Neal Brown has brought in brand consultant Jeremy Darlow to educate his players amid progressing discussions regarding the name, image and likeness rights of NCAA student-athletes — but the Mountaineers’ new partner has a vision for players that goes beyond the gridiron.
A lifelong sports fan and “encyclopedia as an 8-year-old,” Darlow has been in the sports marketing industry for 15 years, spending most of that time with Adidas as the head of marketing for football, baseball, hockey, lacrosse, tennis and volleyball. In his words, everything that consumers saw in those categories “was under my jurisdiction” — whether it be television, print, social media or any other medium, he oversaw it.
Brown and Darlow first connected in 2017 over a similarity in philosophy. Darlow’s goal, he says, is not necessarily to help student-athletes make money during their college careers, but rather to set up a career after their playing days are over — which caught Brown’s attention.
“Neal was one of the first coaches to actually read my book [Athletes Are Brands Too],” Darlow recounted. “He was one of the first head coaches to adopt those principles so we connected once that book came out and he was nice enough to give me a blurb to put in the book and an endorsement to go along with it while he was at Troy.”
Within a few years from that point, Brown moved on to a power five football program, and amateurism in college sports would increasingly come under question. As changes seemed inevitable, Brown decided to strengthen the relationship with Darlow and forge a formal partnership for the benefit of his program.
The reported rule changes will allow student-athletes to profit off of endorsements and sponsorships — with certain rules, of course — which is a major step in the debate over the amateur status of college athletes. Despite the changes, however, Darlow believes the landscape of college sports won’t change that much.
“I think the kids that will get endorsement deals post-graduation are the same kids that are going to get endorsement deals — just a year or two earlier,” he said. “I don’t think the one percent population of individuals that will get those contracts is going to change much, if any at all.”
Especially given the newfound economic hardships striking the world, Darlow adds that companies likely won’t have as much in their budget to sponsor student-athletes.
“I think that’s a big, big lesson that these kids need to understand…just because you can benefit from your likeness, does not mean that you will,” he said. “That is a misconception that we need to change amongst this community.”
For that reason, Darlow’s focus takes a bit of a broader tone. Very often, he says, college students are at a disadvantage simply because they don’t know what they want to do.
“That’s step one….As soon as you figure that out, the next step is to then build some equity and showcase your skills in that area,” Darlow explained. “I tell everybody: I’ve never hired anybody based on how far they can throw a football. That just isn’t how it works.”
It may be an advantage professionally for some former student-athletes to use the leverage of their college career, but he says it’s more important to ensure security outside of that.
“We need to teach these kids [to] have another plan, whether you’re the one percent or not,” he said. “Have a plan outside of sports, outside of leveraging your likeness as an athlete, because you’re going to be more than that in less than four years.”
Darlow has worked with high-profile names like Snoop Dogg, Aaron Rodgers, Lionel Messi and much, much more, and he says it is possible to have that success. However, as he knows firsthand, most people don’t have the athletic skills of Messi or the star power of Snoop Dogg, so it’s important to plan.
“You can be the Messis of the world, you can,” he said. “There’s absolutely opportunity for that, but let’s have a parallel conversation and let’s have a backup plan because if it doesn’t work, I don’t want these kids to fail.”