Some local businesses finding NIL deals with Rams to be worthwhile investment, as school implements VCU Exchange to facilitate partnerships

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Could you beat VCU men’s basketball star Ace Baldwin Jr. in a free throw shooting contest?

That’s the question that the staff at Tommy’s Express Car Wash posed, earlier this spring.

To mark the grand opening of its new location on Arthur Ashe Boulevard, near The Diamond, the company enlisted the promotion help of Baldwin.

A basketball hoop was set up at the car wash, and challengers could take on Baldwin in a best-of-five free throw bout. Those who beat Baldwin won a free month of car washes. And Baldwin was compensated monetarily for the appearance.

“I noticed there were some people who came out to the car wash that day, who only came out because of Ace,” said Tony Cannella on Tuesday, the site leader at Tommy’s Express Car Wash’s Arthur Ashe Ashe Boulevard location. “And I still see those faces coming by the car wash. What I noticed personally was just people really have a connection with each of the players … it’s different for everyone.

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“But that connection, it’s valuable, right? And so when you’re kind of targeting different niches, then it’s a good avenue to look into just because of the connections that that player has already made with a lot of the community.”

With initiatives like that with Baldwin, businesses locally like Tommy’s Express Car Wash are continuing to dip their toes into the sphere of name, image and likeness, that’s unfurling at a rapid rate.

And as the sphere continues to evolve, VCU announced in April the establishment of the VCU Exchange. It’s a new registry that’ll serve as a conduit between businesses and athletes for NIL opportunities moving forward, heading into the next school year. It’ll be a way for businesses to communicate and negotiate directly with athletes.

VCU will officially onboard athletes into the system this summer, starting with the men’s and women’s basketball teams as they return to campus for offseason workouts in the coming weeks.

“We felt that the implementation of the VCU Exchange was important to help engage as many interested businesses as possible and, in the process, create a convenient method for businesses to begin negotiating NIL activities with our student-athletes,” Noah Strebler, VCU’s associate athletic director for compliance and student services, said in an email.

According to a presentation at VCU’s May board of visitors meeting, VCU athletes agreed to a total of 55 NIL deals this past school year, for an average transaction value of $514.69. As of February, there were 284 athletes at VCU.

The 2021-22 school year was the first with NIL in place, after NCAA NIL policies went into effect on July 1, 2021.

It was uncharted territory, that has gradually taken shape over the past year.

During the Tommy’s Express Car Wash event, on a windy March 26, 10 people beat Baldwin to win free washes, Cannella said. And Baldwin was paid “under $1,000” to participate.

“In my opinion, it was very worth it,” Cannella said. He said Tommy’s Express Car Wash will explore additional NIL deals in the future.

One of the top NIL contributors at VCU in terms of monetary amount has been Avidus, an investment app from Richmond-based Taylor Hoffman, Inc. At the May BOV meeting, deals with Avidus for Baldwin and for men’s basketball’s Nick Kern were noted as two of the top four at VCU so far (listed in the meeting as $2,500 each).

Brandon Taylor, Taylor Hoffman’s CEO and CIO, said a long-term partnership was established with Baldwin and Kern but that Avidus ended up partnering with almost everyone on the men’s basketball team at some point this past year. The deals were based around social media marketing, but Taylor said they like the idea of having Kern and Baldwin attend upcoming client events as well moving forward.

“For us, a purpose-led brand, we want to have an impact,” Taylor said, explaining the benefit his company derives from NIL partnerships. “And when we look at VCU basketball, we think they’ve got a strong brand. It’s a Richmond institution. We already had a long-term relationship with the program. And Avidus is something that … we’re interested in providing access and being approachable.

“And we thought VCU basketball players would showcase that we were a brand that was approachable and could give access.”

Richmond-based consulting firm Synergy Technical decided to use NIL, not for direct marketing, but to incorporate VCU athletes in its community engagement program. In the fall, Synergy Technical brought on Baldwin and KeShawn Curry from men’s basketball to give out hoops tickets at Albert Hill Middle School. They then did the same at Tablespoons Bakery, which is a culinary training program as part of the nonprofit Next Move Program.

The response was so positive that Synergy Technical made it a recurring concept, to have two to three men’s basketball players visit a local nonprofit to give out tickets before home games, while making an additional charitable contribution on top of that. The players were paid for each appearance.

Rohana Meade, Synergy Technical’s president and CEO, said it was probably the best thing her company has ever done from a community engagement standpoint.

“From a business perspective, what we saw was that our brand visibility went through the roof,” Meade said.

Avidus and Synergy Technical are among the businesses that have already signed up for the VCU Exchange — Meade plans to expand the program at her company to include athletes from other sports.

Similar collectives have popped up to help athletes at other schools navigate and take advantage of NIL. At VCU, businesses can register with the VCU Exchange and, once approved by the school’s compliance department, they can communicate with VCU athletes who’ve opted into the registry.

Direct deposit payments, a required NIL disclosure form and the necessary tax forms will be generated through the VCU Exchange.

“As student-athletes and businesses become more comfortable with the NIL legislation and the services provided, like the VCU Exchange, we should see activities increase even further,” Strebler said.

It’s a trend that was already present this past school year, with the number of NIL agreements at VCU increasing significantly from the fall to spring semesters.

And for some of the businesses doing the deals, like Tommy’s Express Car Wash, Avidus and Synergy Technical, the early returns have been fulfilling.

“I’m super excited about continuing to work with the athletes,” Meade said. “It was the most fun I’ve had in a basketball season, I think ever.”

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