Championship season could pay off for Georgia players in NIL deals

Stetson Bennett relishes the moment as the confetti flies after Georgia won the College Football Playoff Championship game on Monday in Indianapolis. (Curtis Compton/curtis.compton@ajc.com)

Credit: TNS

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Stetson Bennett relishes the moment as the confetti flies after Georgia won the College Football Playoff Championship game on Monday in Indianapolis. (Curtis Compton/curtis.compton@ajc.com)

Credit: TNS

The Georgia Bulldogs’ first football national championship in 41 years came mere months after new state laws and NCAA policies opened the door to college athletes being paid for endorsements – a potentially lucrative stroke of good timing for UGA players.

ExploreMore coverage of Georgia's national championship

The championship should enhance the value of the players’ names, images and likenesses to businesses across the state and enable at least some of them to cash in on the excitement surrounding the national title, according to several people familiar with the college NIL marketplace.

“The timing, as far as being able to capitalize under name, image and likeness, couldn’t be better, and the players earned it,” said Drew Butler, a former Georgia punter who heads the collegiate division at Icon Source, a Denver-based company that connects brands with athletes.

“I think it’s going to be a nice windfall for a lot of the players,” said Vince Thompson, founder and CEO of Atlanta-based sports marketing agency MELT.

New laws in a number of states, including Georgia, and resulting changes in NCAA regulations took effect July 1, allowing college athletes to be compensated for use of their name, image and likeness without jeopardizing their eligibility.

After the NCAA insisted for generations on rules forbidding such compensation beyond the value of scholarships, college athletes now can make money from third parties for endorsement deals, social-media posts, autograph signings, personal appearances, camps and the like, with some variations in what is allowed from state to state or school to school.

So this marks the first time the players on a college football national-championship team are in position to immediately monetize the moment -- even if they intend to continue their college careers.

ExploreStetson Bennett and the community that nurtured him

The Georgia player whose NIL rights will be the most lucrative in the coming weeks and months, observers agree, figures to be Stetson Bennett. His wildly improbable journey from walk-on to championship-winning starting quarterback has wide appeal, regardless of whether he remains in Athens for a final season of eligibility.

“He’s going to have a ton of opportunity, and it’ll be up to him to choose who he would like to partner up with,” Butler said. “If Stetson is interested in it, he could become the highest-paid player in all of college sports (through NIL deals). If he’s not interested in it, he could choose that route.”

Bennett “absolutely” has the potential to secure deals totaling more than $1 million coming off the College Football Playoff Championship game victory over Alabama, Butler said.

“It’s literally a Hollywood script,” Thompson said of Bennett’s story. “I’ll be shocked if somebody doesn’t pick that up for a movie. Being the small-town boy from Georgia who walked on and persevered and won a national championship – the story is incredible.”

Thompson believes Bennett’s popularity and marketability will endure across the state for decades.

Bennett has shown some interest in NIL opportunities: A paid partnership with Great Clips led to a social-media post on the eve of the national championship game.

Mike Lewis, a marketing professor at Emory University, described the collegiate NIL landscape as “still in the Wild West” phase, making it difficult to predict how the market will evolve.

“I think Stetson is potentially a guy who can leverage it into some pretty good payouts,” Lewis said. “I think the potential limiting factor is that … it’ll be predominantly at the local level.”

Lewis also suggested other Georgia stars will attract new NIL opportunities, while additional players may get lesser deals for appearances at businesses in their hometowns.

If the national championship brings more money for Georgia players, the program also could benefit in the long run as future recruits notice the earnings potential.

“I think, if anything, we’re underestimating how important this stuff is, going forward,” Lewis said. NIL deals can have the effect of further “reducing competitive balance” if programs that attract the most lucrative deals turn that into an advantage in recruiting players from high schools or the transfer portal, he said.

Many administrators and coaches in college athletics have called on Congress to enact a national standard to ensure NIL rules are the same for all schools, but there has been little progress toward such legislation.

As Georgia celebrates its championship, Butler predicted some endorsement deals involving Bulldogs players will get done quickly.

“There is no question you have to strike while the iron is hot,” he said.

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