“Ultimately the student-athlete wins.” A Flatwater Free Conversation with a former Husker-turned-NIL pioneer

The brave new world of college sports is here – a world in which the athletes themselves can get paid – and former Husker football player Blake Lawrence is right in the middle of it.

FFP correspondent Mike’l Severe sat down with Lawrence and talked to him about the “NIL” era, in which college athletes, for the first time, can profit off their name, image an likeness while playing college sports.

They talk about the controversy of NIL, and its promise.

Enjoy the latest Flatwater Free Conversation. 

This transcript has been slightly edited for length and clarity.

Mike’l Severe: What was the thing that kind of made you realize that an athlete’s social media power could help a business?

Blake Lawrence: I’ll tell you: Prince Amukamara is the answer to that. We used to spend weeks and months trying to get a local business to get their Facebook page from a hundred likes to a thousand likes. Remember those days?

Once they got to a thousand likes, we tried really hard to get 10 people to comment or like on a post or a photo. And then once we started working with Prince Amukamara…we got to a thousand likes on his page in a day. And every post he shared, he got a hundred likes. Not ten.

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And so we started to see that athletes had ten times higher engagement rate on social media. And this was incredibly valuable for the businesses that could partner because again, in the social media area…everyone’s looking to get in front of their audience and athletes were a great way for them to break through.

So we started to team up the brands that we worked with and these businesses with the athletes we worked with and put us right in the middle of this endorsement world before we knew it. 

Mike’l Severe: Yeah. I don’t know if you have a crystal ball or what, but you were one of the first people I heard talking about NIL and what it could mean for college athletes and universities.

How early did you see the possibility? Because it was before really the rules had changed when you guys were already talking about it. 

Blake Lawrence: Yeah, certainly. So Adi and I started Opendorse in 2012, kind of after that Prince Amukamara experience and, and really built this technology to help athletes understand, build and monetize their brand value, which all of us now use the word “NIL value.”

And we started with pro athletes. So Prince was our first user and they introduced it to his teammates in the NFL, we partnered with the NFLPA. (Editor’s Note: The National Football League Players Association, the union representing pro football players.) So we started to build this technology for the NFLPA, MLBPA, NHLPA, PGA tour. 

NIL is new to college sports; NIL is not new to sports. Pro athletes have been monetizing their NIL for a century. We were just the first to provide dedicated technology to the athlete endorsement industry. We started with the pros. When we went through this process, Mike’l, there was a moment when, you know, we’ve raised venture capital, we’ve got outside investors and one of our early venture capital investors asked us, you know, what makes Opendorse a billion dollar company.

This is in 2015. I said, “What makes Opendorse, a billion dollar opportunity is if the NCAA would lift its restrictions on allowing student athletes to receive compensation from third parties.” That was seven years ago and we never imagined that day would come as quickly as it did, but there were some signs along the way that we were on the right track.

And as long as we provide an easy way for athletes to make money, if there’s suddenly 500,000 new athletes that can make money, then we’d be in prime position to help. 

Mike’l Severe: There are people, whether it be coaches or some administrators that look in, they’re worried that amateur sports might be too much like pro sports because of this.

How do you manage the locker room, if one guy’s making more money than the other guy’s making. How do you regulate it? Whether it is school by school or conference by conference, are those all viable questions? And can they be answered?

Blake Lawrence: There is a desire for control. The student athlete experience in college has always been a world of control.

The athletic department has oftentimes… let me just take a step back historically, right? We’re in a paradigm shift in college athletics. We are in the NIL era. Everyone from the fan to the administrators have to realize this is here and it’s here to stay. Historically it was that student athletes help schools make money.

That’s how this worked. Today, the leading administrators, those that understand where this is going, have shifted the entire thought. And it is how schools help student athletes make money. That simple shift is polarizing because you got some folks that don’t wanna move to the other side, some folks that think this is gonna change the way that college athletics works and operates.

And it certainly will. But ultimately the student athlete wins. And so as a former student athlete, as a sports fan, if you want to continue to see sports at a high level, and athletes that desire to compete, then you should be in favor of anything that incentivizes those athletes to perform at a high level. Certainly, dollars and cents do.

Books and scholarships have been a great thing for a long time. So this is an additional incentive to create a high level of competition in college athletics.

Mike’l Severe: As soon as I became a parent, I always wanted protect kids and I’m always worried about them. You were, obviously, a college linebacker. You have a NIL deal. You struggle in a game. Is that more pressure to fulfill your NIL deal to perform well, because you’re getting money from a business or from  a co-op or whatever?

Blake Lawrence: Yeah, certainly. So Mike’l, we spend a lot of time on college campuses. Opendorse, we’re partners with more than a hundred college campuses across the country.

Nearly a hundred thousand athletes use Opendorse every day. And so we spend a lot of time on campus educating athletes. And one of the things we talk about is the mental health side of NIL. Because this does add another thing to the plate of a student athlete — which is a full plate, right?

They’re doing a lot of things that professionals don’t have to do: class, the academics, the community outreach. A lot of the things that are put on the plate of a student athlete. So there is a weight to managing an NIL that has long been reserved for professional athletes where that’s really just one of two things they have to do. Not one of five. 

So it is important that student athletes understand that this is a thing, not everything, and that their team performance, personal performance are oftentimes gonna have a bigger impact on NIL than what they’re doing in their individual life. 

So it’s best to win together. And then also know that when you fall, the right partners will be there to support you on that fall. And the wrong partners will leave you to, you know, hang out to dry. So it’s important to find the right partners in terms of NIL deals. But it’s a new conversation for every student athlete that steps on a college campus from the star quarterback to the walk-on tennis player. They all are playing in the space and they gotta have the tools and understand the rules and the impact.

And that’s where we play a role. 

Mike’l Severe: When you look at it, in terms of regulation, there’s states that have legislation, I know the NCAA’s working on an overall rule. The conferences are. As someone who’s been with it since the beginning, how do you regulate this? Or is it just — I know the Wild West is used way too much — but how do you regulate it? How do you make sure that everybody’s kind of playing by the same rules? 

Blake Lawrence: Well, for those that are trying to learn as much about this, the state legislation is what really accelerated the NCAA’s move to lift all restrictions on NIL compensation. So those state laws were, in effect, a way to motivate the NCAA to change and they did their job.

Now we’ve got 30-plus states with disparate rules. No one’s enforcing them. They’re different everywhere. And they’re creating a lot of confusion. They’re actually making it harder for athletes to make money in states where there is a state law that allows them to do so.

So my advice is to remove all state laws. They just shouldn’t exist. No American citizen needs to be given the right to monetize their name, image and likeness. So that is not what these state laws do. These state laws actually tell the schools that they can’t stop their athletes from making money.

If I could just shake it up real quick…it would be great to have some federal oversight, but oversight, not in a way that restricts or limits athletes. Not to put a cap on anything but that, that provides transparency cuz one of the issues, Mike’l, I mean, we’re in a position where in the first year of NIL Opendorse helps student athletes make more than a hundred million dollars. This market’s bigger than most people think. And when you have young adults, 18 years old, making life changing decisions — to stay or go to do a deal, not to do a deal — with incomplete information, there’s some consumer protection issues here. So my advice to this market is to lift state legislation, get rid of these regulations that aren’t enforced anyways and put some energy into providing transparency into what’s really happening.

Like what, what are athletes actually making? What are brands actually paying? What markets are actually good? So we can have informed decisions. This is a critical component to the student athlete experience and there’s incomplete data. So let’s provide transparency and help the market. 

Mike’l Severe: Most of the schools have these cooperatives or directives where they’re either taking a group of people putting money together or one person, is that the future of it? Do you think, is that the way it’s gonna continue to go? Or what do you see in terms of the future of how these athletes will be getting NIL money? 

Blake Lawrence: Yeah, there’s really four main sources of NIL compensation for athletes. There’s fan money, brand money, sponsor money, which is local businesses. And then donor money. And donor money is growing to become the biggest source of NIL compensation in this market.

And that is where these donors pool their dollars together to create consistent compliant payments to athletes. The size of the collective, that pool of money, has an impact on the ability to provide a substantial amount of income to athletes. In certain markets, athletes are earning six figures a year.

In other markets, Mike’l, they’re earning six figures a month. And so there’s a big discrepancy in terms of how big these collections are. But that is here to stay. It’s very difficult the way in which all these rules are written for anyone to say we’re going to limit how much a third-party entity can compensate an athlete for a bonafide NIL activity. And anyone that makes an effort to stop that act is going to be put in a situation with an antitrust issue on their hands. Especially if it’s a collective organization called the NCAA or even a conference like the Big Ten or SEC.

So no one wants to stop these third parties. We have to get used to that. I think there’s a desire for schools to have more control. Because you’re running into issues where there’s a conflict between the school’s desires and the collective’s desires in terms of the types of organizations that they support and how much athletes are actually getting compensated.

Mike’l Severe:  There was real concerns — I don’t know if they were justified or not — that this would just be for football players and male basketball players. Is that’s what happening? Or who we seeing getting these funds?

Blake Lawrence: Opendorse, we release data on a monthly basis about where the compensation is going and football is about half of all dollars in the NIL market goes to football players. And just before anyone gets up in arms about this, well, more than half of all revenue and college athletics comes from football.

So there’s a lot of parallels between where the revenue comes from and where NIL deals are going. The second is men’s basketball. Third is women’s basketball. Then you get into women’s volleyball. Women’s track and field, gymnastics. So there’s a lot of these things. Women’s sports are, I think, six out of the top 10 sports in terms of compensation. Which is a good thing.

There’s really two types of NIL. There’s the fans and brands, which is really athlete driven NIL — so athletes being entrepreneurial and making money. And then there’s athletics driven NIL, which is really the sponsors and donors paying top players. If you remove the athletic side and just say, like, what are athletes doing? Then women’s basketball, women’s volleyball, women’s gymnastics, women’s track and field. Women’s swim and dive, women’s soccer. These sports, these athletes, are out-earning their peers across the line in terms of men’s sports. And I think that’s an exciting thing that athletes that have the energy and knowhow are putting work in NIL and NIL is working for them. 

Mike’l Severe: Yeah. Do you guys also help the student athletes when you go and you talk to them at campuses about like paying taxes or how to handle that? Cause, I mean, obviously they’re earning chunks of money, something they wouldn’t normally earn. Do you help with that kind of stuff?

Blake Lawrence: I was on a Power Five campus just this week. And I was sitting with student athletes and I said, “Hey, hypothetically, if you make $10,000 for an appearance, how much of that $10,000 should you set aside for taxes?” And one of the freshman student athletes popped their hand out real confidently said, probably a thousand dollars. And I said, wow, you know, $1,000 out of 10,000. Ten percent. And then, you know, when I reveal it, it’s somewhere between 30 and 40%, $3000 to $4,000 out of that $10,000 is going to Uncle Sam. The room gasped. This was the very first time that they’d ever heard what taxes actually were like.

Mike’l Severe: We all thought that Nebraska could do pretty well in this because of the fan base. How are they doing in terms of at the top, in the middle? How are they doing in terms of the amount of money they’re earning for their athletes or getting for their athletes?

Blake Lawrence: Nebraska by nature is a humble athletic department. And therefore, a lot of the activity that’s happened in Nebraska to create a lot of opportunities for student athletes has kind of gone by the wayside. There’s also a lot of attention to NIL programs when that program is having success on the field. That’s true about football. So Nebraska hasn’t had a lot of that. But Nebraska has, since Day One of NIL, had one of the more effective collectives creating consistent NIL opportunities for student athletes, in-kind compensation like cars and condos and in-cash compensation for appearances and podcasts and video shout-outs.

So, I mean, student athletes at Nebraska have earned well into the millions of dollars through NIL in the first 14 months. And that’s something that every fan should be proud of. There’s more to come and there’s more to happen. And this it’s part of the game and Nebraska should be a leader in this space for every sport on campus for decades.

Trev Alberts and the leadership team over there have really leaned into NIL. So we’re thankful to be (a part of it) and maintain their lead. I think there’s gotta be a lot more buzz around what they’re doing, because what they’re doing has been impactful on the student athlete level.

Mike’l Severe: Certainly. Last couple questions. Reading through your report, number one conference in terms of NIL you’d think maybe the SEC because of the fever that they have for sports. Why do you think the Big Ten does so well? 

Blake Lawrence: Well, Big Ten is filled with programs that have passionate fan bases that haven’t had a ton of success to the level they want.

And that is a motivator for NIL right now, is that, you know, fan bases that want to get back or stay on top. And so you, you can see that that would have an impact. I mean, the SEC has a handful of teams that have won the national championship over the last decade.

Big Ten is filled with those that want to reach another level and that would impact some of these NIL earnings in those certain markets. 

Mike’l Severe: Something I’ve always wondered about: You guys started Hurrdat and then you did Opendorse. Hudl started in Lincoln. A lot of different entrepreneurial groups, businesses. What do you think it is about Lincoln? Why so many entrepreneurs, businesses started in a fairly small college town?

Blake Lawrence: Nebraska is about heads-down hard work, and being okay understanding that things might take twice as long and take it costs twice as much, but all good things are worth it. I think that Nebraska has the wherewithal to provide a community approach to building businesses and support.

There’s not as much venture capital or tech investment into our community. So we have to build real products that have lasting impact. And I think Hudl is one of those, Opendorse is one of those, Hurrdat’s been around for 12 years now and continues to grow. And so Adi (Kulanic) and I, and our company, and Hudl. I’m not speaking for them, but I can imagine, we’re a result of the right decision at a critical point in our life, which was to attend Nebraska, give it all our time and attention and love, and we get all the time and attention to love back from that community.

(Editor’s note: Kulanic, a former Husker kicker, and Lawrence are co-founders of Opendorse.)

So I think there’s something to it. Part of the family forever and Nebraska’s been good to us. Now Opendorse is gonna be in position to be very, very good to Nebraska as we continue to grow. 

Mike’l Severe: Last thing. You guys have a lot of the same people you had when you first started. You hear so much about people not being able to hire. How’s that going for you and how do you maintain that kind of camaraderie? 

Blake Lawrence: Adi and I, from day one, have said this is a purpose-driven organization. Our purpose is to build something great with people we care about. Like we just happen to be providing technology with the athlete endorsement industry. But if you wake up every day and enjoy what you do, who you do it with, and that you’re gonna have success. Adi and I certainly have enjoyed every moment of this.

I can’t believe this is a job. This is a journey. From day one until decade one we want to make sure they enjoy what they’re doing and have an impact. So we say it every day and we say it every week and even when we’re across the country, we can come together over one purpose and that’s to build something great. 

Mike’l Severe: Blake, we really appreciate  your time. I know how busy, but thanks for taking the time on the forum. 

Blake Lawrence: Absolutely. Thank you, Mike’l. We’ll see you.