By Hannah Parr | UConn Journalism
May 15, 2023
STORRS, Connecticut — It has been an exhilarating past few months for the University of Connecticut men’s basketball team. Winning the NCAA national championship has elevated the players’ popularity and social media followings by thousands of fans across the country.
With the world of Name, Image, and Likeness growing day by day, the UConn men’s basketball team has used their win to the fullest potential, some with the help of a UConn program.
Championship Labs is an NIL initiative established through the UConn Peter J. Werth Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Championship Labs supports UConn student athletes in helping them grow their personal brand and other entrepreneurial goals they may have.
Zoey England was the first team lead, or director, when Championship Labs started and is now the chief of staff at the Werth Institute. She specializes in communications and strategic projects for Championships Labs. England is mainly involved with UConn men and women’s basketball.
England said of the student athletes, “For a lot of them, UConn will be the biggest brand that they ever attached themselves to. Being able to leverage that while they’re an athlete and then use that to prepare themselves and then also propel themselves forward.”
Championship Labs is composed of student workers who help guide student influencers and athletes from all different UConn sports through their entrepreneurial journeys to expand their brand.
Faith Watson, a junior psychological sciences major, was the first student hired for Championships Labs in the summer 2022. She now serves as the student team lead for the initiative and works closely with the student fellows and athletes.
“I think a lot of what we do too is meeting athletes with where they are at. If an athlete has an already developed brand, how do we take it to the next level?” she said.
After hiring Watson, Championship Labs employed the student workers that help athletes in categories such as social media, alumni relations, graphic design, photography and videography.
Katie Schatz, a junior management major, is the social media team lead for Championship Labs.
“There’s a variety of things. We can build up their social media presence, start camps for them, help them raise money,” Schatz said, adding: “We can do whatever they want within the NIL realm that allows them to monetize their name, image, and likeness. It’s up to them.”
All eyes on the national champions
After losing in the first round of the 2022 NCAA tournament, the UConn men’s basketball team gained intense media attention during their March Madness championship run this year. Taking advantage of the media presence, Championship Labs posted highlight reels on different social media platforms during the Final Four games.
“That was a good way to get a larger audience,” Schatz said. “We used that opportunity to showcase our own platforms because there was so much media. They were trending on so many different platforms and the more traffic we were able to gain was helping to propel everyone’s knowledge about what we do.”
Championship Labs used the national championship to showcase the personality of the players and market them in a way that shows who they are as individuals off the court.
“A lot of people know who the athletes are, but they don’t know who they are as people so that was a big goal for us,” Watson said.
Among those UConn players is standout guard Jordan Hawkins, who signed an NIL deal with Dunkin’ at the start of March Madness. Hawkins used his platform posting a video on Instagram giving back to the UConn students where he handed out doughnuts and gift cards across campus.
Aside from UConn high-profile players like Hawkins, walk-on player Andre Johnson Jr. signed a $25,000 NIL deal with deodorant brand Degree. Degree was seeking student-athletes who have overcome challenges and/or may have been overlooked as part of an initiative tied to its ‘Breaking Limits’ campaign, according to CT Insider. According to the article, Johnson’s deal included fulfillment obligations with Degree to post on social media at designated times, using his own story to emphasize the brand’s message.
“It’s also really rewarding for us to work with some of the lower level walk-on players and have them being given the same opportunities and same offerings as those high level players with surrounded publicity,” Schatz said, adding: “I think the status of them being a national champion right now leverages them especially in the NIL realm marketing themselves to brands, companies, and possible partnerships.”
Looking ahead for the NIL space
For Championship Labs, it is all about building brands with longevity for when the athletes move beyond studying and playing their sport at UConn. Much of that discussion surrounding student athletes declaring for the 2023 NBA draft is centered around NIL.
UConn players Hawkins, Andre Jackson Jr., Adama Sanogo, and Tristan Newton have declared for the 2023 NBA draft with only Sanogo and Hawkins renouncing their remaining college eligibility.
“So for a lot of our students, the discussion is, will they make enough money? And will they actually make more by staying at the college level versus going second or third round of the draft,” England said.
Since the name, image, likeness rules are so new, Championship Labs is navigating the law established July 1, 2021. The NCAA has set rules and regulations for colleges to follow. Many other schools have NIL initiatives similar to UConn’s Championship Labs.
“Obviously we are a smaller school so our collective isn’t as big as those southern schools,” Schatz said, adding that there are many different pathways and outlets to NIL that have yet to be explored.
“It’s just the beginning, like the tip of the iceberg for this team especially because no one can take away that you win a national championship. Regardless if they go to the NBA, G League, or overseas, you come back to UConn and you’re always going to be a legend,” Watson said.
TOP IMAGE: Katie Schatz, middle, with another student fellow and UConn student athlete, Emmett Hendry. Photo courtesy of Lexis Johnson