Blue White Illustrated

December 2021

Penn State Sports Magazine

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5 2 D E C E M B E R 2 0 2 1 W W W . B L U E W H I T E O N L I N E . C O M E D I T O R I A L MATT HERB W hen Connecticut's All-American guard Paige Bueckers signed an endorsement deal with StockX in November, it was perhaps the clearest indication yet that the new name, image and likeness (NIL) opportunities that have been presented to college athletes aren't going to be limited to players in the NCAA's two big moneymaking sports. Bueckers inked a multiyear deal with the footwear and apparel website, which connects buyers and sellers and is es- sentially an eBay for sneakerheads. StockX wants to grow its business by attracting more women to the platform. Its signing of Bueckers showed that you don't have to be a football or men's bas- ketball player to land endorsement deals with big companies. It also showed something else: that the "brand-building" college athletes have been engaged in for the past several months is a two-way street. By arrang- ing potentially lucrative deals, athletes are capitalizing on the brands that they've bought into. Bueckers would be a star on any women's basketball team in the country. But put her in a UConn uniform and she becomes the kind of athlete who can represent a company that's said to be worth $3.8 billion. Former Nittany Lions cornerback Justin King talked about this phenom- enon during a recent roundtable discus- sion organized by the Penn State Alumni Association. King, who has launched a company called L.I.G. Sports Group, which provides a variety of football- related consulting services, noted that when they're being recruited, high school athletes are looking for the kind of platforms that will best showcase their talents. "When you talk about recruiting, a lot of times people don't realize, but it is very brand-recognition heavy," King said. "If you're recruiting a defensive lineman, he might look at a school [in a particular] way. At Penn State, when we're recruiting linebackers, it's a pretty easy sell because the brand of Penn State linebackers that [the school has] pro- duced attracts that talent, the same way that an engineering program at a school might attract a top engineer." Looking at the issue through King's lens, one of the biggest NIL-related questions for Penn State becomes, how big is its national brand? Because, to a large degree, that's what will allow ath- letes to build their brands. For the football program, the answer is easy: It's pretty big. Penn State has been nationally prominent since the early days of the Joe Paterno era, so it's not that hard for an exceptional player — senior receiver Jahan Dotson is the best current example — to garner attention. There are couple of other sports in which Penn State boasts as big a plat- form as any of its rivals. The wrestling team has had a dynastic run the past decade, and the women's volleyball team has been one of the sport's preeminent programs since the early days of the Big Ten era. Between them, those two pro- grams have won 15 national champion- ships since 1999. If you're looking for a platform from which to achieve some level of national prominence as a college athlete, you could do a lot worse. Penn State has plenty of history in women's basketball, too, and you can image the stars of earlier eras, players like Suzie McConnell, Helen Darling, Kelly Mazzante and Maggie Lucas, be- ing sought-after spokespeople had they been given the opportunity. But after Rene Portland's stormy exit in 2007 and the diminishing returns of Coquese Washington's 12-year tenure as head coach, the program must fight to regain its spot among the nation's elite. Third-year coach Carolyn Kieger is trying to address Penn State's on-court challenges and is eager to see it develop into the kind of program that can cata- pult players to national prominence. But when she talks about NIL issues, she puts the emphasis on the Alumni Asso- ciation. Penn State athletes don't need much of a signal boost when they're talking to Penn State grads. There's al- ready a level of recognition that makes them effective pitch people. "For us as coaches, in order to stay competitive in the name, image and likeness field, we're going to need alumni," Kieger said. "We're going to need them to come strong. We're go- ing to need them to come in full force to help us recruit talented young people and let them know that this is the best brand in the entire world." Kieger was a student-athlete herself 15 years ago, an All-Conference USA guard at Marquette who still owns the school record for career assists. Asked by Penn State Alumni Association CEO Paul Clifford what she would have endorsed if she could have signed NIL deals back when she was an undergrad, Kieger pointed to Mo's steakhouse in downtown Milwaukee. "I love a good steak," she said. Maybe in the years to come, one of her players will have the opportunity to endorse steaks or sneakers or any of a million other products and services. But for them to build their brands, Penn State will have to build them a platform, one that's tall and durable enough for those athletes to be heard. ■ Women's basketball coach Carolyn Kieger said Penn State's expansive alumni community will play a role in helping athletes market themselves. PHOTO COURTESY PENN STATE ATHLETICS Penn State's Platform Will Be Key To Success In NIL Era VARSITY VIEWS

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