New Era of Deals for College Players Means Business Considerations, Like Taxes

NEW ORLEANS — Trevor Keels’s timing was impeccable. The Duke freshman scored 25 points in his first college game, a nationally televised triumph over Kentucky at the self-proclaimed mecca of college basketball, Madison Square Garden. He could not have picked a bigger stage — or a better time — to announce himself to the college basketball world.

Since college athletes are now permitted to profit from their fame, offers came rolling in from businesses who wanted Keels to pitch their products.

He eventually settled on four deals, touting on social media a tire company, a car dealership, a steakhouse and a manufacturer of athletic recovery devices.

Those arrangements mean that Keels, 18, will be paying taxes for the first time in his life. But if you think the Clinton, Md., native is as occupied with 1099s, W-9s, withholdings and deductions as the April 18 filing deadline approaches as he has been with the N.C.A.A. tournament, think again.

Since Keels did not accept any money on his name, image and likeness deals until Jan. 1, he won’t have to pay taxes on it for another 12 months.

“I have a degree in accounting,” said Roland Keels, Trevor’s father, who works as a budget analyst for the federal government. “So it just hit me: Tax season is the start of the calendar year. If you’re doing business in the N.I.L. space, the same things apply. Why would you do a deal at the end of the calendar year?”

Change often comes slowly (and reluctantly) in college sports, so the loosening of rules around profiting on a college athlete’s fame has been as shockingly swift as it has been far-reaching. When laws in several states went into effect last July, a practice that had been verboten — getting paid for being a college athlete — became, in an instant, almost unfettered.

The N.C.A.A. is investigating deals with Miami and Brigham Young University football players to determine whether they should be classed as pay-to-play schemes, but endorsement arrangements in basketball seem to be more often tailored to individuals than to entire teams or large position groups.

This upheaval has meant an on-the-fly education for players, who have suddenly been tasked with sorting through offers, considering whether to hire an agent, learning about contract language, and arranging photo shoots or autograph sessions around their class and basketball schedules. In another week, many of them will have to file taxes for the first time.

In some ways, they are having a professional experience.

“It’s been a learning experience,” said Mitch Lightfoot, a sixth-year player at Kansas, who despite his reserve role has managed to land endorsement deals with a water bottle company and a fast-food outlet in Lawrence, Kan. “And it’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s going to look so much different at this time next year.”

Players at the men’s and women’s Final Four, already in programs that garner a lot of attention, have gained an even bigger platform during the end of the tournaments.

Women’s players may stand to attract even more lucrative opportunities.

As a gender equity report that examined the men’s and women’s tournaments noted, Paige Bueckers, the Connecticut star, had more Instagram followers last year than the combined starting lineups of the men’s Final Four teams. She became the first college athlete to sign an endorsement deal with Gatorade.

Aliyah Boston, the South Carolina star who succeeded Bueckers as the Naismith Player of the Year, formed a limited liability company more than a year ago, in anticipation of being able to earn money off her stature as a basketball player. She has also hired a marketing agent.

Boston has two significant deals, with a salon and a restaurant chain, but expects others next year. “I'll speak it into existence,” said her mother, Cleone.

Cleone Boston said she and her husband, Al, had long preached to their daughters the importance of being wise with money. When Aliyah Boston and her older sister, Alexis, were in elementary school, their mother stopped the car and turned around to talk to them when she saw a nice car, an Infiniti, parked in a space that was marked ‘tenants only’ in front of an apartment building.

“I said, ‘Do you see that sign? Read it,’” Cleone said. “Why would you buy such an expensive car if you’re paying somebody rent for a place to live?”

Cleone continued: “She has a structure in place. I never have to worry about her making $1 and spending $1.50. We see it all the time with big-time players, N.B.A. players or others in that environment where you make a lot of money, and they blow through it. I always tell my kids, it’s not how much you make, it’s how much you keep.”

Villanova Coach Jay Wright said he had been pleased with how his players had handled these new opportunities. Collin Gillespie turned down one proposal because it would have required him to go to New York for a photo shoot, so he suggested his teammate and roommate, Jermaine Samuels, instead.

Wright, who made $6.1 million last year, said it was easier to morally justify salaries like his now that players were able to recoup some of the money they helped generate.

“It’s definitely something that has weighed on me,” Wright said, adding that he thinks some players could stay in college longer and be better prepared for the N.B.A. That “they’re making money, and they’re not struggling, and they’re sharing in all this is really heartwarming.”

Still, players are mostly on their own. Universities can provide guidance as to whether deals fit within N.C.A.A. rules, and prominent basketball schools have had experts speak to players about navigating this developing world.

For example, how does a player determine his or her worth? Are athletes likely to be offered less money if companies know their families are poor? And how do players prevent becoming a cautionary tale like in the music business, in which emerging artists signed away rights that would later become hugely lucrative?

“It’s still a business,” said Roland Keels, whose son is an N.B.A. prospect. “If Domino’s says, ‘Post this five times over a 60-day term for $5,000,’ you want nonexclusive deals. If it’s an exclusive deal, what happens after 60 days if Pizza Hut comes in and says ‘We’ll give you $15,000?’”

He added: “Now, I do believe some deals it’s not as much about the money. Some of this you’ve got to play the long game as well.”

Keels said he reviewed scripts his son had to read, and he hired a lawyer to review his contracts. He has discouraged his son from entering into agreements for non-fungible tokens, or N.F.T.s, an emerging technology, because the market has not been as firmly established. “To me, that’s a lane I sit back and watch,” he said.

Trevor Keels said he’s happy to “get a little money in my pocket,” and grateful to have parents who have sifted through opportunities so he can focus on basketball.

Ochai Agbaji, a standout guard at Kansas whose popularity among a rabid fan base is only enhanced by the fact that he grew up in nearby Kansas City, Mo., said it was important to consider how products aligned with the way players would like to brand themselves. But he added that it was important to worry about basketball first.

As to whether he had filed his taxes?

“Not yet,” he said with a smile.

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