The decades-long conversation surrounding college athletes’ name, image and likeness rights is once again bubbling up in the makeshift March Madness bubble. On the eve of the $900 million-generating tournament this month, players in Indianapolis took to social media to declare they are #NotNCAAProperty, in the hopes of creating meaningful discussion with NCAA execs that will lead to changing the ways in which student-athletes can earn money during their playing careers.
No. 1 seed Michigan, which will play Florida State in the Sweet 16 on Sunday, found itself at the center of the conversation when injured star forward Isaiah Livers donned a black t-shirt with white text – declaring #NotNCAAProperty – along the sidelines of their opening tournament game.
The shirt was made by The Players Trunk, a company that includes Charles Matthews, a former Michigan standout who starred on the school’s 2018 Final Four and 2019 Sweet 16 rosters, as one of its founders. Matthews knows all too well that it isn’t until after a player’s eligibility has been exhausted that they can look to monetize their status as a collegiate athlete. Oftentimes, that’s through local appearances, autograph-signing sessions or even selling team-issued gear.
After he declared for the NBA draft in 2019 – no longer stricken by the NCAA’s strict rules – Matthews tried to unload some of his old Wolverines practice jerseys and shoes from his overflowing stash of gear. He enlisted the team’s equipment managers, Jason Lansing and Austin Pomerantz, to help him list the items for sale on his Instagram page.
He made some quick cash, but more often than not the people sending messages to Matthews were simply fans who wanted to chat with a player they admired.
“We weren’t getting the audience that we wanted,” Matthews said.
Fast-forward to the spring of 2020, just as the coronavirus pandemic struck.
Matthews was back home in Chicago rehabbing and recovering from a torn ACL he suffered during a Boston Celtics workout just two weeks before the 2019 draft. Another former Michigan player, Zavier Simpson, had also been trying to sell some of his sneakers online around this time, though he requested buyers pick up the items in person in his hometown of Lima, Ohio – a hurdle that halted sales.
The two former players would receive a call from Lansing, who had been discussing an idea with Pomerantz and his brother Hunter Pomerantz (a team equipment manager with the Syracuse basketball team for four years). After that call, Matthews and Simpson officially joined forces with the trio of equipment managers to launch The Players Trunk, an online consignment shop where former NCAA student-athletes can sell their gear to a wider and targeted audience of college sports fans.
“I called them and was like, ‘Let’s just go for it. The time’s right,’ ” recalled Lansing. “And we didn’t look back. We brainstormed the company name, bought the website URL, and looked up YouTube tutorials on how to build a website. And then we had our first draft of the website.”
Weeks later in July, The Players Trunk’s website was up and running, with “trunks” of 14 former college athletes offering jerseys, shirts, travel bags and sneakers for sale.
“Former players get boatloads of gear – guys and girls – and there’s a great market for it right now,” said Matthews, who listed 22 items himself. “There’s been great traction in the early phases and we’re taking it to new heights.”
Each of the five founding members helps with outreach, messaging male and female players after their eligibility has expired to gauge their interest in joining the marketplace. After fumbling through the clunky Instagram selling experience a year ago himself, which they found many athletes turning to, Matthews and the team wanted to prioritize a process that would be as simple as possible for the players.
“That’s what makes our company so unique,” said Matthews. “Everything is directly firsthand from the players. They ship us the stuff, and we put it on the website for them. There’s not any third party or other vendors. If it says ‘Charles Matthews’ Trunk’ – it was my personal shirt. It’s literally unique to me.”
The group takes a small fee through its consignment structure in exchange for receiving, photographing, listing, selling, shipping items and handling all customer service with buyers. Both sides will agree on a price for listing every item, and once an item sells, the player receives their money right away.
“This is about helping athletes monetize and get what they deserve. And they deserve the lion’s share of anything that they are selling,” said Lansing.
Sorting and organizing inventory quickly is precisely what the three equipment managers have been doing for the last four years. Stacks of folded clothes and sneakers extend into every corner of the living room and kitchen of Lansing’s apartment, which serves as the de facto Ann Arbor, Michigan, satellite office. More than a dozen five-tiered shelves house the bulk of the team’s inventory in their Long Island, New York, office, also known as the Pomerantz family garage.
Within a month of launching, they had 45 players’ trunks on the site. Less than a year later, they now boast items once belonging to more than 450 players from more than 100 schools, from sports including basketball, football, baseball, softball, volleyball, lacrosse and more. Items can be searched by a specific player’s trunk, or sorted by school.
Once former student-athletes started earning a few thousand dollars or more for each of their trunks, word of the sales circulated through teammates or friends who had played at other schools.
For all active NCAA players, they’re barred from monetizing one of the most lucrative four-year windows of their playing career. With only a fraction going pro in their respective sports, perhaps it is the most lucrative window.
“This platform is going to allow them to capitalize off of all of the hard work and success that they brought to a university,” said Matthews.
Matthews and his co-founders like to consider the “mid-level players,” who may have been a fan favorite at their college and can generate interest for their specific trunks. Of course, players who stayed three or four years in school are also more likely to amass more gear that they’re willing to part with than a one-and-done projected lottery pick.
“Obviously, everyone is not going to go on and be Zion, where they went to Duke, built this great fan base and now they’re making millions in the NBA,” said Matthews, who signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers’ G League franchise last fall after a full recovery. “That’s not the case for everybody.”
Increasingly in the last decade, college players have been provided with a huge amount of team-issued gear featuring unique colors, special foil treatments or even player-specific markings that fans simply can’t get access to or buy at retail. Game-worn jerseys are especially popular. Only a player’s exact game jersey will feature their last name on the back, while more cheaply screen printed replica jerseys feature a blank gap above a jersey number.
Almost every top-conference basketball program now also receives custom logoed footwear. In an average year, that includes lifestyle shoes, running and training sneakers, team-exclusive editions of a brand’s newest basketball shoes and customized versions of the current signature sneakers of almost all of its athletes.
Matthews fondly remembers the first exclusive pair he got, a Michigan-exclusive Air Jordan XIII Low.
“I sold ’em, obviously,” he said, laughing. “They were really nice though.”
Former Duke and Arizona basketball player Chase Jeter listed 14 pairs of player-exclusive sneakers, most for $200 and up, along with a huge allotment of both home and away Wildcats jerseys, travel clothes and practice jerseys from throughout his celebrated high school career – 107 items in total. He looked to prioritize his health and wellness with the newfound cash, spending part of his earnings from his own memorabilia sales last summer on a Kangen Water Machine, a high performance ionizing machine that retails at nearly $5,000.
Jeter is one of many players at “the top schools, the blue bloods,” as Matthews calls them, who have had items featured on the site.
“The top player right now is probably Cassius Winston from Michigan State,” he said. “His items, it was crazy how it was selling.”
The former Big Ten Player of the Year carried Michigan State to a Final Four run in the 2019 NCAA tournament, knocking off the decorated Duke squad that featured Zion Williamson along the way.
The Players Trunk website lists 79 items of Winston’s, most of which have already sold out, including everything from jerseys, shorts and shirts, to autographed pictures and even game-used bench towels and student-athlete family passes from the Final Four. A game-worn Winston jersey from the Spartans’ 2018-19 season was listed for $5,000.
But Matthews believes he has the craziest item himself.
From his own Final Four run, Matthews had listed the chair he sat in on the Michigan bench, which he then had autographed by the entire roster. Featuring the official March Madness “Final Four” logo along the back support and trademarked “The Road Ends Here” phrase on the seat cushion, he listed the chair for $20,000.
While he’s sold a jersey and shorts set for $750 and four other game-worn jerseys, along with a few player-exclusive sneakers given to the Jordan-sponsored Wolverines, Matthews is the first to say that there is a line to be drawn when it comes to memorabilia.
“When it comes to rings and plaques, I haven’t seen anybody put those up there yet. That’s the one thing that has been off-limits, for sure,” added Matthews. “The time that I see a ring up there, then I’ll be like, ‘You sure you want to do this?’ Other than that, do your thing.”
As the collective looks ahead, they’re seeing that the business opportunity in college athletics isn’t just limited to selling game-used uniforms and clothes.
Just after launching the site, The Players Trunk also began offering personalized video messages from athletes, some charging anywhere from $25-$100 for a quick custom video wishing a fan happy birthday or saying a school’s fight slogan. Matthews noticed an uptick in fan requests, leading to the insight to build a buffer that would shield a players’ personal email or phone number from the transfer of the video messages.
The strategic expansion also comes at a time when other celebrity video messaging platforms like Cameo have exponentially grown in popularity over the last year. Cameo had honed in mostly on musicians and actors early on, before aggressively looking to add athletes and social media influencers as well. Cameo earned an estimated $30 million in annual revenues last year, after taking a 25% cut of talent earnings.
“We will be much more than players’ trunks,” Matthews said.
Of course, the entire premise of The Players Trunk is providing a platform for student-athletes to earn money, but only after they’re done with their collegiate career. It’s fitting that the idea came from a group of Michigan Wolverines, as the school’s iconic Fab Five team of 30 years ago is often credited with fueling the booming college sportswear trend of the 1990s, as amateurs.
University of Michigan merchandise sales soared from $1.5 million to $10 million a year after the Fab Five’s freshman season. Of course, former Fab Five member Juwan Howard is now the Wolverines’ head coach.
Should the NCAA change its long-standing approach to amateur athletes’ ability to monetize their name, image and likeness, The Players Trunk is hoping to be right there for the sudden surge of opportunities that become available to current student-athletes.
Already, they’re experimenting with a growing merchandise business, launching the aforementioned #NotNCAAProperty tees to both drive conversation and also raise money for a student-athlete run nonprofit organization. Should the Name, Image and Likeness rules abruptly change, as several states push for athlete monetization rule overhauls by as soon as July 1, the website could also become a hub for active players’ branded merchandise and autographed items.
Simpson, now playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder’s G League franchise, has his own Captain Hook line of autographed prints available on the site, celebrating his college nickname after the 6-foot guard began shooting old school hook shots in games.
All along, Lansing says, the University of Michigan has given its blessing to the venture founded by the two former basketball standouts and group of equipment managers.
“They were supersupportive. The whole staff could not have been nicer about it,” said Lansing. “They were always asking me who were the new names we were adding to the site, how the business is going, and if I needed help. I couldn’t have asked for more support from truly my second family.”
Were it not for the pandemic halting the NCAA basketball season a year ago, perhaps the group wouldn’t have had the time to fully flesh out its idea, take the initiative to launch and become successful in less than a year.
Matthews and Simpson are the oldest of the team, both 24, and the equipment managers are each a couple years younger. With the group taking on this new venture together in its infancy, Matthews says they’ve tapped into their respective alumni networks and leaned on mentors to build an advisory board of entrepreneurs who have worked on startups before and can lend advice along the way.
“I’m excited for this and it’s definitely been fun getting introduced to this side of things,” said Matthews. “I was hoping that one day my basketball career would lead me to an opportunity like this anyways.”