In the NIL landscape, schools are turning to companies to train and manage in-house general managers

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Riley Ammenhauser has become a record-breaking, triple-jumping track athlete at Michigan and something of an entrepreneur.

Leveraging her value with about 250,000 followers on social media has landed endorsement deals with Peloton, Gatorade and Lululemon while potentially setting herself up with a career as an influencer after hanging up her spikes.

“Coming into college, I just really didn't know anything about NIL,” said Ammenhauser, a junior from Naperville who graduated from Neuqua Valley High School. “I didn't even know it was a thing, and I didn't know that you couldn't make money before.”

College athletes across the country have been making money — millions of it — since July 2021, when the NCAA cleared the way for them to earn money for the use of their name, image or likeness. The NIL era has upended college athletics like few things in its long history and forced conversations to the fore about everything from athlete unionization to revenue sharing.

Much of the money has flowed directly between brand and athlete, but the NCAA has encouraged schools to become more involved — even become the home base — for their athletes hoping to strike endorsement deals.

Many of those schools are not waiting:

Michigan became the 18th school to hire an NIL general manager in partnership with Altius Sports Partners, announcing Wednesday that NFL Players Association vice president Terése Whitehead will take on the role at her alma mater.

“For us, it's the right time to bring in a company that has had three years to develop strategies, connections to NIL space, connections to collectives, understanding that model,” athletic director Warde Manuel said.

The role is not cheap: Michigan alone will give the company more than $250,000 in the first year to supervise the employee as part of a four-year deal, according to the terms in a contract obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request.

The NCAA has been steadfast in declaring that “pay to play” deals are not allowed and for nearly three years, schools were not permitted to solicit NIL deals or advise athletes on the pros and cons of potential opportunities. At most, recruiters could note that NIL deals were available to explore from booster-backed collectives or third-party organizations, some of which have contracts with schools to connect athlete and brands.

Most of the NCAA's rules around NIL money have been challenged in court and last month Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed a measure into law that allows state colleges and universities to directly pay their athletes through NIL deals as of July 1.

Altius said it expects to continue providing NIL GMs to schools.

“We have been telling schools for almost a year that this time was coming,” said Brittney Whiteside, an Altius Sports Partners vice president and a former Virginia deputy athletic director. “We think there's great value in having an executive general manager on campus, having someone as the point person that is dialed into the landscape offering resources with a high level of expertise.”

Whitehead, the Michigan NIL GM, spent eight years at the NFLPA, where she managed a $2.75 billion portfolio as a VP in charge of consumer products and strategy.

“My entire sports marketing journey has equipped me with invaluable experience, particularly in leveraging the individual and group NIL rights of professional athletes,” she said.

Stanford, Coastal Carolina and Western Michigan announced earlier this year they were hiring NIL GMs who will also be managed by Altius. Many schools have similar positions now, including Arizona State, Marquette, Notre Dame, Southern California and Cincinnati and still others have specific NIL strategists on staff.

Michigan junior Riley Ammenhauser practices on a track, Tuesday, April 30, 2024 in Ann Arbor, Mich. Ammenhauser has become a record-breaking, triple-jumping track athlete and something of an entrepreneur. Leveraging her value with about 250,000 followers on social media, she has landed endorsement deals with Peloton, Gatorade and Lululemon while potentially setting herself up with a career as an influencer after hanging up her spikes. (AP Photo/Larry Lage) AP

Iowa's three-year deal with Altius allocates just less than $570,000 over three years plus a discretionary performance-based bonus annually, according to its contract obtained by AP.

South Carolina is among the schools collaborating with Altius to have what's called a partner services manager, allocating a little more than $80,000 for the on-campus role. Northwestern was among the first schools to hire a NIL GM, Brad Bauer, in the fall of 2022.

“Things have changed tremendously and my job is to help navigate those changes as the on-campus point of contact for anything related to NIL,” Bauer said. “NCAA guidelines have changed, state laws in Illinois have been rewritten and amended.”

The GMs are being hired as the specific role of the so-called collectives may be in flux. The emergence of collectives offering to funnel big money from boosters to athletes for endorsements or charitable work gave supporters another option — perhaps at the expense of direct school donations.

Michigan has partnered with a collective, Champions Circle, to create opportunities for athletes to make money. Before and after last month's spring game, for example, fans paid $125 per person to pose for a photo with the Wolverines' College Football Playoff national championship trophy.

Jared Wangler, co-founder of Champions Circle, said partnering with Altius is a positive move.

“I'd say that it is one of the biggest steps forward that we've been able to take here at the university, having a national network of GMs that we can tap into and such a great resource partner with Altius,” Wangler said.

Greg Dooley, a lecturer at Michigan who created a NIL course a year ago, said he understands why Michigan chose to partner with Altius while other schools are opting to fill the GM role internally.

“Michigan's athletic department makes a lot of money, but it's not run like a business,” Dooley said. “I think Michigan's motivation is to have someone from the outside who can adjust as the ground shifts in this space. For other schools who are keeping it in house, they're probably doing it because they want more control.”

Earlier in her time at Michigan, Ammenhauser turned to a marketing agent to help her strike NIL deals. Now she can compare offers across other schools affiliated with Altius Sports Partners.

“Having people help with NIL would be pretty awesome, for especially the people who aren't really involved in the space,” Ammenhauser said before a training session ahead of the Big Ten track and field championships. “Especially people who are in nonrevenue sports, they don't know if they can get involved in NIL, or they don't know what to do for NIL.”

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