UConn Championship Labs: Preparing and propelling NIL of student athletes

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.”

Cat­e­gories of NIL that stu­dent ath­letes engage in at UConn. Infor­ma­tion from UConn Ath­let­ics. Graph­ic designed by Han­nah Parr

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.”

Faith Wat­son, right, with anoth­er stu­dent fel­low and UConn stu­dent ath­lete, Andre John­son Jr. Pho­to cour­tesy of Lex­is Johnson

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