Hunter Baddour (MBA, ’11) and James Clawson (ProMBA, ’13) did not start their marketing firm, Spyre Sports Group, to be a top dog in the recently opened and now burgeoning college name, image and likeness (NIL) market. Working together at another sports marketing agency, they realized they shared a common dream of owning their own business. So, they set out on their own, founding Spyre in 2020 and representing a variety of professional athletes.
Baddour credits Clawson with divining what a bonanza representing players in college NIL could offer, even before a Supreme Court ruling on July 1, 2021, allowed college student athletes to enter endorsement deals and legally profit off their NILs.
“He was tracking it and saw that, coming down the pike, it was going to be bigger than what anybody was expecting,” Baddour says.
Clawson said NIL was already in the news. “We saw it as, ‘We’re both from this area, we both went to UT, we’re in a college market, so this could be a potential new revenue stream.’ That’s why I was initially tracking it.”
The duo also saw UT’s devoted fanbase and alumni and Knoxville’s significant corporate brand presence with Pilot, Discovery and others, as reasons to think they had a winner, revenue-wise.
“If you look at our state, it’s dominated by UT athletics from Memphis to the Tri-Cities area,” Clawson says. “UT has a real chance to be a leader in this area, where, if you look at Florida or Texas or other states, they have several big schools competing for attention.”
As July drew closer, Baddour and Clawson also realized NIL could be a way for UT football (and other UT teams) to regain some of its former stature. If players knew that marketing companies associated with a given school were ready to pay handsomely for NIL rights, it could make it more attractive for players to come – or stay – there.
How NIL Works
To represent college athletes, companies like Spyre are setting up what are called collectives (Spyre’s is the Vol Club), which collect monthly membership fees from members on a sliding scale, with the higher rates gaining more access to the athletes they represent. These funds enable Spyre and their competitors to compensate athletes for their NIL use. The NCAA has guidance in place regulating how colleges, collectives and athletes interact, but the upshot is, players can now legally receive payments for endorsements.
For the Spyre team, however, it’s not just about money. It’s about giving back. They recently established a charity, Vol Legacy, which will partner with student athletes to offer free programming for children across the Volunteer State.
The Future Is Now
Clawson’s analysis proved correct, and Spyre quickly moved to represent several UT football players, including Hendon Hooker and Cedric Tillman. The team Spyre has assembled comes from an array of backgrounds, ranging from athletics to advertising agencies – but each one has strong ties to UT and Knoxville. Business is good enough that they’ve already had to move offices once to make room for their staff. They are currently located in Bearden.
Spyre will continue to represent professional athletes, but the revenue opportunities in college NIL aren’t going away. On October 26, the NCAA issued updated NIL guidance, restricting schools’ roles in representing their athletes when pursuing NIL deals.
“It creates a lot of clarity for schools and collectives and how they work together,” Clawson says. “It opens it up for us to be really involved.”
A Rising Team Lifts All Boats
“College athletics is a billion-dollar industry, and it’s the players that make it happen,” Baddour says. “Winning generates millions for the athletics department, and that can help the entire academic community. Ask any bar, restaurant or hotel owner downtown, and they will tell you they are seeing record sales. Sales are up across the state. Ask them how much UT winning helps their bottom line.”
It has also helped Spyre’s bottom line. NIL firms play their cards close to the vest regarding their how well they are doing, but local news station WBIR recently reported that Spyre generated more than $4.5 million in NIL revenue for UT athletes. Baddour and Clawson credit UT’s players for Spyre’s success. They credit a host of others at UT as well.
“Having a great coach makes our job easier, having good players helps, having great leadership from the top down with President Randy Boyd, Chancellor Donde Plowman and Athletic Director Danny White helps,” Baddour says. “Having everybody on the same page is making all this happen. That’s not the case at other schools.”
Affirming the positive relationship between the college and the company, in early November AD White released a video in which he encouraged Vols fans to support Spyre and other Vol NIL firms.
Business School Spirit
Clawson and Baddour also credit the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business for giving them the tools to succeed in business. Among other things, Baddour says the college taught him the importance of teamwork, while Clawson credits Haslam’s Professional MBA program with teaching him several skills, such as building a startup, evaluating competitors and assessing industries.
“We are still taking what we learned and applying it to this day,” he says. “It taught me to think critically, not only from a thousand-foot view, but also on the ground level. It’s so practical, and we weren’t just learning from a textbook. We were doing something that I’ve used in my work.”
In addition to providing the Spyre duo with foundational business skills, Haslam now offers the course “Introduction to NIL,” led by Lynn Youngs, senior lecturer and executive director of The Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. It is part of Haslam’s entrepreneurship minor offered by the Department of Management and Entrepreneurship.
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Scott McNutt, business writer/publicist, firstname.lastname@example.org