Foreign college athletes chase endorsement money outside US

PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas (AP) — Marta Suarez stepped in front of the white backdrop, rotated the basketball to put the logo forward and propped it against her hip. She looked into the camera and smiled, her head tilting slightly to the right.

Flashes came in quick succession. Music streamed from a nearby Bluetooth speaker. Suarez lifted the ball onto her right shoulder and smiled again, and soon was spinning the ball on her finger from a squatted pose.

“Get the bruises,” she quipped, pointing to a knee exposed by her cutoff jeans.

Only a few hours had passed since the third-year forward from Spain had helped Tennessee win its Battle 4 Atlantis tournament opener. This part of the trip — in a foyer outside the Atlantis resort’s Grand Ballroom — was for herself, available only because the Lady Vols were in the Bahamas.

College athletes from foreign countries have been left out of the rush for endorsement deals because student visa rules largely prohibit off-campus work while in the U.S. But a growing number are using a loophole when they leave the country, doing the legwork needed — but not allowed on U.S. soil — to eventually profit from the use of their name, image and likeness (NIL).

At holiday tournaments in the Bahamas this fall, startup company Influxer worked with about three dozen international athletes to create photos, videos and introductory podcasts that could be used for potential deals.

Founder and chief executive Tyler Jaynes said the sessions are something Influxer wants “to repeat over and over.” There’s no guarantee they will lead to deals for international athletes, but it’s an avenue for them to find what might be out there.

“Having fun?” Jaynes asked Suarez during a pause in her shoot.

“Yeah,” she said, nodding back to the speaker. “The music.”

“Yes,” Jaynes said, “we’ve thought of everything.”

That’s the hope for international athletes hoping to cash in on their fame like their American teammates.

“I’m just glad right now we at least get a chance to do something, even if it’s just outside the U.S.,” said DePaul’s Brendan Favre, a graduate student guard from Switzerland. “It’s still nice to be able to do something.”

International athletes account for roughly 14,000 of the more than 113,000 athletes across Division I, according to NCAA data. The obstacle for them to make NIL money is federal immigration law, not NCAA rules.

The NCAA largely cleared the way in July 2021 for athletes to earn NIL money and deals worth millions have been struck across the country. But the majority of international athletes are on F-1 student visas prohibiting off-campus work except in rare exceptions such as internships or work-study programs. Violations could lead to the visa’s termination, and deportation.

Blake Lawrence, co-founder/CEO of athlete-marketing platform Opendorse, said it is unclear exactly how much international athletes are missing out. But with their presence in men’s and women’s basketball, two of the most marketable and compensated sports, he said it takes merely “deductive reasoning” to know there is an impact.

Now the market is evolving to address it.

“Administrators and coaches are trying to solve this problem, and it will be solved,” Lawrence said. “It will not be as convenient as driving down the street and signing autographs. But international student-athletes that are having an impact from their community will benefit from NIL. They just might have to take a flight or a longer drive.”

Influxer launched late last year to connect athletes with companies, with a goal of becoming a full-service NIL company with merchandising and consulting. It’s led by people familiar with college sports, including Jaynes, a former Baylor football player.

Jaynes said Influxer has spent months talking with school compliance staffers and immigration attorneys to ensure nothing jeopardizes athlete visas. They’ve also studied state NIL laws.

“We understand it’s a very sensitive subject with a lot of potential ramifications if not done the right way,” Jaynes said.

Influxer paid athletes the same, unspecified amount for their time at the Bahamas sessions, Jaynes said. After creating the marketing materials, Influxer can sell them to brands for use in a brokered endorsement deal. Athletes could then receive royalties as permissible “passive” income, meaning it came through signing a licensing agreement for existing materials as opposed to a work activity such as making a commercial.

Influxer’s first offshore shoot came in August when Kentucky big man Oscar Tshiebwe — last season’s Associated Press men’s college basketball player of the year, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo — visited the Bahamas for the Wildcats’ exhibition tour.

The company replicated that on a broader scale last month as teams arrived for the Battle 4 Atlantis men’s and women’s tournaments as well as games at the Baha Mar resort in Nassau. Players came and went between meals, shootarounds and games.

Suarez and Australian teammate Jessie Rennie arrived carrying their jerseys. Favre and Canadian teammate Nick Ongenda soon followed from Baha Mar, carrying their own DePaul jerseys. Influxer staffers briefly introduced themselves, then the athletes got to work.

Rennie sat down for a podcast focused on her background. Suarez headed to a director’s chair for a stylist to freshen her makeup and hair ahead of her photo shoot.

Ongenda and Favre were soon joking and mugging together at the photo set before breaking off for their own sessions.

“I love being in front of the camera on and off the court,” Ongenda said. “It’s a great experience. I’m glad they reached out and let us know about this opportunity.”

That includes collecting photos with an eye toward versatility. With Favre, for example, some included him holding his empty hand palm up — ready for an item to be added later via photo editing software to accommodate a specific branding deal.

“That’s great, you can put so many different things there,” Jaynes said, swiping through the shots on an iPad.

Rennie, sidelined this year with a knee injury, has been happy to see teammates get deals. Like Suarez, she couldn’t help but feel disappointed at being unable to do the same. Still, she didn’t commit to Influxer’s shoot until having enough conversations to feel it was OK.

“We do Tennessee photo shoots all the time,” Rennie said, “but it was nice to do something that was more about me and who I am and it’s going to be for my benefit, if that makes sense.”

Influxer returned three days later before the men’s Atlantis tournament, with Southern California’s Australian big man, Harrison Hornery, visiting as the day’s final appointment.

“It’s been frustrating at USC and being such a high-profile school, and all those NIL opportunities that everyone is getting,” Hornery said. “We have people come to practice and pitch us stuff all the time, and I’m just like, ‘Man, I can’t do it.’”

“I’m not saying I need X amount of dollars to make me happy,” he added. “Just being here and getting the opportunity to do a cool shoot and then do a podcast with those guys over there — and whatever happens, happens.”

Influxer ultimately worked with roughly 35 international athletes through the Thanksgiving holiday week, the final session coming in a Nassau studio.

Ask Jaynes about what’s next for Influxer, and he mentions events beyond basketball such as college golf tournaments in Mexico and elsewhere in the Bahamas. Director of business development Steve McLean even imagines a large-scale media day for international athletes, complete with corporate sponsorship.

“There’s going to be a lot of trial and error,” McLean said of future events, “and we’re open to all of it.”

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Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap

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This story has been corrected to show that there are roughly 14,000 international athletes in Division I, not more than 100,000.

Copyright © 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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