Sage Ledbetter figures three little letters are going to change the college football landscape starting July 1 — but maybe not just in the way most people expect.
Having been on both sides of the market as a former Auburn football player and now a business owner in the area, Ledbetter this week offered a unique perspective on changes coming to name, image and likeness usage for college athletes across the country — which he thinks will be ‘huge’ not only for the high-profile names in college sports, but for small businesses and local heroes as well.
It’s still unclear exactly how college athletes will use their name, image and likeness — often shortened to NIL — but Ledbetter paints a realistic picture for how the changes to come should affect athletes in towns like Auburn.
Ledbetter plans to offer marketing deals to Auburn athletes as soon as he’s able to on July 1.
“It’s going to be big for the communities that hold these universities,” Ledbetter said.
Ledbetter kicked and held for Auburn from 2016-19 and now owns Led.Co Landscape Lighting Inc. in the city. He plans to sign Auburn players to social media endorsements and make use of their online following. He also sees the world of sports training changing, with college athletes being allowed to work with younger players at camps and to be paid for their work.
While much of the talk around NIL change nationally has focused on how future top draft picks will be able to sign top-dollar deals, Ledbetter sees positive effects coming on a smaller, local level, for small business and for athletes beloved locally.
Ledbetter knows local: He is from Auburn and he kicked at Auburn High School before moving on to Auburn University, and he sees value in a college town’s hometown heroes, even if those players aren’t high-profile pro prospects.
“Every single market that we’re trying to get into, the majority of the people are Auburn fans and Auburn fans run deep,” Ledbetter said. “So, for us, marketing-wise, we use the social media aspect a lot. So, say people just see ‘Led.Co’ on these athletes, or they hear about it on their social media platform, it’s just going to be huge marketing for us.”
Drew Butler, who punted at the University of Georgia, agreed that there are probably more NIL opportunities out there for small businesses and everyman players than people realize.
“I think the volume of the deals done at a hyper-local and regional level will be tremendous,” Butler said.
“These hyper-local towns — the restaurants, the establishments, the brands, that sponsor the universities, that really love and care for these hometowns — are finally going to be able to have authentic spokespeople, right?” Butler also said. “Women and men, student-athletes, speaking on behalf of their brand. ‘Hey I love this restaurant. I’m going to be here Thursday night. Come hang out, 8 p.m.’ That’s awesome. It’s never been able to happen before.”
Butler is the vice president of the collegiate wing of Icon Source, a platform that aims to connect athletes with businesses like Ledbetter’s, and handle work like drawing up contracts — and, yes, NCAA compliance.
“We are introducing ourselves to university athletics departments and compliance officers daily, and telling them, ‘We come in peace.’ ... You just tell us what you need, and we’re going to help everybody out,” Butler said.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed the state’s new NIL bill into law in April as the NCAA was working to adopt its new rules that will finally allow for student-athletes to profit off their NIL under those watchful eyes. Changes go into effect July 1.
Auburn launched its SPIRIT campaign in late May, promising to help its athletes optimize upcoming NIL opportunities.
Auburn athletics also announced it will be partnering with the school’s college of business to present curriculum to student-athletes on taxes, finance and more.
Working at Icon Source, Butler predicts that most of the opportunities for athletes to use NIL will come through social media endorsements, commercial shoots, autograph signings, and speaking engagements.
“The possibilities are endless, and we’re just really excited for these student-athletes,” Butler said.
For its part, Auburn says it feels the same way.
“We recognize that there are still many unknowns as it relates to NIL, but we will be nimble and ready to adapt to the ever-changing landscape,” Auburn athletics director Allen Greene said in a statement when the school introduced its SPIRIT program. “We embrace NIL and welcome the opportunities and challenges.”
On July 1, it’s coming — and the picture will be that much closer to clear, even if it gets more murky first.
“There’s good intentions behind what’s going on,” Ledbetter said. “We have to start somewhere, the NCAA does, allowing this. I think the problems that are going to arise, they’re going to have to make adjustments, but I think you’re going to have to go through this trial and error here, this period where they’re just going to have to learn what works and what doesn’t.
“Obviously there’s got to be rules because there’s crazy things that could be going on out there. But I think it’s going to be good.”