Jared Wangler saw a problem.
On June 30, the Division I Board of Directors approved a landmark Name, Image & Likeness (NIL) policy, allowing student-athletes to profit off their NIL. At once, college athletics — long defined by a misguided aura of amateurism — was fundamentally altered.
The legislation plunged athletes, schools and businesses head-first into the unknown; Wangler referred to the ensuing weeks as the “wild west,” rife with rash deals and little substance, with companies viewing athletes as “billboards, not people.” Players were left uneducated and unprepared.
That’s where Wangler entered the fold. A running back on the Michigan football team from 2014-2018, Wangler never had the opportunity to profit off his NIL. Neither did Jake Butt, an All-American tight end who played for the Wolverines from 2013-2016, or Niko Porikos, a forward on the Michigan hockey team from 2014-2018.
The trio watched the frenetic NIL landscape unfold in front of them and decided to intervene.
“We saw a hole in the system,” Wangler told the Daily. “We know the University of Michigan and NIL, they want to be able to maximize this and remain competitive, but they can’t themselves manage this for the student-athlete to create monetization opportunities. So that’s why this group was created.”
Wangler founded Ann Arbor-based Valiant Management Group, which he now runs alongside Butt and Porikos. The goal is to offer third-party services, independent from the University, to assist, provide and manage NIL monetization opportunities for all student-athletes.
The University of Michigan’s official NIL policy states that the university “is not responsible for providing or procuring name, image and likeness opportunities for any student-athlete(s).” That’s where groups like Valiant play a factor, ensuring student-athletes remain compliant and easing the anxieties induced by the novelty of the industry.
“For me, I probably would’ve been starry-eyed,” Wangler says, when imagining how he would have handled NIL as a student-athlete. “I didn’t know what was out there or how businesses worked.”
And as Wangler realized, neither did current student-athletes.
Two days before Michigan’s clash with Michigan State, Wolverine junior safety Dax Hill released a custom t-shirt made by the Player’s Trunk that would be delivered in 30 minutes or less, as guaranteed by Gopuff.
To strike the deal, Hill utilized Opendorse. In the same vein as Valiant, Opendorse helps student-athletes avoid the pitfalls of NIL, smoothing out the monetization process at each step.
“An athlete gets pitched a deal, gets a notification that says, ‘GoPuff wants to pay you to do this’,” Opendorse co-founder and CEO Blake Lawrence said. “Then, the athlete gets reminders on what to do, how to do it, how to submit it. And they get paid.”
From there, a number of student-athletes — like graduate transfer quarterback Alan Bowman and swimmers Willie Chan and A.J. Bornstein — were paid to promote Hill’s apparel, posting on their social media feeds. They used Opendorse, too, a part of a burgeoning community that includes roughly 50 Michigan student-athletes and 1,500 new student-athletes each week.
Lawrence likens Opendorse to the Zillow of the NIL sphere. Much like Zillow does for home-sellers, Opendorse provides student-athletes with their approximate worth, a platform to communicate with business representatives and a stream of valuable information, all while acting compliant. It’s a place to manage deals, contracts, ventures, payments, disclosures and taxes, all in one.
“So many things have to go right for an NIL deal to happen without interruption and maintain compliance and, for most athletes that are doing this all on their own for the first time, it’s scary,” Lawrence said.
The process at Valiant is similar. Valiant has a local Ann Arbor office which student-athletes often frequent to receive direct, in-person assistance. Wangler says that they have a “trust factor” with the University, which soothes concerns on the compliance end, both for student-athletes and prospective business partners.
“We want to be very cognizant of the rules and always be above board and working with somebody who represents student-athletes like Valiant does at Michigan,” Michael Mackey, the chief business officer of 15 Seconds of Fame, said. “We’re looking to work with companies that are looking for the best interest of the students, trying not to create a have and have-not situation.”
That proposition lies at the heart of the NIL unknown. Wangler thinks he’s found ways around it.
It starts with group deals and bundles, emphasizing multiple student-athletes rather than the team’s star. For instance, over the summer, Wangler helped orchestrate a group licensing deal for the football team with the M-Den, ensuring each player earned the same commission for their jerseys — a figure that is four times what NFL players make. Or, Buffalo Wild Wings striking a deal with the entire offensive line, rather than just one player.
That’s an area that Wangler maintains is “going unnoticed,” especially with big-time agencies like CAA swooping in to net top-tier athletes with the intention of inking them to professional deals in the future.
“That’s where I’ve seen more traction, in blanket things, stuff that’s streamlined,” Rishi Narayan, the founder and managing owner of Underground Printing, said. “Stuff that benefits multiple players or the whole team. From the average student-athlete perspective, maybe that’s more enticing.”
In 2013, as a 17-year-old 4-star recruit, Wangler made the rounds to a number of high-profile programs. Each time, they reverted to the same talking points.
“Every University, their pitch was, ‘Hey, we got this new locker room,’ or, ‘Hey, we got this new training facility,’ or, ‘We’ve got the best weight room in the country’,” Wangler remembered. “That was the arm’s race in college athletics.”
State-of-the-art facilities were prerequisites for recruiting; they merely got top recruits in the door. Schools splurged to tout lavish buildings containing everything from cutting-edge technology to laser tag to built-in movie theatres. Each program rushed to top the next.
Now, eight years later, things have both changed and stayed the same.
“It’s no different for NIL,” Lawrence said. “If a school doesn’t have a definitive NIL program on campus and isn’t explaining to recruits how they assist in helping them build their brand and get NIL opportunities, then they’re falling behind. It’s the new standard.”
The NCAA precludes NIL from serving as a direct enrollment inducement, but the eye never strays too far. In the recruiting realm, the arm’s race is predicated on NIL information: how a school prepares athletes for the future, using current deals and partnerships as the barometer.
That pitch gets the imagination going.
“You start talking to some recruits and their families and they’re like, ‘OK, how much can I expect in NIL, because this school is saying that I’ll make this much next year,’ ” Wangler said. “And every school is just looking to get an edge.”
Michigan boasts inherent advantages in the NIL orbit. It has one of the world’s largest living alumni bases, a rich tradition of athletics and, most importantly, the Block-M — an indistinguishable mark Lawrence calls “uniquely valuable in the world of sports.”
“Everyone knows Michigan athletics,” Lawrence said. “Players at Michigan naturally have a larger audience than players at other schools. That’s just the power of the program and the fanbase.”
The M-Den, too, is unique in its role as a quasi-NIL hub. It’s a space to maximize merchandise for student-athletes, as opposed to outsourcing gear to a host of retail stores or smaller bookstores, two routes often taken by other schools.
Still, the picture isn’t all sunshine and rainbows.
Michigan student-athletes aren’t authorized to use the Block-M mark and other University trademarks to sell merchandise — legislation which prompted Hunter Dickinson to call the university’s policy “a little restrictive” in August. Ohio State, by comparison, recently reversed its stance, enabling its student-athletes to use its logo.
To remain competitive in recruiting, Wangler maintains, Michigan will soon have to do the same. He’s optimistic that will happen, though not certain. That’s a common theme, five months into NIL’s infancy, with few things truly set in stone.
“In no place do I feel like it’s, ‘Oh, this is 100% the model on how everything should be done’, ” Narayan said. “I personally don’t feel more clarity on this in the way that it’s gonna be, ‘This conference or university has it totally figured out.’ ”
NIL is still a novelty, even though the legislation first passed in June. And Michigan, like any other school, has a lot more to iron out to remain near the front of the pack.