“It’s a Whole New Word”

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STORRS – For the past eight weeks, Jason Butikofer has been living full time at the Graduate Storrs Hotel on the UConn campus.

Every day he makes the six-minute walk from the hotel to his office in the bowels of the Gampel Pavilion. He warms up his breakfast in the sports information manager’s office, as there is a microwave there.

He then starts his day as the point of contact for UConn in terms of name, image and likeness.

A little over a year ago it became legal in Connecticut to allow athletes to cash in on their name, image and likeness — with everything from shoe and Gatorade endorsements to Instagram posts about local pizza places. But it was only weeks before athletes began finding ways to capitalize on it, and school officials realized that overseeing NIL activity and helping student-athletes navigate the murky waters would be a full-time job.

Enter Butikofer, who was hired by UConn athletic director David Benedict in June to fill a new position created to oversee NIL’s growing world of collegiate athletics.

Since moving to Connecticut from Washington state, Butikofer hasn’t found time to seriously look for an apartment and plans to do so in December, once the hectic fall sports season is over.

His arrival at Storrs comes after more than 20 years of working in collegiate athletics, from his start as a student manager on the Iowa men’s basketball team in 1996 to his last stint as chief operating officer at the University of Washington.

Butikofer has held a variety of athletic department positions, including the first meeting with Benedict in Arizona State when Butikofer reported to Benedict, who was then the assistant athletic director for the Wildcats.

As college sports prepares for NIL’s second year, Butikofer wants to educate the UConn athletic department, coaches, athletes and staff on all Connecticut state guidelines and the latest laws to help student-athletes take full advantage of all opportunities.

“You have student-athletes who may have had an entrepreneurial spirit and thought processes before, and now they’ve been given an opportunity to capitalize on that,” Butikofer said in a recent interview at UConn. “You have those who were more in the social media influencer realm who can now capitalize on that.

“We have student athletes who don’t care about social media and don’t have accounts and don’t want to devote time to it. It kind of depends. … I think it’s motivated student-athletes that are interested and it encourages the growth of a lot of student-athletes, which is great. That’s our mission, right? To encourage the growth of young men and women.”

Why UConn?

UConn has long had a national presence thanks to its 11-time national women’s basketball program. The blues and grays of the huskies have been associated with greatness since the 1990s, when Geno Auriemma’s program began winning titles and Jim Calhoun’s men’s program took its place on the national stage.

The school’s athletic profile is also high in other sports such as soccer, baseball, and field hockey. And currently, UConn is home to arguably the biggest name in the NILE realm: Paige Bueckers.

This made UConn an interesting place for Butikofer.

“Obviously UConn is the only FBS school in the state and you’re in this huge footprint with all these population bases and the only professional team in the state of Connecticut is the WNBA, so I think it’s unique in that regard,” he said . “It’s like being ‘the show’ and I think that can be very beneficial. … I see the potential for improvement here. Our athletes are the focus of the state and that’s a big thing.”

The two, who already have a long-standing relationship with Benedict, spoke about the role and how it might best be designed, especially in light of Connecticut’s law change allowing student-athletes to display a school’s logo and imaging in NIL stores to use.

In 2021, Connecticut passed a NIL law, following the lead of states across the country, prohibiting student-athletes from using a school’s logo or branding during NIL activities, but the state revised the law and passed it this year a new law that now allows the use of such marks – although schools have the right to monitor and object to such use.

As the NIL space grew, UConn needed an admin and Benedict turned to Butikofer.

“He kind of suggested it, he said, ‘Hey, you should go for this job,'” Butikofer said. “The timing and David’s aspirations to be a true leader in NIL and open up as many opportunities as possible for student athletes is exciting. It’s a whole new word and it’s evolving and changing every day. … I’m doing this because I love supporting student athletes and it just seemed like a really fantastic crossroads.”

role and responsibilities

While his title at UConn is Special Assistant to the Director of Athletics and reports directly to Benedict, Butikofer’s main priority is NIL, specifically NIL education. It’s a new role for Butikofer, who spent two years in Washington dealing with ticket operations, marketing and strategic communications, as well as the school’s relationship with Adidas.

Since moving across the country in June, he has met with the majority of UConn’s head coaches. He recently sat down with the women’s volleyball program and introduced himself to the team and staff.

He instructs student-athletes and coaches to use him as a resource when they have questions about NIL, e.g. B. how to disclose a deal with the school’s NIL company, Opendorse, on the university’s portal or how to confirm whether a deal meets the requirements of the NCAA.

Butikofer avoids providing legal advice to student athletes or helping them negotiate with brands. If a student-athlete is interested in hiring an agent, Butikofer says he also avoids referring them to specific agencies because it’s an option that the student-athlete can navigate on their own.

“Not all of our student athletes have agents,” he said. “It’s a small group of individuals, so they’re figuring that out for themselves, and some have done business and gained momentum in that space. Some have thought about it a lot and want advice or clarification on the topic “How do I proceed?”. … They are 19 and 20 years old and they are learning how they can possibly build their brand and run their own businesses. So I’m here to provide a resource.”

Butikofer works with UConn’s Compliance Office, the Peter J. Werth Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation’s “Championship Labs” and Learfield – UConn’s multimedia rights holder – to provide student athletes with resources.

Founded in 2017, the Werth Institute is described on the school’s website as an organization that “brings together myriad programs that foster entrepreneurship and innovation, support ideas that potentially have commercial application, and can be used to launch new businesses.” Learfield, a sports marketing company that manages media rights deals, has partnered with Opendorse to support NIL activities.

Butikofer also spends time educating UConn’s donors and collectives — groups of people who are independent of a school, such as a community event — on NIL’s policies and creating potential opportunities for student athletes.

One example is UConn graduate Marc D’Amelio’s D’Amelio Huskies Collective, which focuses on helping student athletes learn about personal branding. D’Amelio from Norwalk is the patriarch of a TikTok famous family who has used social media to build their brand.

“We have donors who want to be educated, like, ‘Hey, what’s up? What is the landscape?’ Whatever it is, you have a collective like Marc D’Amelio, so they have questions and there are opportunities for engagement there as well,” Butikofer said.

“It’s like screwing the structure together and then overlaying it with a strategy that we can implement within the confines of state law and NCAA regulations to provide student-athletes with as many opportunities as possible.”

Butikofer sees his role as more than just NIL education. He sees it as a way to help student athletes prepare for life after graduation and long after their athletic career is complete with a better understanding of personal branding and entrepreneurship.

“Everywhere I’ve been, I’m a little piece of the puzzle,” he said. “First influencing their experience while they are a student athlete and then influencing their future as well.”

The ongoing NIL education

Butikofer’s arrival coincided with the passage of Connecticut law allowing student-athletes to use their school’s grades in NIL deals. But the problem remains complex, another example of why UConn needed an admin to oversee the NIL world.

UConn and other schools in the state have the right to refuse to use grades if it conflicts with the university’s sponsorship deals, Butikofer says.

A recent example concerned Bückers. She became the first collegiate athlete to sign a NIL deal with Gatorade last fall and recently launched a custom water bottle with the company, which has been featured in a handful of social media campaigns and most recently in a commercial for the brand showed up.

In the commercial, Bückers is shown walking through a players’ tunnel. Though dressed in blue and gray colors, she bears no UConn-specific logos or imagery. Neither are the actors playing their teammates. There is also no signage in the scene directly related to the Husky program.

That’s because UConn has a sponsorship deal with the Coca-Cola Company, which is owned by Powerade, one of Gatorade’s biggest competitors in the sports drink and marketing world.

“We’re not in the business of saying someone can’t do something, can’t work with what we consider competitors, but where the difference comes into play now is that state laws, which will be changed in July, Student athletes can use brands,” said Butikofer.

“We have an exclusive relationship with Coke and Powerade, so she won’t be able to use the brands on Gatorade. We have the ability to authorize use of trademarks, but obviously (not) when the university has conflicts, because your intellectual property has significant value and ensures that you protect your intellectual property in the right way.”

But Bueckers’ partnership with Gatorade benefits UConn and its other student-athletes.

Butikofer says when a high-profile student-athlete like Bueckers or Azzi Fudd partners with a high-profile brand, it increases awareness of UConn and brings in more offers for other student-athletes from other brands who want to get involved.

“When you have high-profile athletes like that on the national landscape, I think it basically opens up bigger brands,” he said. “…We’re speaking to a brand that’s still in its infancy about a broader relationship with potential interest in more student athletes who wouldn’t have come to the table without student athletes of this level of prominence. I think that has a unique advantage.”

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