Inside Geaux Time, LSU's All-In NIL Event
More than 500 business leaders joined LSU's head coaches and administrators for an unprecedented night of education, collaboration, and navigation through NIL's uncharted waters.
Shortly after signing the first five-star recruit of his tenure at LSU, Brian Kelly stepped onto a stage inside Tiger Stadium’s South Stadium Club and pulled a microphone close to his face.
National Signing Day was near its end, but Kelly’s recruiting pitch had just begun.
Behind LSU’s first-year head football coach rose a purple backdrop affixed with illuminated letters: NILSU. In front of him sat a crowd of hundreds of business leaders from across Louisiana, who had congregated for Geaux Time – an event as unique as its subject matter.
More than 500 people were gathered to hear Kelly and others discuss the effects of Name, Image, & Likeness on the landscape of college athletics. Kelly and the rest of LSU’s head coaches were gathered to do what coaches do best: teach and recruit.
We brought the business community together to empower, educate and get them in the game. It’s about understanding the NIL space and the start of more conversations. #TheRealDeal #NILSU @AltiusPartners pic.twitter.com/0U0O3rkz9y
— NILSU (@WeAreNILSU) February 4, 2022
“Tonight is about educating,” Kelly said. “LSU has embraced this, and has looked to the business leaders in this room – our community – to come here tonight, so we can talk about how you can assist LSU and its student-athletes when it comes to Name, Image and Likeness.”
In the past, football coaches have concluded signing days with press conferences or recruiting banquets, celebrating the class they’ve just compiled. And Kelly, who accepted the LSU job two weeks before December’s early signing period, has plenty to celebrate, finishing with the No. 6 overall class in the country while navigating the complications of a coaching transition.
The celebrations will have to wait. Kelly’s work has just begun, and he knows NIL is central to that work. “As the head football coach, as you know, it plays a major role today in the landscape of recruiting and retention,” he told the crowd. “You’re going to understand how you can help recruit and retain and be part of building – and obviously, seeing many, many young men and women graduate and play for championships here at LSU.
“What is this like? This is being a stakeholder, a stockholder, in what happens on a day-to-day basis with your home team.”
Kelly then handed the microphone to Casey Schwab of Altius Sports Partners, LSU’s NIL advisory partner, who offered the room a challenge: Stand up if you’ve engaged in an NIL deal with an LSU student-athlete. A fraction of the audience rose to its feet.
Schwab’s challenge continued: Stand up if you support LSU athletics. The entire room stood. “You guys can sit,” Schwab said. “I don’t think I need to spell out the purpose of what I just did.”
UNPRECEDENTED TIMES CALL for unprecedented measures, and in the history of college athletics, there has never been an event like Geaux Time. More than 500 local business owners, industry leaders, marketing executives, and those inclined to learn more about NIL – and, of course, each of LSU’s head coaches from all sports – assembled in a single room to plot a path forward in an ever-changing landscape. The event included opening remarks from Kelly and Schwab, closing remarks from Director of Athletics Scott Woodward, and a panel led by LSU’s NIL point person, Taylor Jacobs, featuring LSU baseball head coach Jay Johnson, Playfly Sports Properties President Christy Hedgpeth, former LSU student-athletes Justin Vincent of the Tiger Athletic Foundation and Brandon Landry of Walk-Ons, and Altius’ Celine Mangan. “What excites me most is rooms like this,” Mangan said. “This is not happening across the country.”
Like Kelly, Johnson has been fully engaged with NIL since his arrival in Baton Rouge this spring. His program’s approach to NIL helped the Tigers land the top recruiting class in the country for 2022. “Every top 100 recruit in the country asks me what NIL potential they have if they become a Tiger,” Johnson said.
For Johnson, what makes NIL unique in the collegiate baseball space is its ability to level the playing field. LSU isn’t just competing with other SEC and Power 5 programs for top players. It’s also competing against Major League franchises with millions of dollars to spend on signing bonuses. In the past, Johnson’s message has been to come to college “as a way for the player to create value for themselves by what they do on the field.”
Now, NIL allows players to have their cake and eat it, too. They can develop inside world-class facilities, utilize LSU’s elite resources, compete in front of packed crowds at Alex Box, receive a college education, and create future value – all while capitalizing on their current value.
“For them to have the opportunity to come to LSU, to improve their skills, and increase their value and chance of success in Major League Baseball, they can earn money while they’re doing that,” Johnson said. “And so it might take that player that’s in between – their family needs money immediately – to say, ‘Hey, you can get some of that back in return, while making the best decision for you for your long term future’ – which is to come, go to this great school, work, develop and prepare yourself better for professional baseball.”
NIL isn’t just bringing student-athletes to LSU. It’s also bringing coaches. Johnson knows his recruiting pitch around NIL is effective, because it worked on him. “This was also a reason I chose to come here,” Johnson said, “because I believe this is a unique place that our athletes can use their brand, create value, and they are celebrities within our community, which can be valuable to your business and valuable to them in terms of creating earnings for them.”
The proof is in the pudding. One of Johnson’s players, Jacob Berry, became the first collegiate baseball player with his own trading card earlier this fall. Others are engaged in deals with local brands and businesses, as well. But the competition is only ramping up across the collegiate landscape, from the rise of collectives to the institutional adoption of internal advisory groups, and it’s clear that the strategies that work now will not necessarily be the strategies that work six months from now.
“We’re now beginning to really get into bidding wars, of how you use this type of stuff for recruiting,” Johnson said. “And there’s a very fine line with that. But I’m excited about the potential here, just looking in the room tonight and seeing how much you care about our players. I think it’s awesome.
“The reality of how you can impact winning and the future success of LSU, you’ve never had a better chance to make a positive impact on the success of all our teams than you do right now.”
I'm excited about the potential here, just looking in the room tonight and seeing how much you care about our players. I think it's awesome. The reality of how you can impact winning and the future success of LSU, you've never had a better chance to make a positive impact on the success of all our teams than you do right now.Jay Johnson, LSU head baseball coach
BRANDON LANDRY IS STILL getting used to this new world. The former LSU student-athlete turned founder and CEO of Walk-On’s has always been careful to keep a distance from student-athletes, for fear of breaking rules regulating boosterism. “Our whole life in business, you couldn’t talk to them. You’re a booster. You definitely can’t buy them a meal,” Landry said.
Now, they’re essentially selling meals for him, with LSU quarterback Myles Brennan recently dancing his way across social media to promote the Walk-On’s brand. Landry said he’s been deliberate about making sure that, in the “wild, wild west” of this six-month old industry, the student-athletes he engages with in deals know two things: their value and their responsibilities, from tax implications to specific deliverables.
“It’s been the educational piece on both sides,” Landry said. “But I think working with LSU, and you guys being able to provide some of that information to the student-athletes and to us just to guide us down the right path, being a part of that has been great.”
What makes NIL deals special for Landry is that not only can he interact with student-athletes – he can also contribute to the success of his alma mater. It’s the rare win-win-win: for his business, for the student-athlete, and the place both call home.
Hedgpeth, a former basketball player at Stanford and COO of the WNBA, the power of NIL has been its ability to support student-athletes in both male and female sports. She noted that recent studies indicate up to 40% of NIL investments have been in female student-athletes, with women’s basketball ranking second across all collegiate sports. “That sort of democratization is pretty cool,” she said. “I’m just surprised how quickly everything has happened, and with so few guidelines.”
That’s why Landry understands the reservations held by others in the business community who have yet to engage in deals. Like them, Landry initially worried this might be a fad, that once the novelty wore off, deals wouldn’t be worth it for either party: I’m not getting involved with that. That’s not going to last.
“It may not,” Landry said. “But it’s here now. And we’ve got to even the playing field across the board. We can’t be behind. So I would encourage all businesses in Baton Rouge, we’ve got to get behind LSU right now. We’ve got to do some deals, because if we don’t, we’re gonna get left in the dust.”
"We've got to even the playing field across the board. We can't be behind. So I would encourage all businesses in Baton Rouge, we've got to get behind LSU right now. We've got to do some deals, because if we don't, we're gonna get left in the dust."Brandon Landry, former LSU basketball player & founder/CEO of Walk-Ons
ONE DAY LATER, Will Wade sat in front of a crowd inside Landry’s flagship Walk-On’s location – a stone’s throw away from the previous night’s gathering – and took questions from fans about his basketball team at his monthly “Unfiltered” luncheon. One asked about LSU’s foul trouble, another about turnovers, until the inevitable inquiry on everyone’s mind was finally asked: The NIL stuff – how’s that going to affect recruiting in the future?
“We have to go all-in on NIL at this point,” Wade said. “And we’re going to go all-in.”
Wade was in attendance at Geaux Time, ducking out only at the last minute to get over to his weekly radio show. But the time he spent there made an impact. “The energy in that room last night was good. We’re not going to be behind for long. I think in the next month, we’re going to be in an excellent, excellent, excellent spot with all that, for all of our sports.”
Geaux Time didn’t solve every problem for businesses or for LSU, which is prohibited by state law from facilitating deals for student-athletes – a restriction absent at other institutions. Both the university and the community must continue to navigate uncharted waters, but the goal of the event was to help them navigate those waters together. And for those in the room, Geaux Time was a bridge, one that never existed prior to the NIL era, because it wasn’t allowed to.
In the past, the distance between businesses and student-athletes was required – and the larger, the better. Now, that gap can and must be spanned – quickly, yes, but sustainably, also. Short-term approaches to NIL are a house of cards waiting to topple. If the bridge is going to weather the storms ahead and stand the test of time, it requires deliberate planning, sturdy foundations, and constant maintenance.
“I think the gap gets smaller the more events you have like this,” Landry said. “Letting everyone know in the room that there’s a deal to be done, and you can do it, and it helps our university. And we’re helping these kids. if they can get some deals and they can get some business experience, it gets them ready for their next chapter in life.”
Geaux Time was the first of its kind, but it won’t be the last. Before the evening concluded, Landry recalled Schwab’s challenge and offered one suggestion for the next iteration.
“Hopefully at the next meeting,” he said, scanning the crowd, “the whole room stands up.”