, Portnoy quickly became the target of criticism and doubt - not a new concept for him. This public skepticism largely stemmed from comments he made during Barstool Athletics’ inception. Portnoy recalled, “Barstool Athletes, Inc. is the most barstool thing ever. No thought put into it. No clue what we were doing.”
Such a statement doesn’t exactly ring well in the world of compliance. In fact, the compliance office at American International College explicitly stated that working with Barstool is prohibited activity for its athletes. The stated fear centered around a perceived Barstool connection to gambling and its sportsbook, which is an activity that student-athletes definitively cannot endorse. Barstool made an attempt to combat this complication by forming a separate entity, Barstool Athletes, Inc.
Portnoy, now seemingly aware of a host of implicated issues in his program, spent the last few weeks exploring avenues to safely commence his program. Today, he sent an update to all Barstool Athletes. Conduct Detrimental received a copy of said update, which is depicted below. One thing is clear: they are still figuring it out and have a ways to go.
It appears that Portnoy is planning on giving signed athletes a rewards card for discounts at stores and restaurants. “Chipotle said no which sucks,” brutal news for any offensive lineman in the program, among others. Portnoy tells athletes to expect merchandise soon.
While the above benefits of Barstool Athletics are neat, the real profit potential likely comes in the form of apparel sales. Per Portnoy’s email and this article, Barstool athlete Spencer Lee created a t-shirt that Barstool will sell. 80% of all proceeds will go directly to Lee. Barstool has had a ton of success with apparel in the past, turning current events in sports and entertainment into wearable laughs. This line of apparel may be a tougher sell, though, as many Barstool athletes aren’t particularly well-known.
Lee, on the other hand, is a renowned wrestler at The University of Iowa who will likely see success in this sale. As the shirt alludes to, Lee went viral after winning the 2021 National Championship just days after experiencing his second ACL tear. “I’m wrestling with no ACLs.” Truly an unbelievable feat. “Excuses are for wusses” is a fitting phrase for the t-shirt. Further, according to Josh Gerben, Lee has filed a trademark for the slogan.
In the email update, Portnoy writes, “we’ve been working on player specific ideas with some athletes but compliance officers at some schools has been a major issue and setback.” “It’s almost like the schools don’t wanna see their athletes make money.”
Dave, I would counter by saying it’s almost like schools want to see their student-athletes continue to play sports without risking eligibility. Your 'head-first dive' mentality has proven successful in almost every arena of your work. But this is a new space with ambiguous regulations that are changing as we speak. It really won’t hurt to proceed with caution. Compliance officers are not the issue; they are doing their jobs.