BYU launches potential $20 million NIL partnership, bringing NFTs into the name, image and likeness arms race

BYU reached a five-year partnership with Ocavu to allow fans to buy and sell BYU-related NFTs

(Ocavu) Screenshots of NFTs of BYU football players Gunner Romney and Micah Simon.

It started as a conversation — or really a far-fetched idea — when Jon Cheney walked into Gary Veron’s second-floor office last October and proposed a new approach to name, image and likeness.

Cheney, the CEO of an online NFT company called Ocavu, had watched from the sidelines as NIL evolved into an arms race in recruiting. He knew BYU needed a larger presence in the space to be competitive, especially as it entered the Big 12. But he also recognized that any developments needed to fit the mold of the school.

So, across from BYU’s associate athletic director for NIL, Cheney laid out a plan to create a marketplace where people could buy and trade BYU-related NFTs. Each time the non-fungible tokens — essentially digital trading cards — were sold, players and the athletic department would receive a percentage of the money.

On Aug. 16, the marketplace will launch as the latest NIL endeavor at BYU. This time, Cheney predicts it is a deal that could be worth up to $20 million in the first year of the five-year partnership alone.

“I’m a BYU alum ,” Cheney said. “[I] understand the values associated with BYU in a different way. I hope to bring those things to the platform.”

Whereas some athletic departments have welcomed donor-funded collectives to launch their programs to prominence, this is BYU’s preferred solution to NIL: NCAA-compliant, closely monitored spaces where athletes can profit from their likeness and keep in line with the values of the university.

It is a different approach, but one that is similar to that of a USC or Notre Dame. Both of those schools have discouraged high-dollar collectives in favor of third-party LLC’s that are more easily monitored. Internally, BYU has made it clear collectives are not the way the university prefers to go.

“The launch of CougsRise.com allows unprecedented access for the most loyal fans in the country and creates the opportunity for Cougar student-athletes to earn money in an NCAA-compliant way,” said Casey Stauffer, BYU’s associate athletic director for corporate sponsorships.

The marketplace will act similarly to NBA Top Shot, a market place for the league’s digital trading card collectors. People will be able to buy and sell BYU NFTs on a website called CougsRise.com.

An NFT is essentially a virtual trading card. The tokens on CougsRise contain a unique video of a particular time and player in BYU history. Some are more rare and valuable than others.

Fans will buy packs of NFTs, like they would a pack of baseball cards, and can choose to keep or trade them on the platform. However, Cheney would like most of the NFTs to be kept instead of traded. The point of the marketplace is for fan experience, he says, and not so people can buy NFTs to then turn them for a profit. Although, he said, some of that is bound to happen.

“Obviously, players will see less of the profits from re-sale of the NFT,” Cheney said.

As it rolls out, nearly the entire football team has signed onto the deal. NFTs of a player’s image can only be sold if players sign. BYU also needs to be part of the deal, since it is an owner of the footage in the NFT.

Cheney declined to say the percentage of the profits that are kept by the players, the athletic department and Ocavu. However, the players will equally split the profits on a given team so the walk-on and starting quarterback will have the same check.

“We have hundreds of NIL deals with individual athletes,” Cheney said. “And we will sign more as some players as their seasons get closer.”

Ocavu will scale this to every team at BYU. As fans buy more NFTs, and interact with the platform, they will become eligible for unique experiences. This includes running the team out of the tunnel at football games.

The platform will slowly grow over the next five years. During that time, Ocavu is adding legacy moments from BYU’s past. Those NFTs will be more valuable, like a Jimmer Fredette moment or a Tanner Mangum pass.

The platform is also hoping to become a hub of communication for BYU fans. This includes having player-generated content, and a meeting spot for fans to interact.

“I’m sure what this platform is today, will be completely different from what it is a year from now,” Cheney said.

This is the second-major NIL initiative at BYU. The first happened last year, when Built Bar agreed to a team-wide deal with the football program to give each player compensation. It included the walk-ons earning paid tuition.

So far, BYU only has one collective, CougConnect. Provo NIL Club, an outside-funded platform, also launched last week.

But for now, it appears that BYU’s athletic department continues to push its own closely monitored NIL deals over collectives.