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Group Licensing Is Starting To Take Shape For College Athlete NIL Deals

The NCAA loosened its grip on college athletes and now those athletes are in the process of joining together for the greater good. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

College athletes are now able to enjoy commercializing their name, image, and likeness (NIL) rights for the first time, and over the first three weeks of having such rights, there have been some innovative offers made as well as deals consummated. However, the largest opportunities that include a large segment of the college athlete population with participation by major brands have yet to unfold and there is a good reason for that — it is extremely difficult to capture a large athlete population for these deals without an entity organizing them as one unit.

There is hope that the marketplace is changing behind the scenes with the potential long-term outcome being that a trade association is formed to do massive group licensing deals on behalf of players. This could include actual licenses by and between video game publishers and the outfit in charge of negotiating deals on behalf of the group of college athletes, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. While the University of Carolina Chapel-Hill’s athletic department may be the first-ever to officially launch a group licensing program for current college athletes, it certainly will not be the last, and the school-by-school organization of athletes is likely a placeholder for something at a much larger scale.

One entity that hopes to be the catalyst to form a nationwide group licensing unit for college athletes is OneTeam, which was jointly founded by the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA), Major League Baseball Players Association, and RedBird Capital Partners with the intention of helping athletes maximize the value of their NIL rights. The organization previously made a significant investment into The Brandr Group, which is the firm that helped UNC become the first school to create its group licensing program and is in the works to do the same at other major programs. OneTeam has also created strategic alliances with NIL-related companies such as INFLCR, Altius Sports, and Opendorse — brands that have already signed up numerous college athletes and schools to their respective platforms — to expand its reach in the college athlete ecosystem. All of this activity puts OneTeam in an excellent position to potentially take the lead in creating a true trade association, negotiating group licensing deals on behalf of college athletes, and after waiting a few weeks it seems as though OneTeam is ready to begin organizing some transactions in the newly developed space.

According to Panini America, a trading card manufacturer that already has exclusivity with the NFL, NFLPA, NBA, NBPA, UFC, and NASCAR, the company has entered into a new exclusive group licensing agreement with OneTeam to capture the college athlete NIL marketplace. Panini America’s deal with OneTeam is for multiple years and includes both physical trading cards as well as digital cards on its NFT/Blockchain platform. The focus of its partnership with OneTeam will be on men’s and women’s sports including football, basketball, baseball, and Olympics competition.

In order for Panini America, or any other future OneTeam partner hoping to take advantage of the NIL space to the fullest capacity, to truly get value from the deal, OneTeam must accomplish a goal of signing up as many players as possible to its College Athlete Group Licensing program. College athletes will continue to have the option of whether they wish to opt-in to OneTeam’s group licensing platform and, in the coming weeks, athletes will have the opportunity to opt-in specifically to this Panini America opportunity.

Panini America, through its VP of Marketing Jason Howarth, says that its goal is not only to sign up the most marketable players, but literally as many college athletes as possible. The company will also be pursuing autograph deals with individual athletes, separate and apart from this group licensing effort.

This announcement of a partnership for Panini America is also significant because the company should be able to concurrently leverage its existing relationships with more than 200 schools. It also benefits from having experience producing collegiate products around alumni and players who recently declared to play professionally. Now, Panini America will work with those schools to create co-branded opportunities that give the company the ability to use collegiate marks with players’ NIL on physical and digital trading cards. The assumption is that athletes at those schools with existing Panini America relationships in place will easily receive authority to use school marks in association with these transactions, similar to how easy it was for football players at the University of Michigan to be granted the ability to be a part of a program that pays them royalties for the sale of new official jerseys bearing their names. This is important, because most school NIL policies are requiring athletes to acquire such consent, in writing, prior to engaging in NIL transactions that include any use of school marks.

Written by Darren Heitner

Darren Heitner is the founder of Heitner Legal. He is the author of How to Play the Game: What Every Sports Attorney Needs to Know, published by the American Bar Association, and is an adjunct professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. You can reach him by email at heitner@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @DarrenHeitner.

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