On July 1, 2021, the landscape of amateur athletics forever changed when the NCAA adopted new rules that allowed college athletes to monetize their name, image, and likeness.
Many have already capitalized.
Some are high-profile, like UConn women's basketball star Paige Bueckers, whose partnerships with Gatorade, Cash App and StockX have her reported earnings nearing seven figures, and others may not be as well known, but they've still found creative ways to cash in.
With this shift, the equation for success has changed. Schools that find sustainable ways to support their student-athletes will have the upper hand.
Name, image and likeness has become a popular talking point and, realistically, a selling point regarding where recruits will end up playing in college. Schools can tell prospective recruits the median income (from name, image and likeness) earned in their sport by the student-athletes already on campus.
Raising that median income creates a more enticing environment for recruits considering a school.
And, ultimately, fan bases have the power to impact their teams in a way they've never had before.
That's why a new name, image and likeness initiative could be so impactful for the future of Xavier men's basketball, and the rest of its programs.
Xavier NIL initiative: The idea behind Musketeer Gear
Anthony Breen graduated from Xavier in 2014. He studied finance and entrepreneurship, and while he was at Xavier, he started his first company which focused on technology to help children with chronic illnesses. Today he's the founder and CEO of Synergistic, an outcome-focused performance marketing and paid media group headquartered in Cincinnati that was recently recognized by Inc. 5000 as the 12th fastest-growing company in Ohio.
The day the NCAA adopted its new name, image and likeness bylaws, Breen started thinking.
"I recognized that Xavier, with the avid basketball fan base and community we have, could really be poised as a leader in the NIL space," said Breen.
He saw it as an avenue to support current and future student-athletes, and ultimately help, not just the basketball program, but all the athletic programs at Xavier.
"If you look at NIL at a macro level, it's really an ecosystem that can help propel universities like Xavier to where they want to go," Breen said. "And there are ways to do that in a high integrity, high morality, Jesuit way."
That's where Breen got creative. He wanted to establish something that enabled student-athletes to not only monetize their name, image and likeness, but at the same time, educate them on life practices, business principles, and building a personal brand.
Breen played with ideas. He worked on exclusive fan interactions with players, and in the process, he learned about the team. He saw funny interactions, heard compelling stories, and while it was a success, he wondered how he could scale those experiences on a larger level.
"The 10,250 fans that come to Cintas Center for every game, how can I give the athletes a vehicle to engage with those fans and exchange value through NIL? But also give those fans the ability to learn more about the student-athlete ... and support the student-athlete," Breen said. "What if we could enable student-athletes to create a product that would tell the community more about them as people and would also enable the community to get behind them by wearing a shirt or a hoodie."
How Musketeer Gear works for Xavier's student-athletes
Breen's idea became Musketeer Gear, a nonprofit online merchandise store that sells unique experiences and apparel that's designed and created by student-athletes with the majority of the proceeds going back to the athlete.
"It was really, really cool to put the power of creation back in athletes' hands," said Breen.
At the National Invitation Tournament earlier this year, Breen pitched the idea and spoke with Adam Kunkel and Colby Jones, two Xavier men's basketball players.
"They loved it," Breen said, "to the point where they followed up with me about it."
Synergistic hired Jones and Kunkel as summer interns.
"He told us he wanted to get our creativity and our personalities out there to the fans. Instead of just throwing our picture with our last name and number on something, we'd actually get to tell our own stories," Kunkel said.
They scheduled a call with the entire men's basketball team and Breen, Kunkel and Jones walked them through the idea.
"We wanted to get everyone on the team involved," said Jones.
And Kunkel added, "I feel like it was really easy when we introduced it to the guys and just told them what it's about and what we're trying to do. They were all in and they were all excited about it."
Jones and Kunkel hand-picked all the material after trying on roughly 50 different samples. They created prompts for their teammates to think about for their designs. They learned about price points and had to ensure that each item was profitable. They got crash courses in economies of scale, shipping costs and fulfillment costs.
Every member of the team had to present a vision for their designs and work with a graphic designer. Once there was an initial rendering of their designs they had to provide feedback and workshop the idea.
When the designs were finalized, they had to factor in design costs and find ways to increase profitability.
They helped create a website, a logo for the company, and went through the process of developing a marketing plan.
"It was really cool seeing that idea finally come to life and seeing everything it takes to get there," said Kunkel.
It became a lesson in cultivating an idea and following it to completion.
"All the little details that go into a project like this creates a lot of learning and growth and understanding and education," said Breen. "It really took on a life of its own and it was obviously led by the team at Synergistic, co-led by Adam and Colby, but as it pertained to all the aspects of the designs and launch strategy, all the members of the basketball team."
The designs range from jokes to nicknames and special moments.
Jones' design is an image from the most powerful moment of his Xavier career when he hit a game-winning 3-pointer two days after the death of his grandfather.
"It really holds a special place in my heart," said Jones. "So I knew I wanted to do something with that."
Kunkel's design is his favorite pair of shoes and the detail added to the shoes tells the story of why he plays basketball.
"The people I do it for, the reason I'm here," said Kunkel. "My family."
There are individual designs and team designs.
Xavier's players will wear their unique designs on Friday night at Musketeer Madness. There will also be a pop-up shop at Musketeer Madness with limited edition items and autograph giveaways.
The way the money works is each product has costs built in, from shipping to procurement to printing. And there's a profit margin built into each design.
"The majority of profits from each sale goes to the athlete directly," said Breen, who explained that the remaining profits off each sale get distributed between two Xavier funds ‒ a NIL fund and the All For One fund ‒ as well as a percentage for copyright and trademark licenses. "The only thing that's going to come back to Musketeer Gear is a percentage of every shirt is going to go to the funding of future internships and product development."
The long-term plan for Musketeer Gear is that this will become a sustainable model that's run each year by the student-athletes, said Breen, who has no desire to personally profit from this initiative.
"As new waves of athletes come to Xavier, they are going to have the ability to intern, learn these same things, create products that are true and unique to them," said Breen. "Any dollar that someone would spend on Musketeer Gear will obviously go to the cost of making the product, supporting the student-athlete, supporting Xavier University and supporting the future of Musketeer Gear."
This was an outside-the-box endeavor for Breen and his company. They don't have a background in designing apparel and merchandise, but Breen saw this as a way to not just support the current student-athletes, he saw it as a way to help support the future and growth of the university both athletically and academically.
"Regardless of any dollars that come from this, every student-athlete on the men's basketball team got to learn about product creation, got to learn about design, got to learn about storytelling ... so even if we generated no dollars these student-athletes got to learn and experience something that for the most part, none of them had experienced prior. And that inherently is what I believe should be the makeup and recipe of a good NIL experience," said Breen.