On Maryland men’s basketball media day, the sideline was covered in round tables that were surrounded by cameras and microphones. As the players exited the locker room and searched for their designated spot, it was easy for them to find. Each player had a placard with their name, year, position and now, their social media handle thanks to the interim policy approved by the Division I Board of Directors that allows NCAA athletes to benefit from their name, image and likeness (NIL).
Since July 1, when the policy went into effect, college athletes across the country have been navigating this new terrain through making deals, promoting their personal brand and growing their social media pages.
The same day the interim policy became active, Maryland Athletics announced the launch of MOMENTUM, a program that provides student-athletes with the tools they need to succeed when it comes to benefiting from their NIL. As part of the program, the Terps announced a partnership with Opendorse, a platform that helps student-athletes make deals and grow their personal brands.
Although the school cannot directly help athletes make deals, they can provide them with tools, and that’s exactly what’s taking place at the University of Maryland.
With NIL being as unexplored as it is, Maryland Athletics made a commitment to ensuring its players were fully educated on the process before diving into deals.
“We had about two or three meetings just to make sure we know what we can sign, what we can’t sign,” Maryland men’s basketball transfer graduate guard Fatts Russell said. “That definitely helped me because you know, I don’t really know about it coming in but now I do so that’s a good thing.”
Russell, along with freshman guard/forward James Graham and senior guard Eric Ayala, have been making deals since July and finding ways to benefit from these new opportunities.
When Russell was in high school, he created his brand, Limitless. Dating back to July 26, 2017, one of Maryland men’s basketball’s newest additions has added #limitless to every one of his social media posts.
When he was in high school, he created a YouTube documentary that followed his playing career at Imhotep. The episodes highlighted his accomplishments on the court from regular-season games to state championships.
In the first episode of the YouTube series, Russell opens it up by saying “People try to label me as a little guard or a little two guard but I can do anything your average 6’7, 6’8 guard can do so that’s why it’s Limitless.”
Four years later, the message remains the same. The big difference — Russell can now profit off his brand as it continues to grow.
“It’s kind of like a brand where I want everybody to see you don’t really have to put limits on yourself. You know, being a small guard, a lot of people say that I’m probably not supposed to be a Division I player or as good as I have been in college,” Russell told Testudo Times. “I think that’s kind of with the definition of Limitless, people put limits on you, kind of just break them and reach as many limits as you can.”
One way the brand and NIL have intersected is through a deal Russell made with Fanjoy, a clothing company that now partners with student-athletes who want to design merchandise.
When it came to designing the clothing and stickers, Russell played a role in the process. Fanjoy asked him his vision and Russell sent along logos. After some edits and a few Zoom calls, the brand launched in early September.
Being a part of the creative process was important to the Philadelphia native and through his partnership with the company, and thanks to the latest NIL policy, he will make a portion of the profits off all items sold with his name on it. That’s something that was not possible four months ago.
As part of the initial drop, Russell created a sticker, hats, shirts and sweatshirts that all read “LIMITLESS” across them. Shirts and sweatshirts also have “RUSSELL” and “4” on the back to emulate a jersey.
The 5-foot-11 guard hopes that his brand inspires kids to work hard no matter their size, not to self impose limits and that if they work hard, they can overcome any limits put on them by others.
“In the future, I expect to get more involved with the kids and kind of just tell them my story,” Russell said. “Just try to reach out to as many people as possible and try to inspire them and kind of show them how I got here, all the work I put in, all the hard work it takes.”
Another player who uses the NCAA policy to work with kids while also profiting is Graham.
The guard/forward arrived at Maryland at the end of December 2020 after leaving high school to enroll early in College Park.
This past summer, Graham went back to his home state of Wisconsin to run a basketball camp with his trainer Luke Meier who pitched the idea to him. The duo hosted the skills academy at Nicolet High School, Graham’s alma mater.
“We came about that kind of together. He was adamant on it and everything so we put it together in a quick amount of time as well,” Graham said. “We started talking about it and two days later, we had the flyer.”
For $95, children in third through ninth grade had the opportunity to work with Graham and Meier for six hours. The day consisted of a morning and afternoon session filled with drills and a one-hour lunch break in the middle of the day.
The quick promotion was due in part to Graham’s short stint at home, however, he and Meier pulled it off and were able to get a group of kids to join them for the day on Aug. 14.
“I think what [NIL] does, is kind of make college athletics similar to the pros in other aspects now,” Graham told Testudo Times. “Being able to market yourself off the court to gain endorsement deals and things of that nature it makes it a little bit more similar to the professional aspects of things the way I see it.”
Another way that Graham is benefitting from his NIL is through a deal he’s made with Campus Mogul. As of Oct. 19, he is one of 32 Maryland athletes to have a deal with the company which creates merchandise with players’ names and numbers on them.
Similar to how Russell played a role in the design process in his deal with Fanjoy, Graham and athletes with Campus Mogul deals also play a role in the creativity side of things. The company reached out to Graham, asking what type of designs he was interested in and then created the merchandise.
Along with Graham, Hakim Hart, Julian Reese, Russell, Donta Scott, Marcus Dockery and Ayala all have deals with Campus Mogul.
In addition to some of the clothing design he did with Campus Mogul, Ayala has explored other realms of NIL by starring in a furniture commercial in Wilmington, Delaware.
Another ad Ayala did back in August was with an energy drink brand called G.O.A.T Fuel. For the deal, Ayala starred in a video in which he kept missing shots and passes but after drinking the G.O.A.T Fuel his game improved and he started making shots from all over the court.
Maryland guard Xavier Green also did an ad of his own with the energy drink company that he posted to his social media account.
Scrolling through the energy drink’s Instagram page, which has over 47,000 followers, athletes are all over the feed ranging from football stars, lacrosse players and other athletes.
“So far, it’s been a lot of social media stuff, you know, just different brands reaching out to market their stuff,” Ayala said. “I’ve been feeling like an influencer...had a lot of fun with this G.O.A.T Fuel energy drink. Just being able to have fun with that, putting a video together and being able to put it on social media.”
Ayala has made several smaller deals that correspond with his interests in which he reaps different benefits. The Delaware native enjoys spending some of his downtime playing video games so, he made a deal with one company that sent him a gaming chair.
Ayala also made a deal with &pizza, a pizza chain now offering NIL deals to college athletes. With that deal, Ayala received 50,000 pizza points which translate into meals he can purchase at the restaurant, a merchandise package and an affiliate discount code. In exchange, Ayala promotes the restaurant on his platforms to drive in business.
Hence the importance of college athletes building up their social media brands and presences.
The three Maryland men’s basketball players who dove headfirst into deals seem to share a common goal and that is to help others through some of the NIL deals they’ve made.
Russell is looking to inspire young children to exceed expectations and break limits, Graham ran the camp to give back to his kids in his hometown community and Ayala is hoping to use some of the proceeds he makes through his negotiations to give back to his coaches and teammates.
“One thing I do want to do is something for my teammates and my coaching staff. Something small, something I am looking forward to do down the line,” Ayala said. “Whether it’s like a free Chipotle meal for everybody... [I] just have the opportunity to use [the profits] for myself but also use it to help others as well.”
Although he is set on earning the profits to give back to those around him, the most important thing for Ayala is that he continues to make these deals the right way.
“It’s a lot of different opportunities but making sure I’m doing the right thing, and that’s kind of the biggest thing,” Ayala told Testudo Times. “Keeping my eligibility, making sure I’m taking care of basketball first and school, those are priorities at this point.”
In order to maintain eligibility, Ayala does his research, sifting through the not-so-legitimate deals and differentiating them from ones that are valid. Russell, Graham nor Ayala have hired anyone to help navigate their deals and contracts but as part of what they learned from the university’s guidance, all three always have another set of eyes on the contracts.
“You always hear about people signing contracts and, you know, they end up getting screwed over because they’re not reading the whole thing,” Ayala said. “So, I’ve tried to read as much as I can that I understand and if there’s something that I see that I don’t understand, I definitely have people that help me out, kind of break it down to me.”
Ayala also added that the biggest contract he used to think about was signing professionally but now with this new NIL landscape, college athletes have several other contracts they may sign before potentially getting to that point.
His personal recommendation for all high school recruits and young players: try to take a business course.
“The biggest message I can pass along is try to take something along those lines to educate yourself on what’s going on cause NIL is here, it’s in effect,” Ayala said. “Depending on what school you go to, you’re very marketable, definitely have the opportunity to make some money... so [taking a business course] would definitely be something I recommend.”
With NIL now being a tool for college athletes, Maryland players are watching high school recruits factor that into their decisions when it comes to continuing their playing careers.
Recently, Graham spoke with a friend back home who was considering going overseas but is now talking about going to school because he has the chance to make money while playing and attending college.
With the new and mostly unexplored world of NIL, it’s hard to predict where it can truly take college athletes, but the players are watching the benefits unfold before their eyes.
“It’s still new, there’s really no blueprint to what is supposed to look like because it’s college,” Ayala told Testudo Times. “I mean we’ve seen NBA, you know, professionals do it, it’s still new to the NCAA.”