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How Kansas State’s NIL plan is keeping the Wildcats competitive

Before the NCAA approved legislation surrounding name, image and likeness, Kansas State agreed to terms with Opendorse. The athlete marketplace company designed to connect professional and student-athletes with brands for marketing deals partnered up with the Wildcats athletic department when athletic director Gene Taylor announced in December 2020 that KSU agreed to join Opendorse Ready.

The program, designed to educate student-athletes for the impending changes that were to come, was just the beginning of KSU’s relationship with the company.

At the time, Kansas State head football coach Chris Klieman called it a “milestone in our preparation as a program,” saying the company “provides the technology and proven market experience to position K-State at the forefront of leadership and innovation as this new era unfolds.”

But while Kansas State was the 13th school to agree to join the NIL preparedness program – with TCU joining in as the only other Big 12 university participating – Taylor and the department waited patiently before allowing the company to set up its marketplace with K-State student-athletes. On Sept. 29, Kansas State officially announced Wildcats Marketplace, an NIL orchestrating space organized with the school’s partnership with Opendorse’s technology.

“Today’s announcement of the Kansas State marketplace reaffirms the commitment K-State Athletics has to supporting student-athletes on and off the field of play,” Opendorse CEO and former Nebraska linebacker Blake Lawrence said in a release from the university.

After the first season in which the NCAA put an interim NIL policy in place concluded, Klieman met with Ryan Henington. A conversation between the football coach and his former walk-on quarterback-turned-safety-turned-linebacker that began about his decision to forgo his COVID season of eligibility shifted to the program’s lack of NIL infrastructure. Henington, now a managing partner of Wildcat NIL, expressed the need for a system better-supporting Wildcat student-athletes.

In response, he and another former K-State football player Jesse Ertz and basketball player Pierson McAtee formed Wildcat NIL. The group put together the NIL collective that is now classified as a non-profit with 501(c)(3) status from the IRS, meaning donations to the foundation are tax deductible.

Henington said Wildcat NIL started with the goal of assisting Wildcat athletes in meeting their basic needs, citing that 87 percent of college athletes live below the poverty line.

“Let me be clear, we’re not paying athletes millions of dollars,” Henington said. “We’re not interested in putting athletes in sports cars and we’re not interested in athletes wasting money.”

Henington admitted to being unsure of his feelings on NIL when it first was introduced. Now, one year removed from being a redshirt senior for Kansas State, he’s one of the leaders of the non-profit organization he said just wants to help the school compete against other conference rivals.

“We’re all former student-athletes,” Henington said of Wildcat NIL’s infrastructure. “We’ve put the blood, sweat and tears into Kansas State and I think our intentions are evident.”

Detractors of name, image and likeness’ pervasive overtaking of college athletics have found a common enemy like the Alabama football program as a strawman in their argument against the sport’s latest wave. Henington wants to remind people that NIL isn’t designed to make Kansas State compete with the Crimson Tide.

“I hear a lot that we can’t compete with the Alabamas and the USCs,” Henington, a four-time First Team Academic All-Big 12 honoree, said of critics’ claims. “But really, when have we ever been able to compete with them on a monetary level? We don’t compete with them for the same coaches. We don’t compete with them for the same recruits. We don’t have 100,000 people in our stadium. We have (50,000).”

As Oklahoma and Texas swap conferences and a new Big 12 is formed, Henington said a shift in philosophy for fans is necessary.

“The whole notion that we can’t compete with Alabama is just not really the right thought process,” he said. “In reality, we have every bit of the capability to compete with KU, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, Baylor, BYU, Cincinnati, Houston. The new Big 12. And that’s something that we have to dominate. If there ever was a time to level the playing field, it’s with NIL. And it’s not going to take a remarkable effort. It’s just going to take everybody supporting the athletes.”

The relationship built by Kansas State’s athletic department with Opendorse in 2020 continued in negotiations to open Wildcats Marketplace. With the September announcement, K-State became the sixth Big 12 program to create an official Opendorse marketplace page for all of its student-athletes. KSU followed other Big 12 programs which launched their school marketplaces in the following order: Texas, Baylor, Kansas, Texas Tech, TCU and Kansas State.

“While the marketplace for Kansas State is new, our relationship is years in the making,” said Sam Weber, senior director of communications for Opendorse. “I would say (Kansas State) is toward the front and in a comfortable position with where a lot of the college athletics world is. Yes, there were a handful of early movers that launched their school marketplaces as early as this last spring – and they were definitely outsiders.”

Weber said the athletic department’s slow play in coming to terms with an NIL partner was all about finding the right fit.

“What I will say is schools like Kansas State and Kansas State specifically absolutely did their due diligence over the last two years,” Weber said. “They were not quick to jump in the boat with the first technology provider that said they could help, but did an exhaustive job of vetting and making sure they provided their student-athletes with the best tools and technology that are available in the market right now. They did not choose Opendorse because our office is two hours down the road. They chose it because it’s the best fit for Wildcats, the student-athletes and the fanbase.”

Providing Nijel Pack’s reported $800,000 NIL deal and his unceremonious exit from Manhattan as an example of the unruly side of NIL, Henington said the main goal of Wildcat NIL is to reward those who have put the time into being a Kansas State student-athlete. The organization’s stated goal is to create team-wide deals.

“We have no footprint in recruiting,” said Henington. “That’s something we’ve been strong advocates of is that we’re going to reward people with sweat equity in the program. Whether that’s the walk-ons that have been in the football program for a while or the star football players, but we have no interest in paying student-athletes who have never stepped foot on campus or worn a purple jersey.”

Business owners and Kansas State fans alike with specific players they want to work with can visit the Opendorse interface and find each Wildcat student-athlete, listed with varying price points for shoutouts, social media posts and event appearances. The Opendorse app regulates and connects brands and fans to student-athletes in an organized manner and – as Weber points out – guarantees payment to the athlete once an activity is complete.

“It allows every athlete to create and personalize their own profile that they can then go and promote on their own profile and social channels,” Weber said. “Or Kansas State fans can go to the marketplace, find that athlete and work with them in any type of NIL activity they can imagine.”

While Miami mega-booster John Ruiz – the man who spent time boasting about the Pack deal – told The Athletic all his deals have been approved by Miami’s compliance department, both Henington and Weber said Kansas State’s early caution to the NIL marketplace will keep the university out of harm’s way should the NCAA decide to penalize schools who were loose with the booster-related transactions during the first year-plus of the policy.

“It’s a good thing and the K-State family should embrace it,” said Henington, who touted the men’s and women’s deals and money going to both scholarship and walk-on players as a benefit of the collective. “It’s not something to look at negatively. We’re going to do things the right way and that’s why we’re going to last.”

As of now, Henington said nine people are involved with the non-profit collective with no one working on it full-time. He said whatever NIL deals are provided for K-State athletes, anything helps the competitiveness of the Wildcats.

“I would love to do this full-time but that’s not even our goal,” Henington said. “Our goal is just to make sure we have a model that succeeds and our goal is to make sure the student-athletes feel the value of this thing. As long as we’re building something that will last we’re happy.

“Whether you have five dollars or $500,000, now is an opportunity to directly support the athletes like never before. Now is an opportunity for our K-State fanbase to directly affect the success of our program and we need everybody. NIL is a fight that we can win and we will win with everybody’s support.”

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