Status rules: Top collegiate golfers leveraging NIL deals

Over a year since the NCAA's name, likeness and image policy was initiated, a growing number of players are starting to ink deals

On July 1, 2021, the NCAA made it legal for participating athletes to be compensated through NIL (name, image, likeness) agreements, leveraging their identity and notoriety to market product and services.

To say the announcement was a gamechanger is an understatement. The idea of college athletes being compensated has supporters and detractors, especially when it comes to the major revenue sports such as college football and basketball.

Those in favor contend that the decision was long overdue and finally gives athletes the opportunity to benefit from their athletic accomplishments. Dissenters believe NIL agreements give high-profile schools with brand recognition additional leverage in an already slanted competitive playing field. While the focus has been on the impact of NILs on football and basketball, other sports, including golf, are being impacted.

Two golfers who have recently signed NIL deals are highly-ranked amateurs Ben James and Caleb Surratt, both of whom recently signed with Transcend Capital Advisors and participated in this week’s U.S. Amateur Championship at Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus, New Jersey.

Caleb Surratt — 2022 U.S. Junior
Caleb Surratt, a freshman at the University of Tennessee, signed an NIL deal with Transcend Capital Advisors in July.

While Surratt failed to qualify for the championship’s match-play format that opened on Wednesday, James won his opening-round match 3 and 2. James, 19, a freshman at the University of Virginia, is the No. 1-ranked junior golfer in the country, according to the American Junior Golf Association rankings. Surratt, 18, is ranked No. 29 in the World Amateur Golf Rankings and is a freshman at the University of Tennessee.

For Transcend, a newly formed investment firm that is looking to raise its profile through golf, the signings of James and Surratt made perfect sense.

“As a firm, we haven't done much in the public eye,” says Mark Lichtenfeld, Transcend co-founder. “We haven't really marketed at all, and we haven't done any sponsorships. We finally felt like we're ready to kind of take our concept public, so to speak, and this fell into that theme of how we can get our name out there to a target audience that we like that makes sense for us as a firm and can also have some sort of impact attached to it.”

The connection between James, his family and Transcend began with a chance meeting. Ben James’ father Don met Transcend managing partner Brian Gorczynski at the 2018 U.S. Junior Amateur Championship at Baltusrol Country Club in Springfield, New Jersey. A relationship grounded in a mutual appreciation of golf formed and led Ben James to become Transcend’s first NIL signee.

“We looked at the business side of it and just decided that this was kind of a nice way to get the firm's name out there to an audience that is beneficial to our business, but also have some impact and help a young man,” Lichtenfeld says. “ [The James family] is not struggling or anything like that, but it's a big financial strain keeping Ben on the road to all these elite amateur things for the last 10 years.”

Surratt came to Transcend because of his relationship with James.

“Caleb and Ben were very close friends, and Don James asked us, ‘Hey, would you guys be interested in signing another one of these?’ Caleb has a website that's looking to raise money because his situation is a different than Ben's. We went to the site, and we saw that Caleb’s golf was putting a lot of strain on their family. We felt that we could do something to help.”

Surratt’s stellar amateur record, which includes a runner-up finish at this summer’s U.S. Junior Amateur and four wins in 2021, attracted the attention of a number of companies looking to connect with his present and future. He gradually came to appreciate the potential impact of NILs on him and his family.

“Initially my take was that this may be an opportunity to save funds for when I turn pro, and it could also help with travel expenses for the next few years,” he said. “Then as the market heated up a bit, I had to talk to those close to me and ensure I was making the right decision with the right companies, not just chasing every dollar out there and over committing myself. I wanted to make sure that even when the deals were done, I could simply put my head down, work and get better … that was my priority even over a dollar amount.”

Since securing his NIL agreement, Surratt has felt the lifting of certain burdens and the weight of others as a result of the agreement, but overall he is pleased with the outcome. “I find confidence in the fact that companies are attracted to my game, my personality and my story,’ he says. “Clearly, they're doing this to help their business, which can mean taking time for photo shoots, meeting with clients, events and such. But for me, I find it a very fair win-win tradeoff. The positives that come from the agreements are very valuable for my future and worth any extra time I invest now.

“It was very important to me, that we found the right partners, teams that I knew I could trust. I know deep down these companies have my success and my well-being in their sincere thoughts. I don't have any fear of being overused, over asked, or called for events that complicate my competitive schedule.”

While Transcend declined to reveal monetary details of the agreements with James and Surratt, they did confirm that the agreements are multi-year contracts that cover the duration of their college careers. The level of compensation will, in part, be determined using rules set by the USGA and R&A, the NCAA, the golfers’ respective universities and the states in which the universities are located. 

Other notable collegiate golfers to have signed NIL deals are Stanford University’s Rose Zhang (Adidas, Callaway, American Express, Beats by Dre), a two-time USGA champion and 2022 NCAA women’s champion; Zhang’s teammate Rachel Heck (Beats by Dre); and J.R. Smith (Lululemon), the 36-year-old two-time NBA champion who retired and walked on at North Carolina A&T State University last year.

To navigate the increasingly complex landscape, a crop of agencies specializing in NILs are emerging to help athletes and institutions. One example is The Brandr Group, a brand management, marketing and licensing agency that manages the group rights program for the respective NFL, NBA and MLB players associations in the college space.

Rachel Heck — 2022 U.S. Women's Amateur
Rachel Heck, of Stanford University, signed an NIL agreement with Beats by Dre.

The Brandr Group recently announced a groundbreaking deal with North Carolina Central University, an Historically Black College/University located in Durham, North Carolina. Under the new agreement, Brandr will manage and administer NCCU’s NIL program as well as develop licensing opportunities on behalf of the student-athletes. The collaboration aims to create new opportunities for NCCU student-athletes in all 15 sports who want to use their name, image and likeness together with the university’s official trademarks and logos. 

Another development that helped to pave the way for more NILs in golf was the modernization of the rules of amateur status, which were implemented jointly by golf’s two governing bodies for amateur competition worldwide, the R&A and the USGA, effective Jan. 1, 2022. A statement from the USGA issued in late 2021 stated that, “the new rules remove many of the restrictions that previously applied to amateur golfers, while ensuring that the integrity of the game is protected by limiting the form and value of the prizes and amateur golfer can accept.”

Significant among the new rules are that an amateur golfer can now accept cash and non-cash prizes in competition up to $1,000 in value, and all sponsorship, promotional, advertising and expense-related restrictions are eliminated. Lichtenfeld confirmed that while James and Surratt would be allowed to wear Transcend logos at the U.S. Amateur and other amateur events, NCAA rules do not permit the wearing of logos on individual athletes.

Complexities notwithstanding, both sides feel like they will benefit from the arrangement and from the association with top level golf.

“The majority of the firm is very passionate about golf, so I think there's a lot of common ground,” Lichtenfeld says. “And it's also like a personal thing here. It's got to be a relationship kind of situation where it's a nice situation for everybody. So, at this point, we're open to doing more of these types of things, and I don't see us expanding beyond the amateur golf. That's really where our commitment is.

“We're new to the NIL game like everybody is. Obviously, there's a marketing angle to it, but to us, it's more of a partnership. We like the kids, and we want to alleviate that stress on their families for their college years.”

Speaking with a wisdom that belies his youth, Surratt has advice for athletes and families that are considering NIL deals.

“Find the right partners,” he says, “make sure it's a fit. Don't just chase a few dollars, rather, make sure it's a brand or product that you believe in, with leadership that you trust.  Know that that beyond the business considerations, the company values you as a person and are cheering for your success above all.”