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UCLA women’s basketball navigates brand deals in the NIL space

Sophomore forward Christeen Iwuala pulls up to hit a layup against a defender. Iwuala earned her first brand deal with MVMI Sleep. (Daily Bruin file photo)

By Lauryn Olina Wang

Sept. 21, 2023 9:03 p.m.

UCLA women’s basketball ventured a world away from Westwood last month.

The team traversed over 15,000 miles total, heading to Senegal, then Germany and back to Los Angeles over the span of 11 days.

But before taking flight, sophomore forward Christeen Iwuala had a surprise in store for her teammates.

Iwuala presented her teammates with pillows from MVMI Sleep ahead of the international tour, debuting her brand deal with the company. Iwuala’s partnership with MVMI encapsulates the expanding horizons for college athletes since the Supreme Court ruled in a 9-0 decision that starting July 1, 2021, college athletes could profit from their name, image and likeness.

With the ability to profit from NIL, student-athletes can build sustainable platforms. They can advocate for products, services and issues they care about and strive toward financial independence – all topics particularly salient for promoting visibility and investment in women’s sports.

Redshirt junior forward Emily Bessoir, who elected to spend more time in her home country after the tour, said in an emailed statement that the impact of NIL is especially evident in companies’ initiatives centering diversity and gender equity.

“NIL obviously helps all collegiate athletes on a financial level,” Bessoir said in the statement. “And I’ve seen that many brands that want to diversify their ambassadors and empower women’s sports actively choose to work with female athletes, which in turn is good for us women in sports and representation!”

Many Division I programs partner with collectives or marketing agencies to provide NIL support for student-athletes in-house, and UCLA women’s basketball currently works with FreeWill Sports Group to provide such support. NIL-related resources are thus becoming increasingly relevant in recruiting strategies since the 2021 ruling.

Some athletes also sign with agents to aid in navigating the NIL space. Fifth-year guard Charisma Osborne recently signed with Klutch Sports Group, an organization that represents the likes of A’ja Wilson, Aliyah Boston and Lebron James, in April.

Iwuala said the UCLA women’s basketball program facilitates collaboration with third parties such as Playbook Marketing, a company that partners with select players to connect them to NIL deals and provide resources that demystify the NIL process.

“I personally don’t have that big of a fanbase as of yet, and I didn’t really know where to go and how to actually take advantage of my own persona,” Iwuala said. “Our program has taken that new avenue of taking advantage of your own self and teaching us how to do that through working with Playbook and finding different ways to capitalize.”

The founder and CEO of Playbook Marketing, Michael Ehrlich, said it is evident that UCLA women’s basketball values the development of student-athletes both on and off of the court, viewing NIL with the potential to equip its players with transferable skills down the line.

“I was blown away by how supportive they are, how they care for their student-athletes,” Ehrlich said. “Their philosophy is to learn those skills now so that when your career does transition, … you already have a built-in network, an incredible skill set, business connections and the business acumen to take your life in any direction.”

Ehrlich added that the goal of his company’s partnership with student-athletes like Iwuala transcends facilitating NIL deals. In what is often uncharted territory, many players benefit from guidance on valuation and negotiations.

(Brandon Morquecho/Assistant Photo editor)
Redshirt junior forward Emily Bessoir defends the opposing player. (Brandon Morquecho/Assistant Photo editor)

According to Iwuala, players can also find comfort in being surrounded by teammates with similar experiences or NIL-related endeavors. The NIL landscape has been rapidly evolving for the past two years, and keeping pace can be challenging.

Iwuala said she seeks mentorship from teammates, including Bessoir, with regards to interacting with companies and cultivating partnerships. She added that she is empowered to explore more opportunities and take initiative on the NIL front.

“I’ve been able to really look up to her and see what she does, … how she carries herself within that space,” Iwuala said. “It’s been really good to have the relationship with her to ask questions like, ‘So how do you navigate this? How do you talk to brands this way?’ She tells me that if you want to work with a brand, just reach out to them. There’s no harm in that.”

In an age in which student-athletes are becoming increasingly vocal about the pressures of competing in collegiate sports and advocating for increased mental health resources and support, NIL presents a unique opportunity to help college athletes cultivate other interests, passions and hobbies in a holistic way.

Bessoir said she has a commitment to authenticity within the NIL space and aspires to share multiple facets of her identity through her content creation.

“It was and still is a balance of showcasing myself as a collegiate athlete as well the person I am outside of the court,” Bessoir said in the emailed statement. “Of course, many people know me as ‘Emily the Basketball player,’ but I think the cool thing about social media is that I can decide what other parts of who I am. What I like to do and what I’m passionate about are shown.”

With a month and a half until the season tips off, the future appears promising, according to Bessoir.

“I definitely do want to keep growing my platform in an authentic and organic way, inspire others along the way,” Bessoir added. “I know this will be a big season for us both on and off the floor.”

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Lauryn Olina Wang | Sports senior staff
Wang is currently a Sports senior staff writer on the women’s basketball, men’s basketball, NIL and football beats. She was previously an assistant Sports editor on the women’s basketball, men’s soccer, men’s golf and track and field beats, reporter on the women’s basketball beat and contributor on the men’s and women’s golf beats. Wang is also a fourth-year history major and community engagement and social change minor.
Wang is currently a Sports senior staff writer on the women’s basketball, men’s basketball, NIL and football beats. She was previously an assistant Sports editor on the women’s basketball, men’s soccer, men’s golf and track and field beats, reporter on the women’s basketball beat and contributor on the men’s and women’s golf beats. Wang is also a fourth-year history major and community engagement and social change minor.
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