Green or gray? NIL to add new element to student-athlete experience

After a couple of hours working on his mid-range jumper, or maybe between classes and a meal, Indiana forward Trayce Jackson-Davis will hear his phone buzz.

It’s a notification from Opendorse, the sports tech company, presenting him with another binary choice. Green button or gray? If the 6-foot-9 forward’s thumb presses the green, an endorsement for a local restaurant, or maybe a car dealership, or possibly a clothing brand, will post to his Twitter and Instagram pages. If he’s not liking their pitch, Jackson-Davis can hit gray.

But clicking green comes with a $183 reason — the going rate for the leading scorer and All-Big Ten third-teamer’s endorsement on Twitter, according to Opendorse’s valuation. His words are even more valuable on Instagram, where one post nets $571.

Enough green clicks and Opendorse estimates Jackson-Davis could earn nearly $25,000 in a year, just by pointing his fans to companies and products on social media.

“That’s what we already provide the pro market today,” said Blake Lawrence, the co-founder and CEO of Opendorse. “If the rules change tomorrow, we flip the switch.”

For now, the aforementioned scenario with Jackson-Davis is just a hypothetical. But it could very well become the norm if the NCAA follows through on its intention to allow student-athletes to profit off of their name, image, and likeness (NIL). The old arguments, that money in the hands of college athletes would destroy the spirit of amateurism, that it would open the gates to boosters and agents and other seedy characters, seem to have caved under the weight of a digital revolution.

The television and now the social media profile have elevated the celebrity of student-athletes. They are now “influencers,” as it’s called.

IU has leaned into the coming change, partnering with Opendorse to ready the Hoosiers for the new landscape. It just comes too late for some, like swimmer Lilly King, who wagged her finger at her Russian foe, returning to campus a gold medalist. She never got to use those fingers to click green. Tim Priller didn’t have the chance to catapult from end-of-the-bench talent to star of “Priller Time” and turn it into a marketing campaign.

But the next generation of Kings and Prillers will have their choice.

Green button or gray?

“For most student-athletes, they won’t go pro, they won’t win the Nobel Prize,” said Lawrence, once a linebacker at Nebraska. His career was cut short by concussions, and he transitioned into the world of digital marketing.

“This is the most marketable time in their entire life, the four or five years they are on a college campus or university,” Lawrence added. “Now, they can capitalize.”

***

In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, one 6-9 Hoosier can make a choice Jackson-Davis currently can’t.

After a 10-hour shift at Enterprise Rent-A-Car, a stretch-four who posted career averages of 0.7 points and 0.6 rebounds per game will record a “happy birthday” video for some little kid. Or sometimes, someone wants him to tell a friend how bad they are at fantasy football.

Tim Priller would rather you spend your $15 on the former, not the latter. But he’s not picky.

“The ones that are legit, they want me to say ‘Hi’ to their kids … I like making people happy, you know?” said Priller, who still fondly remembers coaching little Hoosier fans at IU’s basketball camps every offseason.

“The kids that like messing with me … I don’t really care. You can mess with me, I’ll say what you want me to say, and thanks for the $15.”

It’s been more than two years since this not-so-athletic everyman poured his heart into late-game moments for IU, but the Hoosier faithful still love Priller. Sometimes they find him at work in the DFW Airport, eyes lit up with surprise, arms wrangling him for a quick photo. Others find Priller on Cameo, a site that facilitates personalized video messages from celebrities.

When Priller first set up his Cameo account, it was $5 for a message. Enough came in, so he went up to $10. He may bump it to $20 soon.

His name still has some value. In 2014, who knows what “Thriller Priller” may have been worth.

At the time, NIL rules were the last thing on his mind. Priller was just a 19-year-old freshman, totally surprised by how big basketball truly was in Indiana. But the easygoing big man wasn’t overwhelmed by it, either. Even when he hit a backboard 3 in a game and the crowd exploded. Even as he came up with a steal and fed Nate Ritchie for a dunk, and the crowd was in love.

“We don’t just hop on our phones right away, there’s a meeting with the coach and all of that,” Priller said. “But a couple of hours after the game, people were like ‘Dude, you’re blowing up.’”

Priller’s fame went beyond press clippings. He was “trending” nationally on Twitter. His entry into games became a moment for fans. A human victory flag, of sorts, who looked sort of like Shaggy from Scooby-Doo.

His likeness was GIF-ed. He was too young to drink, but he heard of “Priller Time” specials at local bars. One of Priller’s older friends was at a local establishment and found a T-shirt on the floor.

“It was a ‘Priller Time’ shirt,” Priller said. “She brought it to us, and we washed it up and kept it. After that, it was copyrighting the ‘Miller Time’ sign, the beer, and I think they shut that down pretty quick. They don’t make any more of those.”

Priller admits, he probably thought about making money off of his name, but only for a fleeting moment. “If I could, I didn’t think I’d make that much money anyway,” Priller said. “I kind of blew it off.”

More than anything, Priller’s story just goes to show where college sports may be headed, but also where it was at the time. IU had to come out and explicitly state it did not authorize Brothers Bar to produce “Priller Time” shirts. This had crossed the existing lines of commercialization of a college athlete.

Who knows how Priller’s story may have been different had NIL money flowed freely in 2014. It certainly would have added an interesting twist to the team dynamic, though he doesn’t think teammates would have grown jealous of each other’s NIL dollars.

“If you want more money, you get in the gym and get better, I guess,” Priller said. “Not everyone can be the star player. So maybe it would encourage people to get in the gym and get even better and be a top player.”

Not everyone can be a star bench player, either.

Priller has kept a sense of humor about what he didn’t get. When news of impending NIL changes broke, Priller tweeted from his account, @Vanilla_Prilla, “Can I get 4 more years (of) eligibility?” A few months later, IU coach Archie Miller joked Priller could have been a millionaire.

The Hoosier cult hero tweeted out his Venmo account.

“Or if 1 million people Venmo me … I could become a millionaire wayyyy quicker!!”

Two days later, he alerted his followers. “Guys,” Priller tweeted, “$999,998 more to go.”

***

While one former Hoosier gets his dollars one at a time, or 15, another can measure in much larger quantities.

Cody Miller, the Olympic swimmer, pulls in tens of thousands of dollars from his YouTube channel every year, where he “vlogs” about his life in and out of the pool.

Scenes include: driving to IU in pitch-black morning hours; squatting at the gym and pushing weighted sleds in a parking lot; goofing off with Lilly King between laps in the pool; visiting his “shaman” — actually, his physical therapist — to have his muscles and bones worked on; and playing with two very small, very fluffy dogs.

It’s all packed into 10 minutes of runtime, glued together by Miller’s upbeat bursts of narration. A video may pull in 50,000 views one week. But the next, it might be more than 100,000. Or a half-million.

“That’s why the world of vlogging on YouTube has become so popular. It’s overwhelmingly real, right?” Miller said. “It’s taking over the genre of reality TV, but now there’s no producers and men in high chairs making decisions.”

He lives off of his name, image, and likeness, a combo of YouTube ads and sponsorships, but mostly the latter. Brands like HelloFresh pay handsomely for Miller’s plug in a video. And the gold-medal winner is popular enough, he doesn’t need to endorse products he doesn’t like.

Miller is on the frontier where college athletes are looking to head with NIL. But before they start dreaming of $100,000 YouTube channels, he offers a dose of reality.

Realistically, he doesn’t think most athletes will earn thousands of dollars from NIL. And if he could rewind a decade, putting himself back at IU, Miller isn’t sure if he would have started a channel then.

He didn’t have time.

“The only thing I thought about in college was making the Olympics,” Miller said.

What makes some athletes great is that singular focus. Free money is free money. And if most of it is made clicking a green or a gray button on Opendorse’s application, maybe distraction can be minimized.

But it remains to be seen how much athletes embrace a spokesperson’s role. King, for one, has proven to be an energetic sidekick in Miller’s videos, dishing out goofy faces and random quotes from Harry Potter’s Dobby.

“But Lilly has no interest in sitting in front of a computer and editing a video for four hours a day,” Miller said. “And that’s a personal choice.”

For Miller, YouTube is a job. He shoots footage, crafts a story, then edits it down to a digestible length. Not to mention the times where water seeps into his GoPro and messes with the audio. That’s an extra 30 minutes of tinkering right there.

“Every student-athlete has a decision to make: how much time and energy am I going to put into my studies and how much am I going to put into my sport?” Miller said. “Are you going to stay up until 3 in the morning to study or are you going to get up early for practice?

“Some people can do both. Some people are freaks. But I’m not one of those people. If I wanted to be an honors student and graduate from the Kelley School of Business with a 4.0, I couldn’t have been an Olympian. I probably could have learned to run a vlog and have it be a part-time business in school, but it would have affected my performance in the pool.”

Being a student-athlete is tough. Being a student-athlete-influencer — just considering the time and the comfort in one’s skin it requires — it may not be for everyone.

Priller isn’t even sure what he would have done with his unique circumstances. There is a reason he chose IU over a host of mid-majors where he could have played more, and it had nothing to do with Priller Time t-shirts.

He just wanted to win.

“Even some top-notch mid-majors, you wake up, you go to workouts, you go to school, you come back for practice, you go do your own workouts, and then you go to the academic center and do your homework. It’s a repeat cycle,” Priller said, wondering how much he could have gone beyond some monetized tweets.

“It’s something you can do, but you are probably going to be exhausted.”

It’s just another set of priorities to weigh, just another layer to the student-athlete experience. Click green, or gray. Make money, or don’t. Put yourself out there, or not.

The choice is now theirs.

“College, it’s all about heart, and playing as hard as you can, and yada, yada, yada, because you don’t get paid. I can see there being some issues,” Priller said. “But, honestly, it depends on the team. If anyone can send out a tweet and make money off of it … I think they’d be happy with something. It would be pretty cool.”

7 comments

  1. Jon, yours is a highly informative article. Excellent work.
    I have very mixed emotions about this whole NIL concept.
    Part of me thinks it’s about time players got something, since coaches routinely get millions and the NCAA for years has gotten rich off of them. Google “Jay Bilas Johnny Manzel jersey.”
    But another part of me worries that many so called “student-athletes” will turn into athletes playing at a school while making very good money showcasing their athletic skills and once in a while going to class.
    You can’t solve my personal dilemma, but your article did a GREAT job of explaining what very well may happen in the near future. Very illuminating.

  2. It’s more gloominating…..Open up the vaults and quit suckering these athletes into ‘pie in sky’ diversions. Make the NBA and NFL responsible for all of the individualism and name promotion while sucking the life out of a team game pay for the NIL.

  3. Per The Athletic article it appears IU dodged a bullet by not going with Gregg Marshall a few years ago.

  4. Based on today’s article is SI.com, Greg Marshall will soon be fired by WSU. The only questions are how long will it take and how much will it cost the school? The reports of Marshall’s violent outbursts over several years make Bob Knight, when he was at his worst, look like a pacifist. Marshall has lost it, and it makes me wonder why it’s taken so long for WSU to act? The other thing I wonder is how a middle-aged man who punches one of his players doesn’t get the crap kicked out of him? One of these days, some middle aged college coach is going to wind up in intensive care after getting violent with a 20-year-old world-class athlete. In this day and age, a coach has to be really got to be out-of-touch to initiate any violence against a student athlete.

  5. Marshall got away with so much because Wichita State is a mid major trying to be big time in the big stage. So, decision makers and those in charge plus those in the program looked the other way. Then, enough became enough.
    I was a supporter of Marshall for men’s IU basketball program and I was wrong. An example of I didn’t know what I (Myself) was talking about. Easy to have opinion from outside and critical of those on inside that actually have real information to make decisions. Even those decisions with the information on inside often don’t work out well. Let alone all outside opinions and what decisions one might have.

  6. I still have a very vivid memory of a coach on mt high school football team getting in a fistfight with a player. The coach was a huge man and primarily worked with the line…Don’t even remember what started the fight but it was quite the scuffle. Tough wiry kid held his own against him and it took a bit to separate them. I think the fight was a result of the assistant running was was referred to as the ‘Bull in the Middle’ drill …where he’d form a large circle of players around one player in the center. He’d then call out various names (often in rapid fashion from different angles) to attack block the bull (player) in the center via smashing shoulder pads and upper body blocks. I think the fist fight originated because the young man on my team felt the coach was being far more reckless with him when he made him the “bull” ….(using much bigger kids to rush the bull and sending them in one after the other in far more rapid fashion).
    Never remember any repercussions for the coach engaged in the fistfight…(probably claimed he was defending himself in a mismatch he could have easily contained ) but I do remember thinking he had it out for the young man.
    I had some coaches who were real idiots and seemed like they were making up time for their own losses and personal failings from their glory days. Like all professions, many are in it for the wrong reasons and to conquer someone naive/younger/vulnerable as a way to make up for being conquered , abused or mistreated in their own vanished youthful days.

    Doubt they do ‘Bull in the Middle’ practice drills much these days…

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