Jan 3, 2024 - Sports

A Virginia State football player is dominating the new college sports landscape

Richmond native Rayquan Smith has signed over 80 NIL deals, including with license plate designer Richmond Planet. Photo: Courtesy of Rayquan Smith

Virginia State running back Rayquan Smith's world probably wouldn't have flipped if a local Planet Fitness had responded to his job application two years ago.

The big picture: Smith, a Richmond native who won four state football titles with Highland Springs High School, is among the pioneers of the new college sports landscape, where athletes can earn money from name, image and likeness (NIL) deals.

  • Several national outlets have dubbed him the "King of NIL." He's landed more than 80 deals, with total earnings in the five figures since he started in 2021, he tells Axios.
  • And unlike superstar athletes from large schools who have brands lining up for them, Smith made it here through sheer persistence.

Context: In 2021, Smith was an undergraduate football player and track athlete at Norfolk State around the time the NCAA lifted its ban on college athletes' ability earn income from their personal brands.

  • He was looking for ways to make money. When Planet Fitness left him hanging, Smith decided to forego a traditional summer job for a piece of the NIL pie.

Details: Smith's partners have included big brands like Coach, CVS, Pedialyte and Crocs and local companies like license plate designer Richmond Planet. He was also the first HBCU athlete to partner with Eastbay and the first Black college player to endorse Badass masks, per The Athletic.

  • The deals mostly involve Smith promoting the companies to his massive social media following of over 100,000 on TikTok and 26,000 Instagram. In return, he gets money, free products or services from the brands, or both.

Why it matters: Smith's NIL success is particularly remarkable for an athlete at a HBCU. Sports at such schools don't typically bring in the huge TV audiences and star power of Power 5 conferences.

The likes of USC's Bronny James and LSU's Livvy Dunne have grabbed headlines with multimillion-dollar partnerships in recent years. But NIL deals are much less glamorous for athletes outside the biggest schools, with the average person earning less than $10,000 a year.

The intrigue: Stars like James and Dunne likely have hundreds of brands lined up itching to work with them.

  • Smith, on the other hand, got his start by pitching his services via email to over 100 potential clients, even sometimes for free. Only one company, Smart Cups, took up the offer. That deal quickly led to more opportunities, and Smith soon signed with an agent to help him manage his portfolio.

What's next: The dual-sport athlete now wants others to get in on NIL deals without working as hard to find them. Smith in November launched SponsorPro, a digital matchmaker that partners athletes with brands that are looking for a sponsorship.

The platform will be open for all athletes, but Smith hopes it will help level the playing field in helping HBCU students secure deals.

  • "I'm really trying to get them on board to understand they have a home here — and they can get NIL deals as well."

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