Notre Dame football navigates NIL with the help of startups such as Irish Players Club

Mike Berardino
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — When the annual Blue-Gold Game ends Saturday afternoon, Notre Dame players won’t just be looking for their family members outside the stadium.

In many cases, they will meet up — in person or virtually — with previously unseen benefactors as they seek to return value to members of the Irish Players Club. That’s life in the rapidly changing world of Name, Image and Likeness.

In the case of IPC, online sales of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) have generated an estimated $300,000 in total assistance for roughly 100 active members from Notre Dame’s football roster. That breaks down as approximately $3,000 per participating player — including walk-ons — funds that will help some families with travel expenses, either now or in the fall. 

“This wasn’t a money grab,” said Braden Lenzy, the senior wide receiver from Oregon. “It’s been very helpful and phenomenal, I think more than people want to realize or do realize. I definitely know the players are very, very happy with how everything went down.”

Launched in early February by a group headed by former Notre Dame football players Mick Assaf and Nic Weishar, IPC’s mission statement pledges 75 percent of profits to active student-athletes. 

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All 5,555 stylized leprechaun NFTs that were “minted” in the first round on March 1 have sold out, with the promise of more to come as the initiative evolves. Members could pay with cryptocurrency or by debit or credit card. 

“Anyone who has played any part in helping,” Lenzy said, “will definitely see the players be very appreciative and very active in these events they’re speaking of.”

Among the 2,317 Twitter followers for IPC are a pair of high-profile Class of 2023 recruiting targets: Detroit King’s five-star quarterback Dante Moore and four-star wide receiver Carnell Tate of IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. 

It doesn’t require squinting to see that this successful rollout for IPC could have lasting implications for Notre Dame football. 

Next wave of NIL

Not even 10 months since the NIL doors flung open last July 1, the landscape keeps shifting beneath the feet of all those under the NCAA umbrella. 

This week alone has brought a pair of new NIL launches with Notre Dame connections. 

A third-party collective called Friends of the University of Notre Dame (FUND), the brainchild of former Notre Dame and NFL quarterback Brady Quinn, recently received 501(c)(3) certification as a nonprofit. 

Former NetApp president and vice chairman Tom Mendoza, who endowed Notre Dame’s eponymous college of business, sits on the FUND board along with former Irish football players Pat Eilers and Jason Sapp. According to its website, the board will screen active players to determine the best fits for charitable endeavors. 

Former Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn hugs new Irish head coach Marcus Freeman Dec. 6, 2021 at the Irish Athletic Center in South Bend. Quinn, now a football commentator, recently launched and NIL non-profit called Friends of the University of Notre Dame (FUND).

FUND hopes to start paid alliances with more than six current Irish players this spring. Active engagement, both through appearances and social media posts, are an expected part of the tradeoff. 

There’s also NBC Sports Athlete Direct, a pilot program that seeks to link current college athletes and advertisers with an eye toward helping them monetize NIL. Notre Dame, NBC’s exclusive television broadcast partner for the past three decades, joins Vanderbilt and Temple in the initial group of three participating universities. 

CNBC and select faculty members will be asked to provide athletes in all sports with resources on financial wellness and NIL best practices. 

“Being first movers in any category is a powerful statement to our student-athletes,” Claire VeNard, associate athletic director and leader of Notre Dame’s GLD (Grow. Lead. Do.) Center, said in a statement. 

Locker-room dynamics 

Even as Notre Dame this week added Texas four-star wide receiver Braylon James to the top-rated 2023 recruiting class, the cautionary tales keep rolling in from around the country. 

Tyler Van Dyke, the University of Miami’s redshirt sophomore quarterback, has more than 20 NIL deals that guarantee him “well into six figures,” according to the Miami Herald. That includes the use of a BMW 750i for the remainder of his college career, courtesy of Sarchione Auto Gallery.

Based in Canton, Ohio, the auto dealership had a public agreement last fall with Brandon Joseph before the 2020 All-America safety transferred from Northwestern to Notre Dame. 

Tennessee, meanwhile, has a non-binding commitment from 2023 five-star quarterback Nicholaus Iamaleava, who reportedly signed a separate NIL agreement that could pay him up to $8 million. Iamaleava, rated the sixth-best player in the 2023 recruiting class by 247Sports Composite, still has another season to play at Long Beach (Calif.) Poly. 

“You’re going to have all these locker-room dynamics,” Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin said on The Rich Eisen Show.  “How’s the donor going to feel that paid all that money when the guy’s not playing? You’ve got a lot of things that haven’t been figured out at all.” 

In Notre Dame’s case, All-American safety Kyle Hamilton cashed in only modestly last fall, even as he launched a successful podcast (“Inside the Garage”) with national reach. 

Irish starting quarterback hopeful Drew Pyne, who played his high school ball in New Canaan, Conn., about 90 miles south of where Van Dyke starred at Suffield Academy, is grateful for the Irish Players Club even if he doesn’t quite understand how it works. 

“I don’t understand the whole NFT thing; I don’t get it,” Pyne said. “I don’t get why a little picture means so much, but I’ll take it. I think it’s a great way to help the Notre Dame players, and I’m very thankful for it.” 

Asked early in spring practice what sorts of NIL opportunities he had turned down, Pyne shook his head and smiled. 

“I don’t even know what I’ve accepted,” he said. “I’ve always told myself all that will come if I play and all that will come on the field. If that comes with it when I play, that will come with it. But I’m focused on this team and helping them win.” 

'Unique perspective' for fans 

Current Notre Dame football players involved with the Irish Players Club see it as a low-key earning option with minimal chance of distraction. 

NFT-holding members can receive special merchandise, game-used and signed memorabilia and access to ticket raffles as well as current and former Notre Dame players in the form of instructional camps, tailgate events and online discussion spaces such as Discord. 

Active players, once they have met a social media promotional quota, can earn extra money by conducting online chalk talks or question-and-answer video sessions that add perceived value to the IPC membership. 

“I think it’s a great way for guys to be involved (in NIL) and do something,” said Jack Kiser, the redshirt junior linebacker from Royal Center, Ind. “It gives fans a unique perspective if they are a part of it to interact and be a part of things that normally they might not. Moving forward, we’ll see how things go, but that’s very exciting.” 

Familiarity with Mick Assaf, who along with Weishar and older brother Hank Assaf co-founded a company called Yoke that allows fans to play video games with college athletes, helped assuage any up-front concerns. 

Mick Assaf was voted Notre Dame’s Walk-On Players Union (WOPU) player of the year in 2019, and younger brother Sam, also a walk-on running back, plays lacrosse and football at Notre Dame. 

“Mick Assaf approached us with this opportunity,” said Kiser, who graduates in May with a degree in business analytics and has been accepted into the master’s of accounting program. “That was a great idea by Mick. Having Mick be one of our own allows guys to trust that. It’s good to have his brother here, too. Sam’s in the locker room giving us details.” 

Considering the Assafs’ WOPU credentials, it should come as no surprise that the idea of including walk-ons in the IPC was never even debated. 

“WOPU Nation is a big deal here, and I think guys respect that,” Kiser said. “We know it’s not easy being a student-athlete. They’re just as much a part of this team as we are.” 

Lenzy called former walk-on receiver Matt Salerno “an absolute monster.” When Salerno was placed on scholarship in January, it was met with widespread celebration among his teammates. 

“The walk-ons are the hardest-working kids on the team,” Lenzy said. “They deserve it more than us. To be honest, the walk-ons probably gain more respect than practically anyone because they do all the things we do but they’re not going to get paid for it and they still are held to the same standards of other Notre Dame students.”

Nor is there any differentiation between starters and reserves, upperclassmen and newly enrolled freshmen. There are no half-shares for Notre Dame’s IPC program, which didn’t even require a vote. 

“What we were told is everything will be evenly distributed,” Kiser said. “That way there’s no favoritism or one person is getting paid more because their name is more (valuable). We’re a team and we’re doing this together, and I think that’s important for people to see and understand.”

Doing the math

If the Irish Players Club could raise $300,000 in NFT sales for a spring exhibition, imagine what it might bring in when the games count. Multiply that by a 12-game regular-season schedule, and suddenly you’re talking about nearly $4 million in total annual funds for the active roster. 

Is there any reason to think that wouldn’t be feasible? Lenzy, whose father Melvin is a global sports marketing executive who has worked for the NFL and Nike, didn’t balk at the suggestion. 

Former Notre Dame football walk-on Mick Assaf, shown here at the 2019 Camping World Bowl in Orlando, Fla., co-founded a company called Yoke with his brother that allows fans to play video games with college athletes.

“I think with how much success there’s been, it’s hard to believe just from a business standpoint there wouldn’t be future events and more options that come from the Irish Players Club,” Lenzy said. “I think on both parts everyone has enjoyed the process. So, I definitely think, moving forward, there will be more meet-and-greets or maybe a watch event.”

Whether it’s through the Irish Players Club, FUND or NBC Sports Athlete Direct, the NIL train is in motion at Notre Dame. Kiser noted the GLD Center was set up to “help educate people on NIL,” although Notre Dame’s athletic department must maintain a clear buffer zone. 

“They will not assist us; it’s strictly on our own,” Kiser said. “But it’s nice to know that we have someone to go to (in an advisory capacity) and get help.” 

Like Brian Kelly before him, head coach Marcus Freeman has given his blessing to Irish football players as they seek out NIL opportunities. The only word of caution is not to let it become a divisive matter or a distraction from academics and football. 

“Coach Freeman has been a big proponent of, ‘Whatever you want to do, you do. Just don’t put yourself before the team,’ “ Kiser said. “I think that’s important, and I agree with that. As long as  everybody can just put the team first, there shouldn’t be a problem with NIL. We haven’t had any problems yet.”

Echoing Pyne, Kiser said the business side of NIL wasn’t likely to become an issue at Notre Dame, where players “look after each other” as shown by their treatment of walk-ons. 

“You don’t really hear guys in the locker room talking about their deals,” Kiser said. “It’s very nonchalant. It’s not that important. What ‘s important is for us to win a national championship. And I think everybody knows that obviously they go hand in hand. If you are national champions, the NIL will take care of itself.”

Staff writer Mike Berardino covers Notre Dame football for the South Bend Tribune and NDInsider.com. Email him at mberardino@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeBerardino.