Historically, the National Collegiate Athletic Association has resisted efforts to compensate college athletes in the United States — that is, until 2021, when it established interim policies for student-athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness — or NIL — on a national level.
For the past two years, athletes, athletic departments and universities across the United States have been wrangling with how best to follow the new NCAA NIL rules while staying within the lines of rules at the state level and at their respective schools.
“It is imperative that we continue to abide by NCAA guidelines and state law regarding NIL activations and effective practices,” Ashton Henderson, Michigan State University’s deputy athletic director, said. “I am grateful to our team, including my colleague Alex Breske, who continues to monitor, track and ensure we remain in compliance on all NIL standards.”
Since 2021, MSU has become a front-runner for getting in the NIL game and succeeding. Through a unique collaboration between MSU Athletics and the Broad College of Business’ Multicultural Business Programs, Spartans are setting the pace.
The collaboration, dubbed Business Teams, launched as a pilot program over the 2022-23 academic year and brought together four teams of five business students to support and coach 16 student-athletes on how to navigate the NIL space.
The idea was thought up by MBP special projects coordinator Lauren Aitch-Guerrant (B.A. Advertising ’09, M.A. Public Relations ’10), who was a student-athlete on the MSU women’s basketball team from 2005 to 2010 and brought her own experience to the table.
“When I started to hear and learn more about the NIL legislation being passed, I started to think about what that would have been like when I was a college athlete,” she said, realizing that she would have felt overwhelmed trying to explore and understand everything on her own. “This is when the saying ‘Be who you needed when you were young’ came into play.”
As an entrepreneur herself, Aitch-Guerrant knows that it takes a team to run and operate a successful business. She realized that a cross-functional setting, where athletes and business students could interact, would be the right answer here.
“We wanted to build a program that would give business students real-life work experience in the athletic industry and give student-athletes a team that would boost their knowledge, confidence, business acumen, all while giving them more time to explore this new opportunity to capitalize on their name, image and likeness.”
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Her experience, combined with instrumental recruiting help and support from Broad College faculty and staff members Kent Miller, chairperson of the Department of Management, Lynn Zelenski, director of student academic services in the Department of Accounting and Information Systems, and Eric Doerr, director of student and corporate engagement in the Department of Marketing, gave Business Teams the launch it needed for interdisciplinary success. In addition, fixed-term faculty Elliott Daniels’ sports management class provided internship credit for Business Teams students as an incentive, and it proved to be an integral aspect of the program.
The pilot year began with the teams helping student-athletes understand what opportunities were available and which might best fit with their personal brand. They were coached on best practices for outreach and engaging with their target companies and brands, and the student-athletes were successful in landing a variety of deals such as podcast appearances, products and services and brand conversations with well-known entities like Kellogg’s.
And this work hasn’t gone unnoticed. At the 2023 NIL Summit in June, MSU’s EverGreen NIL program — of which Business Teams is a part — was awarded Best Institutional Program. Business Teams’ cross-functional teams were called out as something no other school has done.
“To witness firsthand the success that Business Teams has brought to MSU EverGreen, and then to be nationally recognized for that success, means MSU and MBP are at the forefront of education and innovation in the NIL space,” Ed Tillett, director of MBP, said. “Business Teams will proudly continue to grow and contribute to the success of MSU students and student-athletes.”
For the Broad students involved, being part of Business Teams is a unique experience to help them gain ground within the sports industry. They hone their advertising, finance, human resources and marketing skills and earn internship credit for their participation.
“For me it’s been a huge learning experience, especially going through the pilot program. I’m able to really get a good understanding of building something from the ground up,” Jack Carscadden, a rising senior in business and computational science, said.
Business Teams also offers a chance for students to grow soft skills like communication, collaboration, negotiation and even resiliency when timelines, ideas and requirements change quickly.
“I want to work in the sports marketing field, so getting that experience firsthand has been great,” Zoe Burrell, a rising senior in marketing, said. “[This program] gets your toes in the water for pitch writing and adaptability in the professional world.”
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Across the board, business students helped develop brands for the student-athletes, as well as preparing communications and plans for outreach and relationship building (and conducting this work), along with solidifying NIL contracts. Topping it off, many forged lasting friendships with one another and the student-athletes and were able to secure internships or full-time jobs in the sports industry because of their experience.
“I gained a lot of new skills, but I also gained a lot of new friends,” Amy Montalbano (B.A. Supply Chain Management ’23) said. “It’s just a really cool opportunity to see athletes outside their normal playing field and see them as normal people. I’d recommend business students participate in Business Teams because you can carry these skills with you, not just in the sports industry. And I’d recommend student-athletes participate because you might get NIL deals out of it, but you’ll definitely gain more skills, good exposure to business and hopefully make some new friends.”
Student-athletes involved in Business Teams were from all class levels — from first-year to senior — and played a variety of sports, including women’s basketball, women’s softball and men’s baseball, wrestling and football. What drew them in was knowing they’d have a team dedicated to supporting them every step of the way.
“I would definitely recommend this program to anyone, to any student-athlete, because it is great for someone who has a vision and someone who wants to pursue something. Having a team behind them helps a lot,” Kamaria McDaniel, a senior on the women’s basketball team, said.
McDaniel said she has grown her entrepreneurial mindset, learning about everything from starting an LLC to trademark law and even what goes into planning an event. She also said her teammates have become friends who she can rely on, and she hopes that carries forward.
“I’m hoping to take away [from this experience] a successful business, a promising business, and lifelong friendships and business relationships with my team.”
Henderson is excited about MSU’s success with NIL and the role that Business Teams will continue to play. “MSU’s EverGreen NIL Committee is immensely grateful to our campus partners, including Lauren Aitch-Guerrant, for having the foresight to curate the NIL Business Teams, because without this partnership we would not have won the Best Institutional Program NIL award. Furthermore, I am elated for the continued dedication and leadership of Darien Harris and Alex Breske to carry on our efforts and take MSU to new NIL heights.”
With this momentum, Aitch-Guerrant is eager to expand the program next year, and she envisions establishing more teams to support even more student-athletes.
“Due to the success of the pilot this year, the overall goal is to grow the program to continue to create mutually beneficial outcomes on both sides, for both the business students and the student-athletes,” she said.
One idea she’s planning to pursue is to implement business student office hours, available to the entire student-athlete population. This would allow student-athletes to seek help on simpler questions that may not necessarily require a team’s full assistance over the course of an academic year.
Business Teams is a great example of how Spartans collaborate, embrace new ideas and innovate every day. This cross-functional work is a win-win for students and student-athletes and delivers on the Broad College’s commitment to inspiring the future of business.