NCAA’s new NIL rule could open door for recruiting success at UNLV

At a high-end men’s clothing store at Aria this month, three UNLV football players were led to a secret VIP lounge to start the process of being fitted for new suits. The value of the suits—which Noah Bean, Tre Caine and Farrell Hester II plan to wear for their college graduation—was about $1,800 apiece, though the players wouldn’t have to pay a dime. Before a rule change that took effect over the summer, such a transaction—if it came to light—would land a player and a school in trouble with the NCAA, which governs college sports. Instead, because of the new personal “name, image and likeness” guidelines, college athletes all over the country have taken advantage of various marketing opportunities. “The rule change, it’s a tad late, but it’s exciting,” Caine said. “I’m so excited for us, and for future generations, that this is happening.” The deal was made possible with the help of Blueprint Sports, a Las Vegas sports marketing company founded largely to take advantage of the NCAA’s policy change. Blueprint serves as a digital marketplace for opportunities for athletes.

More than a dozen soon-to-graduate UNLV football players are expected to be a part of the partnership with Maceeo, the designer shirt label. For Caine, it was his first endorsement deal. “More than 90% of athletes at the collegiate level aren’t going to have professional agents or marketing reps or lawyers to help find opportunities,” said Blueprint partner Cisco Aguilar, an attorney and former general counsel for tennis icons Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf. Aguilar envisions the company growing its footprint quickly in Las Vegas, a city he said is tailor-made for marketing opportunities for athletes. “We help players find opportunities, but it’s also a resource for the buyer, or the business, to find the right athlete,” Aguilar said. “There is a lot of opportunity here. Las Vegas over the past five years has gone from a community with no pro sports teams to a sports town. That will also drive opportunity.” As part of their deal for the suits, the football players have to take a financial literacy course geared toward graduating college students. The course is through Montage Financial Group, whose managing director, Michael Chudd, is a former UNLV football player and a booster of Rebel sports.

Chudd has been a consistent donor to the football program over the years, but he said the NIL rule opened up more ways for boosters to support college athletes. “Because of the rule, people like me are now able to support players directly and not just donate to the university,” Chudd said. “I can now do both if I want. I’ve always felt that universities have a certain agenda—they’re usually trying to fill missing budget gaps. In many cases, the things that coaches need might not directly affect players.”

Since the team hasn’t finished a season with a winning record since 2013, Chudd and other boosters and fans want to see a more coveted brand of athlete come to Las Vegas. Chudd thinks the NIL rule will help. “I think we have the ability at UNLV to be a top 50 team,” Chudd said. “That’s based partly on the facilities we have, but I think we can come up with a cooler package for a recruit than, say, a different school in the Mountain West. Maybe that ends up being the difference of why a kid comes here.”

For now, according to a UNLV spokesman, most of the sponsorship deals are for men’s basketball and football players, though several of the 75 or so deals on the books do involve female athletes. Blueprint has also worked with the Findlay Auto Group, which has a deal with the UNLV men’s basketball team to provide a $500 auto stipend for each player on the team. Robby Findlay, operations director for the auto group, said players can spend the money on a car payment, or on other transportation costs.

In exchange, players are asked to take the Montage Financial Group course. They also might be asked to come to a dealership for an appearance or autograph signing. “Once the rule went into effect, we knew we wanted to do something to help out the basketball program,” Findlay said. “With insurance and some of the other liabilities, it just wasn’t practical to offer players actual vehicles, but we thought the car allowance was a good idea. We get a little notoriety, and the student-athletes are helped out a little, which we think they deserved this whole time.”

By rule, the university isn’t allowed to be part of an athlete’s dealings with a potential sponsor. It simply keeps track of transactions. Last month, Alabama quarterback Bryce Young announced a deal with a steakhouse in Tuscaloosa, promising to bring his offensive linemen to the restaurant for meals. Female athletes around the country have also been inking deals. At Fresno State, twins Hanna and Haley Cavinder, who both play for the women’s basketball team, were recently featured on an episode of HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel to highlight their various sponsorship agreements. Caine said he had no doubt that marketing opportunities in Las Vegas would help lure future competitive recruits.

“It gives the athletes hope that there’s more out there,” Bean said. “This gave a lot of people opportunities to get their bills paid. It’s a blessing.” As Aguilar looked on as the players moved about the store, he said he believes Blueprint—and similar outfits like it—have lots of room to grow. “Student-athletes commit so much of their life to performing on the field,” Aguilar said. “It’s our job to make this process as easy as possible for supporters, businesses and athletes. The easier that process is for supporters, more opportunities will become available, and that will help UNLV recruit.”