When the University of Kansas Jayhawks take to the court this month during March Madness, star freshman Gradey Dick will do so as an athlete officially endorsing Adidas.
Like many star athletes, Dick is benefitting from the Supreme Court’s Alston vs. NCAA decision that opened the door for college athletes to profit from their sports endeavors. Since that decision, large companies like Adidas, Nike and Gatorade have signed NIL (name image likeness) deals with top athletes to promote their brands.
But for every Gradey Dick getting paid by a multinational company, there are thousands more athletes – and businesses – that are not striking NIL deals.
San Diego-based startup Athletiverse is looking to change that paradigm with a tech solution that connects businesses of any size with athletes to promote their brands through social media channels.
Athletiverse CEO Dominyck Bullard is not your typical founder. He is currently a junior at University of San Diego where he transferred from a Las Vegas junior college to play baseball. His inspiration for Athletiverse came from observing the way small businesses typically support college athletes.
“During the games, I’d look around the field and see all the banners of sponsorships that we had,” he said, adding that despite the support from local businesses, athletes would still need jobs like driving for Doordash to get by.
“Scholarships are not enough,” he said “There are people out there who want to support athletes; we just need to somehow connect them all. So that was my first original thought.”
With that thought in mind, Bullard researched ways for athletes to make money from NIL and found that most NIL deals are done to facilitate using social media sites such as Instagram to promote brands and products.
Bullard then approached his father, who has experience as a chief technology officer, for help in figuring out if it was possible to streamline a process that would directly connect businesses to athletes without burdensome legal contracts and intermediaries.
“The problem with NIL is either you have agencies doing this that take away the rights of the athlete; or they are licensing platforms, making their money from universities. They’re not actually guaranteeing athletes help at all,” Bullard said.
Bullard said he was able to get a meeting with Facebook and Instagram parent company Meta to explore how to collaborate on technology that could “essentially allow somebody to post an ad directly onto an athlete’s social media account that can be done in minutes.”
After five months of negotiations, Athletiverse and Meta came to an agreement. “We ended up developing a marketplace which allows any brand, business or fan to sign up and post an ad directly to the athlete’s social media account,” Bullard said. “The athlete gets paid immediately and the business can then track all the likes, comments and shares.”
Athletiverse soft launched last month and is “just now getting businesses using the product,” Bullard said. Early adopters of the platform include the national seafood chain Pokeworks, and energy snack company ōku.
“The majority have been food and beverage. Our number one competitor is Groupon – these companies that put out promotional codes, trying to get customers through the door,” Bullard said, adding that “unlike Groupon, which takes up to 50% commission, Athletiverse is only 20% to 25%, depending on the athlete.”
The goal, Bullard said, is to take small businesses from using Facebook and Google ad campaigns which have low visibility and conversion rates of 1% to 2% and move them into Athletiverse’s “new atmosphere” where engagement rates are anywhere between 10% to 15%.
“They can engage with a new audience; and also have the credibility of the athlete directly supporting them,” he said.
For example, Bullard pointed to an upcoming ad for The Food Box that will be promoted by a USD football player who has a large following online.
“When a football player on his Instagram says, ‘you can get 50% off if you wear USD gear on Friday night,’ the place is going to fill up,” he said.
Athletiverse is currently working to fill up a list of businesses to use the platform in order to more equally match the over 2,000 athletes who signed up on its pre-register site, which include athletes from around the country, as well as local talent such as SDSU Aztecs basketball player Lamont Butler.
“The reason we’re slow-rolling everything is because if you have all these athletes on board and not enough businesses, it’s not going to help anyone,” Bullard said, adding that uneven athlete to business ratios are a common issue for NIL platforms. “Our goal is to onboard seven to 10 companies every week for the next 10 weeks, then we can get really moving.”
Athletiverse has already got moving in onboarding business expertise to grow the company. An early supporter of the company was Bill Eigner, a partner at Procopio, who Bullard was introduced to by his accounting professor. Eigner asked Bullard to meet him for lunch and pitch him the company and if he liked it, he would help Athletiverse with legal work.
“We went out to get sushi that day and things were never the same,” Bullard said, adding that Eigner was helpful in developing Athletiverse’s proof of concept showing demand in the market.
Late last year, Athletiverse added NIL expert Darren Dummit, founder of DD Advisory Partners, as an advisor to the company. Dummit – a former University of Texas basketball player – played a key role in negotiating a deal between Heisman winner Caleb Williams and Hawkins Way Capital – a $2 billion real estate private equity fund in Beverly Hills. The deal is considered one of the largest NIL deals in the industry’s history.
With Athletiverse, Dummit said he sees an opportunity to grow the NIL space beyond the big names in sports and business and bring opportunity to more than the “top 1%.”
“While most people’s attention is focused on the Dr. Pepper commercials and the rumored eight-figure collective deals for starting quarterbacks, Athletiverse is addressing this nascent NIL industry from a different lens – making it easy for local brands and national brands to dip their toe in these new marketing waters, and to do so with the other 99% of college athletes that are willing, available and valuable,” he said.
In addition to the expertise Dummit and Eigner are bringing to Athletiverse, the company is also gaining valuable expertise and experience in the San Diego Angels Conference, now in its quarterfinals stage.
The work Bullard is completing as part of the startup competition – which Athletiverse is now a quarterfinalist in – will ultimately be used to share with potential investors in a seed round of funding.
Bullard is hoping to raise money in the seed to expand Athletiverse to include more social media platforms like Twitter and other capabilities.
CEO: Dominyck Bullard
Headquarters: San Diego
Business: NIL social media marketing platform
Notable: Athletiverse has over 15,000 followers and had over a million views on social media within the last five months.