- The Washington Times
Wednesday, July 7, 2021

As Rob Connolly underwent a local surgery in January, the doctor tried to keep him loose, offering an open-ended question to take Connolly’s mind off the operation.

He asked me, ‘If you could meet any sports star, past or present, who would it be and what would you want to talk about?’” Connolly recalled.

The answer for Connolly came quickly. He would want to meet Lou Holtz, Connolly’s all-time favorite coach, and ask him about the 1988 matchup between No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 USC.

But Connolly didn’t stop there, and a thought popped into his mind: What if such a thing were possible? What if Connolly — and other sports fans like himself — could actually meet their favorite sports personalities and ask them questions?

With momentum building for college athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness, Connolly’s surgery-inspired idea took form over the next few months. And after the NCAA approved players to monetize their personal brand last week, Connolly’s idea is beginning to take life as Meetlete, an app that allows for fans to video chat one-on-one with their favorite athletes.

The app, which is still in beta, is one of many directions college players have turned in the first week of the NIL movement. But the unrolling of the app has come at an ideal time, with college athletes finally given a way to profit off their platform.

“We felt like it was the right thing to do, to let these college athletes monetize,” said Connolly, the co-founder of the San Diego-based Meetlete. “This NIL thing coming up, that would change everything for us. Just the perfect storm.”

The NCAA’s rules allowing groundbreaking name, image and likeness rights to their athletes went into effect July 1. And in the week that has followed, endorsements have followed swiftly.

Iowa basketball’s Jordan Bohannon got the NIL era off with a bang, partnering with a firework company and signing autographs at an event.

“I also held a baby today at the appearance,” Bohannon tweeted. “I was really nervous.”

A Florida gym owner offered all 90 scholarship football players at the University of Miami a $500 stipend if they advertise the gym on social media. Wright’s Barbecue in Arkansas has sponsored several of the Razorbacks’ offensive linemen. Mission BBQ, meanwhile, sponsored all 17 offensive linemen at Notre Dame.

Haley and Hanna Cavinder, twins on the Fresno State women’s basketball team with millions of followers on TikTok, signed deals with Boost Mobile and Six Star Nutrition. Hercy Miller, an incoming freshman basketball player at Tennessee State and the son of rapper Master P, earned a $2 million endorsement deal from technology company Web Apps America.

“I think you’re gonna see some student-athletes obviously have a higher market value than others,” said Damon Evans, the athletic director at the University of Maryland. “That’s gonna come into play. If you were to take a look at someone, like if Zion Williamson was in college right now, I’m sure his market value would be off the charts. But I think there’s going to be a lot of student-athletes who take full advantage of this because they understand how to utilize social media and how to build their brand.”

One of the ways players are finding their footing the in the world of NIL is through apps such as Cameo and Meetlete. The former is focused on personalized video messages for a fee. Meetlete targets fans who want one-on-one video calls with their favorite athletes, with 75% of the bill going to the athlete while Meetlete donates a portion to a charity of the athlete’s choice.

Connolly said his company has spoken with about 2,500 athletes already about the service, and they’ve partnered with several stars, including Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith, Ravens offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley and former MLB pitcher John Smoltz. Julius Ballo, an up-and-coming boxer, is joining the service, as well as Arizona State basketball forward Kimani Lawrence, San Diego State running back Greg Bell and Michigan gymnast Sierra Brooks.

“It’s them really getting to see the impact they have on peoples’ lives,” Connolly said. “They don’t have to sell any product, they don’t have to do anything they don’t want to support. It’s just being themselves and talking to people they make a huge impact on.”

That’s all part of the new landscape in college athletics, with players free to pursue a variety of deals — be it signing autographs or endorsing a national brand. And it’s only been the first week.

“We’re just really happy that college athletes have this opportunity to be able to do this,” Connolly said. “We feel like they should’ve been able to a long time ago.”

• Andy Kostka can be reached at akostka@washingtontimes.com.

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC.