CLEVELAND — March Madness got off to a bracket-busting start this week, giving fans and casual observers some must-see TV for the next few weeks.
In many respects, the real winners are the student-athletes themselves, who are among the first class of student-athletes permitted to capitalize on their marketability. Thanks to a unique educational program at Case Western Reserve University, some of its student-athletes now have the skills they need to pitch themselves to local companies.
Through a partnership between the university and Cleveland Central Kitchen, a food business incubator and accelerator, interested student-athletes were paired with local food entrepreneurs and tasked with creating a 60 second "pitch" for the business. The educational program was designed to provide training for the student-athletes. In order to stay within NCAA compliance, no sponsorships took place.
Implemented in July 2021, student-athletes are permitted to sign NIL deals (name, image, likeness), allowing them to capitalize on their marketability. NIL deals are direct contracts between student-athletes and companies and must comply with NCAA regulations.
“Our student athletes are exploring how to use their name-image-likeness rights, so potentially getting sponsorship at some point as student-athletes,” said Michael Goldberg, a professor of entrepreneurship at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management. “It doesn’t matter if you are an Ohio State football player or you’re baseball player or women’s soccer player from Case, these student athletes have rights to use their name, image and likeness to get sponsorships.”
As part of the sponsorship training, graduate student Tre Armstrong and sophomore Zack Carinci, both baseball players at Case, were paired with Angelo Tetorakis, the owner of Gormet Firehouse Salsa, and Sonya Patel, the owner of Pur Spices.
“I definitely believe in giving back. It has been great being able to connect with the student athletes too,” Patel said. “To me, food is such a big connector, right? It brings back memories. It connects with you family. It connects you to friends. If someone says that I remind them of their mom’s cooking or their home cooking or their childhood or anything along those lines, I did what I wanted to do then.”
Tetorakis, a retired Avon Lake firefighter, developed his unique salsa through years of cooking meals at the firehouse. He lauded Armstrong’s work on the pitch and described it as an awesome experience.
“The last five or six years of my career down there, I was making mango salsa for the guys almost weekly. After I retired, I thought, ‘well, it was so well-liked, I might as well try to start a businesss,'” Tetorakis said. “It’s awesome to see how the students athletes get involved in the community.”
Armstrong, a pre-med student, graduated last May. Carinci, a sophomore, is an engineering major. Both student-athletes said the experience provided them with skills and experience that will continue to benefit them well after their playing days are over.
“I think what stood out to me the most was really connecting with an actual entrepreneur and really understanding [Patel’s] side of how she got here,” Carinci said. “I really took some inspiration of how I could develop myself into being the best person I can be.”
Armstrong was one of the first Case Western student-athletes to sign an NIL deal last year. Coming from a tech and social media-savvy generation, he said the ability to use his skills and know-how will pay dividends and he sets out on his career path.
“As athletes, being able to have a platform — and utilizing it — is really important. It doesn’t matter what level you play at,” Armstrong said. “I’ve enjoyed it and I think it’s been really beneficial. I think everyone is given a platform, especially with how social media is nowadays. If you are able to utilize your skills, utilize your personal attributes and make yourself someone that is marketable, I think it’s really beneficial.”