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College Sports’ “King Of NIL” Raises Endorsement Deals At Small HBCU

Less than three weeks after the NCAA began allowing athletes to cash in on their name, image and likeness on July 1, Alabama football coach Nick Saban announced that “our quarterback is already ungodly numbers.” reached” — nearly $1 million in endorsements, he said, perhaps a little overzealously.

But the player with more marketing deals than perhaps anyone in college sports — a whopping 69 in the past year — is no Crimson Tide signal caller. Nor is he an LSU Tigers cornerback or a Michigan Wolverines defensive end or a Duke Blue Devils power forward.

No, the self-proclaimed King of NIL is a track and field athlete and running back who played 11 career games for Norfolk State, a small, historically black university on the Virginia coast.

“People can make close to $500,000 or more at Power 5 schools. I know I’m in a small school, so I know I can’t make it,” said Rayquan Smith, a 20-year-old aspiring senior with three years of eligibility left. “So I was like, okay, I know I can’t make that much [per deal]but how many deals can I make and add up to?”

Smith has yet to hit six figures, says his marketing agent Freddie Berry of Berry Athlete Representation, but his business has come a long way in the 12 months that NIL deals have been allowed for college athletes previously barred from any form certification under the NCAA definition of amateurism. He’s now signing contracts that will pay him anything from $500 to $1,500 or even $2,500 in exchange for social media posts, Berry says, for a five-figure sum over the past year.

Smith, who played soccer and track at Highland Springs High School outside of Richmond, Virginia, said he was recruited by big programs like Duke, Maryland, Pitt and Virginia Tech but ultimately had his only scholarship offer dated because of poor grades Preserved State of Norfolk. He went to college in 2019 — coincidentally the same year that California passed the Fair Pay to Play Act and athletes at state schools vowed they could soon retain their eligibility while adding sponsorship money.

This was an important link in a chain that led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling in June 2021 NCAA vs. Alston, a case that challenged NCAA limitations on athlete compensation and led to the July 1 NCAA-wide rule change. But Smith was not a close observer of these developments. In fact, he didn’t know about it until June 30th – the day before the new NIL policy went into effect.

Smith noticed chatter about the upcoming restructuring while scrolling through Instagram and took to Google to find out what was going on. Once he felt he had the basics down, he began reaching out to businesses – 100 at first go. He cast a wide net, targeting every brand whose product he liked: Skittles, Crocs, Hi-Chew.

Only three answered, but Smith was not discouraged. “Rejection is part of life,” he says. “Everybody gets rejected – rejected by companies, women, anything. So I’m fine with that. Rejection doesn’t tell me I’m not good enough; it just tells me I need to work harder.”

It helped that Smith already knew he could successfully create social media content, a hobby he’d taken up as a freshman at Norfolk State in spare time, which he unexpectedly took up when his running coach encouraged him to switch to football to concentrate. He had already made a video that went viral – a lip sync of a Kevin Hart track – and his TikTok account had around 60,000 followers after a previous TikTok account of his had hit 100,000.

Smart Cups, which makes an energy drink in a bioplastic container, was the first company to sign Smith, who released a video for the brand on July 9. Five days later, Smith struck a deal with Berry to represent him.

Berry, who turns 29 this month, had taken advantage of the pandemic to earn a master’s degree in sports marketing and media and was in the process of earning his contract counsel certification from the NFL Players Association. A native of the Richmond area, he had originally approached Smith about potentially guiding him to the NFL or the CFL one day as a players’ agent, but when the NIL shockwave hit collegiate sports, he figured he might sooner to be of service as the.

Berry has helped Smith refine his pitch to marketers and make more lucrative deals, earning cash as opposed to the free products Smith worked for in the early days, and has signed several big brands, including Arby’s , Boost Mobile and Eastbay Apparel and Pedialyte. He’s also tried to avoid one-off promotions in favor of longer contracts – three- or six-month deals, as well as two-year partnerships with Get Laced shoelaces and VKTRY insoles.

But Smith, who now has nearly 99,000 followers on TikTok and nearly 19,000 on Instagram, remains heavily involved. He still reaches out to companies himself because he enjoys it, although he’s been getting messages from brands interested in working with him for about a week now. He looks for local cameramen on Instagram who want to advertise with his commercials. He speaks to marketers over Zoom to discuss the terms of the deal and get approval for the videos he creates for them from his own concepts.

“I do it the way I want to do it,” says Smith. “That’s my moneymaker, being myself.”

He also refuses to be bound by contractual limits. When Bodyarmor turned down Smith’s offer to work with him, he bought a bottle of the sports drink and shot a video anyway. That changed the company’s mind, and Smith received a gift bag for his trouble. He also continues to promote his partners after their deals close, posting photos of himself wearing their products online and tagging them on social media, sometimes resulting in the free stuff continuing to come in.

“I haven’t paid for clothes in a while,” says Smith, who also gives his five brothers shirts and sweatshirts and uses the extra income to help his mother, a gym teacher and track and field coach in Richmond, with the bills. (His father died when Smith was 12.)

Smith says his number one goal remains to play in the NFL, and he plans to transfer to a bigger football program as a graduate student after recovering from foot surgery in the coming year and competing as a decathlete with the Norfolk State track and field team. But his NIL success – which earned him the Hustle Award at last week’s NIL Summit – has also shown Smith he has other options. For starters, he starts a channel on Peakz, an athlete streaming site where he shares NIL tips with his subscribers.

“I always feel like I’m more than just an athlete; I don’t want nobody to think I play football and that’s all,” says Smith, who switched to mass communications and broadcasting as a major last year. “I’m an entrepreneur, I’m a businessman, I’m a soccer player – and I’m just me.”

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