Making ends meat: Bemidji State athletes gain perks, recognition in new name, image and likeness deals

Nov. 11—BEMIDJI — Paul Bunyan, standing a stone's throw away in downtown Bemidji, must salivate when the smoky aroma of Fozzie's Smokin Bar-B-Q wafts his way.

But it's a different group of giants that most often frequents "The Pit."

"We walk in, and everyone knows we're the football players," Bemidji State's Cade Barrett said.

Barrett, a defensive lineman on the BSU football team, and four of his fellow pass-rushers are regulars at Fozzie's. It's what they're paid to do.

The Beavers and their collegiate counterparts have been able to sink their teeth into name, image and likeness deals ever since July 1, 2021, when the NCAA approved a groundbreaking NIL policy allowing student-athletes to monetize their brand.

The arrangements can hit seven figures if you're in the national spotlight or a social media whiz with millions of followers. Bemidji State hasn't reached that level of fanfare, but the reshaped playing field has still been revolutionary for plenty of BSU athletes in the year and a half it's been around.

"I thought it'd be more the Division I, FBS schools," Barrett said. "But then I started seeing guys at the Division II level who were doing it too, and even D-III and NAIA. Then I was like, 'Why not go to a local business and see if they're interested?' Even as D-II athletes, we're obviously working our tails off year-round. It's nice to be recognized by the community, and also nice to be able to help them out too."

Barrett and teammates Marco Cavallaro, Stephen Hoffman,

Zollie Kaplan

and Colbey Wadsworth have NIL deals with Fozzie's in a partnership that began last season, an effort first spearheaded by former nose tackle Josh Wleh.

The restaurant provides the barbecue brethren with apparel, reloadable gift cards and "straight up cash," Barrett said. In turn, the Beavers promote the business on their social media.

According to Barrett, it's a pretty sweet tradeoff.

"Definitely," he said. "It's pretty easy. It takes 10 seconds to post on social media and promote someone. I've definitely enjoyed the NIL deal so far. The last two years it's been going, it's been a pretty good deal for multiple guys on the team."

For many BSU student-athletes, NIL deals aren't about seven-figure checks. They're about the acknowledgement.

"It makes me feel recognized for my work," said women's soccer goalkeeper Alyssa Stumbaugh, who is sponsored by glove manufacturer One GK Gloves. "It makes me feel very appreciative of the companies that take a chance on me. They're losing money by giving me gloves, but they're taking a chance that they'll get more money by sponsoring me for my advertisements."

Stumbaugh's end of the bargain is to create Instagram stories and posts that highlight the brand. In turn, One GK Gloves provides her with free gloves.

Not only is it a mutualistic relationship, Stumbaugh believes it's even beneficial for the athletic program she represents.

"I love that I'm able to bring awareness to Bemidji State University," Stumbaugh said. "It is a small college, but

we are a good team.

I love getting our college out there because it'll help with recruiting and showing who we are."

BSU's reach in the NIL landscape is growing — and ever-changing — but a number of other athletes have sponsorships of their own in place.

The local list includes Jalen Frye, a running back on the football team sponsored by Red Stu Breakfast Bar. Meanwhile, his offensive linemen also have a deal with Fozzie's.

National brands are also on board. Rumer Flatness of the women's basketball team is sponsored by Bubbl'r, Ethan VanDelinder of the baseball team is sponsored by Liquid I.V. and Maggie Cade of the soccer team is sponsored by Barstool Sports — just to name a few.

"A big part about sports is a mental game and feeling appreciated, that your hard work is being valued," Stumbaugh said. "(With NIL deals), you're being recognized for your hard work and able to represent your team on a larger scale."

There are multiple paths for college athletes to earn NIL revenue. One such route is through pioneering company Opendorse, which aids athletes in marketing and monetizing their individual brand.

Ten Beaver athletes

currently operate accounts on Opendorse,

allowing them to connect with companies, brands and fans interested in compensating them for an appearance, autograph, social media post or more.

The roster includes active players from the BSU men's hockey team (Gavin Enright, Austin Jouppi and Kaden Pickering); women's hockey team (Kate Boland, Shelby Breiland, Abby DeLaRosa, Reece Hunt, Adriana Van De Leest and McKayla Zilisch); and football team (Matt Donovan).

Looking forward, BSU could opt to follow in the footsteps of Minnesota State. The Mavericks recently released an exclusive NIL marketplace on Opendorse called

"The Corral,"

where MSU athletes can lasso new deals.

"The Corral is the first Division II NIL marketplace that's been launched," said Braly Keller, Opendorse's NIL specialist. "And this is a place for any fans of all levels to be able to find legends like Adam Thielen all the way down to the newest members of the Mavs roster, being able to pitch them deals in there."

Keller credited both Minnesota State and Augustana with upping their NIL game by educating their student-athletes about the budding revenue opportunities available to them, plus providing resources to help them pursue those avenues.

"Everything from (The Corral) to an NIL summit to revamping their policy, providing more on campus resources and education — those are different ways that partners and schools within the NSIC have taken a step up and put their conference where they are," Keller said.

The NSIC ranked 17th among all college sports conferences in NIL revenue, according to Opendorse's comprehensive N1L progress report on the first year of name, image and likeness in college athletics. The report was released on July 1, the one-year anniversary of NIL legalization.

Minnesota State and Augustana are the two schools Opendorse received the most data from to reach that conclusion. They're also the two NSIC schools that currently partner with Opendorse for compliance solutions, utilizing the company's Opendorse Monitor portal.

New Bemidji State director of athletics Britt Lauritsen

is fully on board with the new NIL opportunities for student-athletes.

"I'm a huge proponent of NIL," Lauritsen said. "It was a long time coming."

Now that NIL is here, though, ADs across the country are scrambling to find how to best serve their athletes and provide them with opportunities while understanding the nuances of a topic on which the NCAA has offered limited guidance.

"It's going to play a really big role," Lauritsen said. "What that looks like and how that comes about, we'll need some refinement as we move forward. The NCAA was not on the proactive or innovative side of it. And so, as an association, I think everybody got caught back on their heels."

Lauritsen pointed out that while several Division I Power Five schools have figured out what NIL looks like for them and their athletes, those at the Division II and III levels are often still scrambling to find solutions and make sense of the new landscape.

"As you get more into our territory of single-sport D-I conferences and D-II, no one's really sure how to make that work," Lauritsen said. "I think there are ways to do it, it's just finding the right niche within your community. ... I have some ideas, but (they're) still up my sleeve."

A key component involved in figuring out NIL at BSU is budgeting. Lauritsen wants Beaver student-athletes to have the ability to support themselves with NIL deals, but not at the expense of funding that the athletic department needs to run its various teams and other programs.

"At the Division II level especially, we do kind of fight and claw budget-wise for every dollar and cent, and so I understand where it can feel like it's working against you," Lauritsen said. "And I don't think that it has to. My big challenge is going to be learning the community and learning where we can continue to raise the money for BSU athletics as a whole, and also offer really good opportunities for our student-athletes to capitalize."