The Virginia Tech-focused independent sports marketing agency Triumph NIL has acquired fellow agency Commonwealth NIL, the two companies announced, marking the latest business development in the new and rapidly growing world of college student-athletes earning money from their own publicity rights.
Nearly two years after a U.S. Supreme Court decision allowed college athletes to earn NIL — or name, image and likeness — compensation, students are cashing in with a variety of promotional products and services, from autographs and apparel to personal appearances and customized video messages.
Under the terms of the deal, Commonwealth NIL will cease operations; the company said its customers’ monthly memberships ended as of this past Friday. Financial details of the acquisition were not disclosed.
The move comes on the heels of Blacksburg-based Triumph NIL last month announcing the debut of its Triumph Digital Network, which aims to connect student athletes with fans and sponsors through individually branded channels. Today, Triumph NIL’s representation is approaching 200 athletes, agency partner Doug Hicks said Monday.
“Certainly we’re getting to the point now where we’ve created the infrastructure, the landscape is favorable and we’re ready to really go to work for the student-athletes at Virginia Tech,” Hicks said.
In a letter posted Friday on social media, Christiansburg-based Commonwealth NIL said the acquisition would “make the NIL landscape at Virginia Tech more efficient for our student-athletes, sponsors, and donors.”
“This action will establish unity in the Virginia Tech NIL environment and empower our school’s athletic program to remain competitive,” the letter said.
Triumph NIL thanked Commonwealth NIL for “the role they have played in promoting #NIL culture within the #HokieNation.”
“We look forward to continuing our pursuit of creating meaningful Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) partnerships for our #TriumphAthletes,” Triumph NIL said on social media.
What is NIL?
For years, college athletes’ names, images and likenesses were used to promote teams and sports, but the NCAA forbade athletes from earning money off their own NIL usage.
In June 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the NCAA’s prohibition violated federal antitrust law.
In July 2022, Virginia’s own NIL rules took effect, prohibiting institutions of higher education from forbidding students to earn money off their names, images and likenesses.
Virginia has exceptions for alcohol, cannabis and weapons, among other items, and prevents students from earning NIL compensation while engaged in official academic and athletic activities.
Virginia was the 30th state in the U.S. to enact an NIL law, according to Lincoln, Nebraska-based Opendorse, which bills itself as “leading athlete marketplace and NIL technology company” with more than 100,000 athletes using its platform.
Since these milestones, the NIL world around the U.S. has grown rapidly.
Triumph NIL was founded in April 2022. In June, it merged with another agency, Hot Route Marketing; Kelly Woolwine, founder of Hot Route Marketing, became Triumph’s new CEO.
Meanwhile, a Virginia Tech-focused NIL nonprofit, The Hokie Way, seeks to connect athletes specifically with charitable organizations. In Charlottesville, Cavs Future is a group working with University of Virginia athletes.
There are more than 100 groups around the country working to represent student athletes in NIL deals, according to the college sports news and analysis company On3.
What does an NIL deal look like?
NIL deals can cover a wide range of activities, including branded apparel, business endorsements, podcasts, paid social media posts and shout-out videos. Athletes can work with marketing agencies, collectives or independently to offer their products and services.
Deals also can be more niche and tailored to an athlete’s particular interests.
One example: Triumph NIL worked with Hokies women’s basketball center Liz Kitley — who made national headlines as she helped lead her team to the Final Four in March and who recently announced she’ll return to Tech for another season — and men’s basketball point guard Sean Pedulla to host sold-out cooking classes this year at the Gourmet Pantry and Cooking School, a Blacksburg business that sells boutique kitchen supplies and teaches cooking classes.
“It’s a great opportunity where people get to support and meet, talk, get pictures and autographs, but also have something that’s a little bit deeper than just walking up and shaking a hand,” Hicks said about such classes.
Another example: Triumph leverages athletes’ NIL rights to promote properties managed by CMG Leasing, the official student housing provider for Virginia Tech Athletics.
In late March, CMG announced that Kitley, volleyball player Cara Lewis, wrestler Mekhi Lewis and men’s basketball forward Justyn Mutts would be featured in co-branding inside Cassell Coliseum’s tunnels.
CMG said it has also worked with women’s basketball guard Ashley Owusu and Pedulla to record radio ads promoting the brand.
Where does the most NIL activity happen?
Football takes the lion’s share of NIL deals, garnering 56% of NIL compensation, according to statistics shared by Opendorse that the company says are current as of the end of March.
Men’s basketball follows at about 21%, and women’s basketball comes next at around 10%.
Women’s sports are on the rise in the NIL world. Opendorse notes that while male athletes receive about 77% of NIL compensation, six of the top 10 highest-compensated sports are women’s sports (basketball, volleyball, softball, gymnastics, track and field, and soccer).
When it comes to dollars and cents, Opendorse says the average compensation for a Division I athlete is $4,262, while the overall average across all divisions is $3,877.
A handful of the highest-earning college athletes have made headlines for having NIL valuations reportedly in the six- or even seven-figure range.
Hicks declined to discuss specific dollar amounts for athletes’ deals under his agency.
But he noted that while some deals are financial in nature, others are struck for philanthropic reasons, and others benefit athletes through networking opportunities.
“There are opportunities across the board — every deal is valuable in some way,” Hicks said.
Correction, 5/3/23: Kelly Woolwine is CEO of Triumph NIL. His title was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.