At some point in the future, college athletes will be earning money based on brands using their names, images, and likenesses (NIL). Currently, 6 states have had legislation to provide such rights to athletes signed into law by their respective governors. None of the laws have yet to go into effect, but Florida plans to be the first as of July 1.
The expectation that college athletes will soon be able to benefit from the licensing of their NIL to third parties has led to the creation of service providers seeking to cater to key decision-makers. One such company, Altius Sports Partners, has taken a different approach from many others that envision economic opportunity in the space. The mission for Altius Sports Partners, established by Casey Schwab, who formerly served as Vice President of Business and Legal Affairs at the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA), is to work directly with athletic departments to prepare and educate them for what is expected to come with the NIL landscape.
On the latest episode of the How to Play the Game podcast (Apple/Spotify), I spoke with Schwab about what inspired him to leave the NFLPA to create Altius Sports Partners in October 2020, the challenges in building a business from scratch with the need to sign up institutional clients, and what the future holds for college athletes to take advance of their names, images, and likenesses for commercial gain.
Schwab’s biggest challenge in crafting a company from scratch in the NIL space is that there is so much uncertainty surrounding the extent of rights that college athletes will enjoy, when they will receive such rights, and whether those rights will roll out to athletes throughout the United States or on a state-by-state basis. While 6 states have approved differing legislation on the subject and Congress has 6 different proposed bills to consider at the national level, there has been no true progress toward a federal solution other than the introduction of the various federal bills. Meanwhile, the NCAA has failed to make any headway on its own proposed legislation, which was supposed to be voted on in January but was tabled as the Association prepares to argue in a pending Supreme Court case that it should be able to place caps on education-related compensation and benefits for college athletes.
Schwab says that, on one hand, the uncertainty in the space is good for his company, because he can explain to universities that they need to retain Altius Sports Partners to ensure that they are given the proper answers on NIL as soon as they are available. The negative is that some athletic departments have a tough time partnering with outsiders when they do not even know what their strategy will be once NIL rolls out.
None of the above has prevented Schwab from growing his company since October 2020 with some powerful athletic departments that have signed retainer agreements. Thus far, Altius Sports Partners has been contracted by Louisiana State University, the University of Texas, and the University of South Carolina. Schwab says that he has signed up two additional colleges, but is not yet at liberty to announce the names.
Those universities are now able to promote the fact that they have engaged Altius Sports Partners to assist them with providing education on the NIL frontier and help them prepare for what will undoubtedly be a regulated environment. Schwab explains that his offering starts with basic education around intellectual property, such as describing the meaning of an individual’s right of publicity and what is it not. From there, Altius Sports Partners educates its clients about what it means to build an authentic brand and monetize it on social media, trading cards, bobbleheads, etc. Additionally, Schwab and his team, which includes former XFL Commissioner Oliver Luck and Arizona State University professor Kenneth Shropshire, will educate an athletic department on how to properly vet service providers such as managers, agents, and financial advisors, and explain what questions should be asked of these individuals
Altius Sports Partners’ biggest competition is the athletic departments themselves, which may choose to have existing personnel manage NIL issues or even hire someone from the outside to create an internal NIL program. Schwab says that the University of Arkansas has taken the latter approach and that he would not be surprised for some other schools to do the same. However, even in that type of situation, he firmly believes there is value for the school to bring in some outside assistance.
Interestingly, Schwab does not think that the market for his company’s services will be very large. He does think that there is a big enough marketplace for his company’s business model to be deemed a success, and perhaps a few others to survive what he says will be chaos surrounding NIL for the next few years before the industry normalizes. At that point, he hopes that Altius Sports Partners is able to primarily focus on educating incoming freshmen and be on call to answer any athlete questions in real-time.
What will the landscape look like for college athletes when the dust settles? As stated above, there is just too much uncertainty at the moment to provide an educated guess. However, Schwab is concerned that numerous limitations would completely destroy the theory surrounding giving these true rights to college athletes. For instance, if college athletes are prohibited from doing NIL deals with their school’s trademarks and prevented from contracts with competitors of school partners, then there will not be an immense opportunity for the players. Both of those elements were found within the NCAA’s latest proposal, which was never voted on, so there is hope that Congress will step in and give athletes greater rights.