MISSOULA — Montana wide receiver Sammy Akem has over 2,500 followers on Instagram and over 2,000 on Twitter, the latter being more than double of any senior on the roster.

Akem, one of the Big Sky’s top receivers and a preseason All-American, used the connections he’s built over the years to help him garner name, image and likeness (NIL) deals. He either reached out to people he knew or had them reach out to him.

Akem, who’s planning to get his master’s in business administration or public administration and policy, is the player other Griz point to as the biggest recipient of NIL opportunities. Players were allowed to start pursuing compensation without fear of losing their NCAA eligibility on July 1.

Akem was the first UM athlete to have an NIL deal. He shared a social media post on July 2 for Gopuff, a delivery company for snacks, among other things, primarily used by college students. For promoting the company, he was compensated with credits for the Gopuff app, he said.

Akem promoted Mamba Watches on social media with a note that using the code “Akem18” will get a person 10% off their next purchase. He receives commissions when people use that code when buying from the company, which sells watches made from sustainable materials.

Akem also shared an Instagram post promoting TIDL Sport, a company that sells plant-powered cryotherapy topical spray and performance cream. The company was launched by former UFC champ Conor McGregor and describes its line of products as sports recovery.

“I think a lot of people knew that it was a long time coming that players were going to be able to profit off their name, image and likeness,” Akem said. “More than anything, I just think it’s cool that we have those abilities and if things come up, we’re able to do that, we’re able to profit off that, we’re able to profit off our own name, image and likeness. I think that’s a great opportunity for us.”

Sophomore offensive lineman AJ Forbes is taking advantage of NIL through a different route: selling merchandise. He felt he’s long had an entrepreneurial spirit, which he believes he inherited from his father, and he wanted to test that out after graduating with a major in psychology and master’s in business administration.

When NIL opportunities were suddenly allowed, he dove in by selling t-shirts, hats, water bottles, fanny packs and baseball jerseys at ajforbesbrand.com on July 25. Those items have a logo using the letters “A” and “J” — designed by a friend who’s in graphic design, he said — and sometimes include his UM jersey number, 57.

“I just figured I have a platform, and eventually I want to be able to help other people with this whole NIL situation,” he said. “Right now, it’s just kind of a way to make some extra money. I’ve had some pretty good success with that, and I appreciate everybody who’s participated in buying that stuff. I look forward to doing some more of that stuff in the future.”

Forbes is also an ambassador for Celsius Energy Drink, according to his Twitter page. Senior offensive lineman Colton Keintz has similar deal as a REPP Sports Ambassador, promoting Raze Energy drinks on Instagram.

Junior wide receiver Gabe Sulser, senior linebacker Jace Lewis and Akem are some of the players on the team who have “UPTOP Athlete” listed in their bio. UPTOP is a Butte-based clothing company co-founded by former UM football player Colt Anderson.

The company reached out to Sulser and sent him some free gear, like T-shirts, over the summer. All he had to do was give them a shoutout on social media.

“UPTOP’s an awesome Montana company, so I wouldn’t want to represent something I didn’t love,” he said. “They’ve always been super good to me and a lot of guys on the team I know.”

Senior quarterback Cam Humphrey, senior right guard Moses Mallory and senior long snapper Matthew O’Donoghue are among the players who are a “Barstool Athlete,” according to their social media bios. They don’t get anything other than a shoutout on social media after filling out a simple online survey form with their name, college and sport, O’Donoghue noted.

“I think everyone I’ve talked to filled one out,” he said. “I think only one person from Montana who filled it out has been recognized so far.”

Impact of NIL

None of the UM athletes who shared their NIL experiences are making huge sums of money.

But any amount can help, and that’s one reason why Big Sky coaches are supportive of their own players signing deals because they’ve been through a similar grind themselves.

Idaho coach Paul Petrino said having extra money when he was a football player at Carroll College would’ve helped him in a few ways.

“For one, eat dinner,” he said. “It’d help with day-to-day money to pay rent. We all worked all summer long for that. At the bigger levels, they’re probably making more money, but here, it just probably helps guys make money to help their families.”

Cal Poly coach Beau Baldwin, who led Eastern Washington to the 2010 FCS championship, shared a similar experience.

“College athletes are still living day-to-day, check-to-check, grinding in the summer waiting for fall camp to start so they can get their meals again,” he said. “I was eating Top Ramen and grinding it out. With these student-athletes now, we’re allowing them to get more, and that’s awesome, because it allows them to put food in their cupboards.”

Portland State coach Bruce Barnum would’ve used money to buy hunting and fishing supplies when he was in college. To get money, he washed dishes at a Chinese restaurant, he said.

Barnum wants his players to be able to earn money, but he learned that NIL isn’t is pay for play.

“My first thought was: can I go out now and say, ‘Defensive players, every turnover is $500 for everybody on the field. Anybody on the field for a touchdown, it’s $100.’ But I found out it’s not for performance,” he said. “My Barney Ball LLC private camp, I can sponsor players, so that’s cool. But now we got to get the money to be able to do that.”

Education surrounding NIL isn’t only for coaches. It’s for players, too. Idaho State coach Rob Phenicie highlighted that.

“Extra money would’ve help paying rent and getting food, but I’d probably have bought a car. I’m not as frugal as some,” Phenicie said with a laugh. “These kids today would probably buy Xboxs and TVs. They need some education if they’re going to have four-, five-figure deals. When you get money like that as a kid, you think it’s going to be there forever. Then in 10 years you’re like, ‘Where’d it all go?’”

Those bigger deals have come at the FBS level. Alabama’s quarterback had signed NIL deals totaling over $800,000 before the end of July and before ever playing a snap. A Miami booster offered every player on the Hurricanes NIL deals up to $6,000 a year for various promotions.

Barnum believes NIL deals will only magnify the gulf between the FBS and the FCS.

“The rich are going to get richer,” he said. “I think it’s going to cause more separation in college football.”

The differences in amount and size of NIL deals could possibly be impactful within the Big Sky and sway athletes from one league school to another, Phenicie believes. While NIL deals can’t be used as recruiting inducements, trends will likely emerge.

“There’s some other places that benefit more, which would hurt us in recruiting,” he said. “There’s a fan base up in Missoula and up in Bozeman, some places where businesses might be more apt to throw some money out there for kids.”

Montana State coach Brent Vigen does believe the passion for Cats football is a benefit.

“As supported as we are in Bozeman and across Montana, there should be opportunities for our guys and I’m supportive,” Vigen said. “It’s a win-win. They’re not just handing money out, they’re getting exposure on social media, ads. Both sides are winning.”

Montana coach Bobby Hauck cautioned to not assume there’s just NIL money available. He isn’t too concerned about NIL altering the landscape anyway. He feels there’s something that’ll have a bigger impact.

“In terms of new legislation, I think the one-time transfer thing is a huge deal,” he said. “It allows people to take an easy route and not tough things out, which is in short supply already in our society.”

Going forward

The NCAA began allowing NIL deals on July 1 without any sort of nationwide framework.

The Big Sky tried to help its member schools by signing a conference-wide agreement with INFLCR (pronounced “influencer”), a third-party contractor to help with NIL. The deal came about three weeks after the NCAA began allowing athletes to profit off their own NIL.

INFLCR provides a mobile app that athletes can use to submit disclosure forms about their NIL deals that then get sent to their school’s compliance department. The app also houses athletes’ photos and videos that they can use in their NIL deals.

Big Sky Commissioner Tom Wistrcill liked INFLCR because they’ve been promoting athletes and their images for years.

“It’s kind of like we’re starting on second base is the way I kind of look at this rather than trying to piecemeal this together,” he said, noting they’re “just scratching the surface on it.”

Each Big Sky school is coming up with its own institutional policy if its state doesn’t have a law in effect. Montana senior woman administrator Jean Gee wrote UM’s five-page policy because the state of Montana’s law doesn’t go in effect until 2023.

The variation in policy or law in terms of permissible activities is a concern for Wistrcill, who’s hoping for a federal solution.

“What Montana’s doing and what Sacramento State’s doing and what Weber State’s doing could be three different things based upon their own state laws, which can cause some problems, but within the state is where there could be bigger issues,” he said, which is the case in Montana, where UM and MSU will have their own NIL policies.

Gee said she’s heard of six NIL deals signed by Griz athletes. It sounds small, but 16 star players at the Big Sky Football Kickoff — two each from MSU, Southern Utah, Northern Colorado, Eastern Washington, Weber State, Sacramento State, Idaho and Portland State — all said they hadn’t signed any NIL deals about a month after the NCAA made it possible.

UM was the first school in the Big Sky in a state that didn’t have a law in effect to release a policy. That could be one reason why UM athletes got deals sooner than others in the league.

It appears there are more than six NIL deals for Griz athletes, counting just football players alone. That means some players might not be disclosing their deals to the athletic department, which Gee has heard from other colleagues around the country. There’s no rule in NCAA bylaw that they have to disclose deals, she said, because NIL is left up to the states and schools.

“Our policy is they’re supposed to disclose to us,” she said. “If they’re not, they’re running the risk of doing something that’ll jeopardize their eligibility. If they’re not disclosing something that’s otherwise permissible, there’s no ramifications for not disclosing.”

One NIL deal that Gee said UM has denied is with Barstool Sports because of its association with gambling and a sports wagering app. UM is permitting athletes to do an initial posting with Barstool in which their photo is posted on a Barstool social media page, but they’re not allowed the NIL activity of receiving compensation through money or product from Barstool.

Whether that changes, it’s one of the myriad of questions going forward because things are still so new and fluid. UM is working on an educational program for its athletes over the next year; they can take business courses in the meantime if they wish.

“I think that as students get back to campus, and businesses start understanding the NIL parameters better, the activities will likely increase,” Gee offered.

For Akem, he’s put NIL deals on the backburner once preseason camp began earlier this month. He’s turned his focus to the season, and strong play from him and the team this fall may help them garner more deals in the future.

“If things come about, I’ll obviously look into them,” Akem said. “I was kind of doing all that because it was summer and I had time. Now I really want to focus on the season and keep my head down and be grinding with my brothers. It’s really important that we stay focused.

“It’s a big season for us. Everyone knows that. We’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time. We know what we had on our team for a long time. It’s time for us to get out there and show out.”

Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at frank.gogola@missoulian.com.

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