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A 'brand' new horizon: Local high schoolers benefit from NIL

May 30—When the United States Supreme Court rendered its ruling in the landmark NCAA vs. Alston case in 2021, it irrevocably flipped college sports on its head. The unanimous decision allowed athletes to benefit from their name, image and likeness — or NIL, as it's commonly referred to — through brands outside of their universities.

CU football fans have witnessed its impact firsthand through Buffs' quarterback Shedeur Sanders and his Rolls Royce, as well as safety Shilo Sanders, who together starred in a commercial for Google late last year.

Shedeur Sanders alone was reported to have an estimated net worth of $4.7 million through his various partnerships with the likes of Google, Urban Outfitters, Topps and Wendy's, according to On3's Pete Nakos.

The marketplace for athletes, however, is not just constrained to the multimillion-dollar deals often seen in college football and basketball. Over the past few months, it's started seeping down into the world of high school athletics, in and around Boulder County.

Sports fans need look no further than Erie golf and Niwot cross country.

Last month, Niwot's sophomore running star, Addy Ritzenhein, made national headlines when she became the first high school athlete to sign an NIL deal with sportswear company On. Her Nike Cross Nationals victory in December and subsequent Gatorade National Player of the Year honor shined a spotlight on her that the company couldn't ignore.

"I wouldn't say I was necessarily looking, but they reached out to me first," Ritzenhein said. "I thought about it for a while. From there, I started talking to them and it all seemed like a very good fit.

"The sport means so much to me and to my family. Obviously, On loves the sport, too. They work with a bunch of other sports, actually, but I would say running has been their main one. I think I have the chance to see how good I can become, and now that I have a bigger support system, and just having them behind my back, it really helps me and it gives me a confidence boost."

Now, she promotes the company by wearing its shoes and jersey at national races. On, in return, elevates her athlete profile through its social media posts. She served as an honored guest at the On-sponsored Penn Relays last month, where she held the finish line tape and completed a series of interviews for the company.

Greg Glynn, a public relations professional and founder of Pliable Marketing, PR & Broadcasting, helps professional, collegiate and high school athletes tailor their NIL partnerships to better represent their desired individual athlete brands.

He recently took Erie High golfer and two-time state champion Logan Hale under his wing, with help from former Loveland High golfers Katelyn and Lauren Lehigh. He explained that while college NIL deals focus on money, high school partnerships typically circulate more around free products and promotion.

High-profile high school athletes have a higher potential to earn money, which an NIL agent can greatly assist them with.

"The reason the difference is there is it's based on follower count," Glynn said. "Follower count, especially on Instagram, has essentially become a currency, so how many ever followers you have is going to lead to bigger deals, better deals, because then, brands are looking at you going, 'OK, you're going to reach a pretty big audience.'

"One thing about high school is you're usually a star in your hometown, and you can definitely go get some pretty good partnerships in your hometown, whether it's for money, or whether it is for product, free meals, restaurants, whatever it is."

Hale and the Lehigh sisters now serve as an extension of keto protein bar company Ignite Bars every time they take to the fairways for national tournaments. Their partnership began with monthly Ignite Bars shipments in exchange for posts that rep the company.

The past couple of years within the NIL sphere has helped Katelyn Lehigh, who now plays at Fresno State, hone her social media posts down to a science.

"I think our deal is we post once a month and then it's broken down into different types of posts, like eight story posts, two reels and two in-feed posts, or something like that," she said. "Different athletes are going to do it different ways. I know Logan Hale did her first post as an in-feed post that was announcing the partnership. I've dropped story posts. One was on a golf course. I think one was on a plane. One was I was studying, so it was my study snack."

Glynn recruits athletes to Pliable that he believes will best represent his brand so that he, in turn, can help them market themselves. High school NIL deals can help kick-start a career beyond college athletics. The earlier, the better.

Before she paired up with Pliable, Hale had been unofficially partnering with Titleist, FootJoy and Foresight Sports. She'd receive free or discounted merchandise in exchange for posts, including a half-priced golf simulator.

Glynn has helped her structure those deals and opened her eyes to the future that her talents can provide for her. One day, she hopes to empower other young, female golfers.

"I feel like my golf progression journey has just been in steps and, to me and my family and my dad, it's really important to kind of take a step back and look at, what's the goal here? What are the next steps for this?" Hale said. "In just a short period of time, I feel like I'm just opening this whole new door, and I see so many possibilities and endless opportunities."

She's not the only Erie High School golfer to join the ranks of NIL. It seems the three-time defending state champions aren't just impressing in Colorado.

Hadley Ashton, who just completed her junior season with the Tigers, won the individual state crown in 2022 as a freshman. Her victory at the American Junior Golf Association's Junior All-Star tournament that same year vaulted her into the national spotlight and generated partnerships with Titleist and TaylorMade.

"I get a lot of perks. They send me a package, basically every month, of balls, hats, basically anything I need. Basically anything I want, I could just let my rep know and then he'll send it over, which is super nice," Ashton explained. "Every time I'm at a national tournament, I wear the hat. Obviously, I have the glove on. And then every time I post, I have to either shout out Titleist or say, 'Team Titleist,' or whatever."

Hale will begin her college career at the University of Denver soon, while Ashton prepares for one more year at Erie before heading to the University of Wisconsin. They, along with Ritzenhein, have already proven themselves elite among high school athletes within Colorado.

The Lehighs have demonstrated what their path can look like at the next level in sports as singularly-focused as golf and running.

"NIL in college, especially for women's golf, it's such an individual thing," Katelyn Lehigh said. "We're not out there making the multimillion-dollar NIL deals that football or basketball are making. Instead of one or two really, really big deals, it's the smaller brands that you want to partner with, that you want to associate your name with, that you're willing to promote and use your platform as a college athlete to help out."