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Food-related NIL deals: A Brief History

In the NIL era, many college athletes are partnering with companies to promote new products, menu options, or other opportunities. Let’s take a look at some of the most interesting deals so far.

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In the summer of 2021, the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in favor of the plaintiff in NCAA vs Alston, ending the NCAA’s long-standing ban against college athletes from generating income based on their name, image, and likeness. Apparently, athletes making money based on their work would have been beyond the pale. The actual workers could never make money from their work; only TV companies, schools, administrators, coaches, conferences, bowl games…should I go on?

We still have a long way to go in the name of athlete compensation and rights, but NIL was a big step in the right direction. In addition, there have been some delightful unforeseen side effects in the young days of the NIL era. Companies have gotten creative with their sponsorships and products, athletes are bonding with their communities, and many are using their platforms to give back. We love to see it.

NIL deals and food products are a natural marriage. Large companies can sign big stars to tout their brands, college stars can connect with local eateries in mutually beneficial partnerships, and there are plenty of opportunities for creativity.

Let’s take a non-comprehensive look at some of the most interesting NIL deals involving food. After all, what’s a more American combination than capitalism, college football, and calories?

Right off the bat, let’s take a look at some of the big restaurant brands who have gotten involved. Krystal, a regional fast food restaurant chain, has inked a number of star players from the SEC, the conference with which they share a geographic footprint. National chains like Applebee’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Taco Bell, Sonic, Outback and others have also inked collegiate athletes to represent their brands.

Athletes who might be anonymous nationally but superstars locally have gotten in with local eateries all over the country. Ex-Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels – now slicing up defenses with the LSU Tigers – had a “JD5 pizza” with Venezia’s Pizza, aTempe-based chain. This pie featured five toppings: sausage, bacon, pepperoni, mushrooms, and extra cheese. As a devotee of “less is more” when it comes to good pizza toppings, I find this concoction to be an affront to all that is good and holy.

A popular theme is an entire offensive line signing a deal with a local restaurant – oftentimes barbecue joints (exception: Mizzou, whose OL signed with Hooters). This is perfect, because I can think of no better endorsement for a barbecue joint than a table of five fat dudes going to town. Such deals have been inked by the big boys at Arkansas, Florida, Notre Dame, and elsewhere.

In Columbia, MO our beloved Thiccer Kicker, Harrison Mevis, touts “The Thiccer Burger’’ at Campus Bar & Grill (Big 12 4-ever). The Thiccer Burger features two-thirds of a pound of ground beef, four slices of bacon, colby jack cheese, and an onion ring. If you can finish it one sitting, you have earned the right to strut away from the table like you just bombed a fifty-yarder against the reigning national champs.

The creativity is not just limited to how many toppings one can justifiably pile onto a menu item, however. There’s a lot of room for food-based puns in the NIL world. Alabama’s star cornerback Ga’Quincy “Kool-Aid” McKinstry signed a deal with — you guessed it — Kool-Aid. He was given that nickname at a young age by his grandmother, and it stuck long enough for him to make money for his labor as a college athlete.

Reese’s – the purveyor of the popular peanut butter & chocolate treats, and by far the #1 Halloween candy in this author’s purview – inked deals for an assortment of college athletes named “Reese.” This strategy is delightful; almost as delightful as a novelty holiday-shaped chocolate pumpkin, egg, or tree stuffed with sugar-infused peanut butter. So, congrats to Richard, Quinton, Michael, Max, Otis, David, Courney, Brady, and Andrew Reese; hopefully none of you are allergic to peanuts. And a tough look for UCF quarterback John Rhys Plumlee, whose parents chose that spelling and made him ineligible for the aforementioned deal.

Some athletes are big enough stars to receive their own line of products. Jackson State superstar Shedeur Sanders and PBSE (the people who brought us Flutie Flakes) have created “#2 BBQ Sauce,” an homage to Sanders’ jersey number. Texas Longhorn All-Galaxy running back Bijan Robinson hawks his own “Bijan Mustardson,” which is “the official Dijon of Bijan” and promises on the bottle to be, “A touchdown in your mouth!” Because sure, that’s a sentence that makes sense.

And who could forget of course the famous Luther Burden potato chip? St Louis-based Old Vienna created a line of chips just for the Missouri receiver, a delicious honey barbecue twist on their famous Red Hot Riplet potato chip. This is a perfect product, not just for its tastiness and local flavor, but also because blue-chip recruit Luther Burden III is now literally all that and a bag of chips. (Side note: We reviewed some Mizzou NIL products, including the chips, in this piece from over the summer)

Not all of the deals are as fitting as Burden’s, however. Stetson Bennett has a deal with Georgia-based Shuman Farms, making sweet Vidalia onions the official onion of the Bulldogs quarterback. Vidalias are great, but my editorializing on onion preference will not be as strong as my previously expressed opinions regarding pizza toppings or Halloween candy.

Bowl game sponsors still can’t use NIL as inducement for an athlete to play in their game, but Duke’s Mayo did pair postgame with South Carolina quarterback Luke Doty – the 2021 Duke’s Mayo Bowl MVP – to talk about his postseason experience and hawk the tangy condiment.

And people aren’t the only ones that need to eat! Your pets do, too, and Arkansas’s Trey Knox and his good boy Blue have a delightful deal with PetSmart. This is definitely the cutest NIL sponsorship of all.

But NIL and food don’t only meet at the intersection of deliciousness and making money. A real joy of NIL has been witnessing how college athletes give back to their communities or others in need and use their newfound rights to do so. Connecticut hoops star Paige Bueckers has inked a deal with to fight food insecurity in Minneapolis. Likewise, a number of Georgia Tech football players have partnered with Jackets for Atlanthropy to support soup kitchens and pantries in Atlanta. Minnesota defensive back Steven Ortiz, Jr. works with Minneapolis restaurant The Kitchen to raise money for Puerto Rico to recover after the devastation of Hurricane Fiona earlier this year.

Puns, pizzas, and promotions might be the most visible elements of NIL, but charity has been another great aspect of this new age of college sports. NIL has been a win for everyone: Athletes get compensated for their work, brands can partner for increased exposure, charities can get more accomplished to help those in need, and fans and customers have new ways to connect with their favorite players. Oh, and those Luther Burden chips are really dang good.