MO State HS Sports

Mizzou Athletics, School of Journalism Partner on Innovative Branding Program

Euphenie Andre Mizzou Tigers at SEC Indoor Championships in College Station, TX. on Saturday, February 26, 2022. (Photo by Jeff Curry)

COLUMBIA, Mo. — When Euphenie Andre and Abigail Klapatauskas first met earlier this fall, a partnership born out of a campus experiment quickly blossomed into something much more.

Andre, an All-American Mizzou track and field student-athlete, and Klapatauskas, an honors student in the School of Journalism, were paired together as part of Mizzou Athletics’ new collaboration with the J School that after one semester can only be described as a win-win for both sides. Students studying strategic communication, some through professor Jon Stemmle’s public relations course, and others through Mizzou’s PRSSA Chapter (Public Relations Student Society of America) were matched with student-athletes who volunteered for the partnership to explore and expand their brand potential in the name, image and likeness marketplace. Under the watch of  Brandon Lee, Mizzou’s assistant athletics director for NIL, Athletics has also partnered with the School of Law and MU’s Office for Financial Success to offer resources for student-athletes related to their NIL experience, creating a mutually beneficial campus synergy that reflects Mizzou’s innovative embrace of NIL.

Eighteen Mizzou student-athletes and 37 J-School students took part in the pilot program this past semester.

“I think this is such a marvelous experience involving the J School with the athletes,” said Andre, a senior triple jump and long jump specialist also studying journalism at Mizzou. “We have one of the best journalism schools in the country, and this just makes sense to do. I’m so glad I was able to be an experiment guinea pig for it. Because it was really truly amazing.”

Here’s how the process worked: Once paired together, the J-School student(s) conducted an interview with the student-athlete to learn more about their interests, their passions and their personalities. From there, they audited the student-athletes’ social media platforms. How much content are they producing? What kind of content appears on their platforms? How frequently are they posting? How many followers do they have?

Next, they presented the student-athletes with a social media plan in the form of a playbook, packed with guidance on the content they should post and the best times to post their content — all to build their audience and further engage more followers. Then they developed a business pitch with a list of potential companies they should contact for NIL partnerships.

After Andre and Klapatauskas first met, they focused on repositioning Andre’s Instagram account “so that it speaks more directly to her audience of women that she really wants to empower,” Klapatauskas said.

Based off that initial interview, Klapatauskas designed a mood board to reflect Andre’s persona and her ambitions with this project.

“Within 10 minutes of taking notes during our interview, I’m pretty sure I wrote down the word ‘confidence’ like 17 times — and I had it underlined,” Klapatauskas said. “Her bold, unapologetic self was just so striking to me.”

“Going into this, I wanted to know how I could step up my engagement because (track and field) is an Olympic sport,” Andre said. “We don’t get as much coverage as the big power sports, like basketball and football. So I wanted to try to connect with Tiger fans as much as possible but also expand my brand as a track athlete here. I expressed that with Abigail, and she did such a phenomenal job of putting my visuals into real life. … Off one discussion that we had, she took everything that I’m interested in and made a beautiful mood board.”

As for Andre’s social media, Klapatauskas wanted her to focus on producing more targeted Instagram reels, based on her analysis of Andre’s followers and research of Instagram’s algorithms. Andre followed through with new reels while competing at last month’s Pan-American Games in Chile — and her Instagram analytics soon reflected her strategic choices. From the start of the project to late November, Andre’s Instagram followers increased by 90, her number of accounts engaged increased by 200% and the number of accounts she reached increased by 69%. Also, the gender breakdown of women reached by her content increased from 30% to 40%. As a result of the enhanced engagement, Andre landed an NIL contract with a hair care product.

“She’s a super valuable asset for all of these brands,” Klapatauskas said, “and even though she’s not as visible as some of the other athletes, the lack of visibility can give her more leverage because there’s more potential there.”

This coming semester, Mizzou student-athletes with NIL deals will also have the opportunity to have their contracts reviewed by third-year students in the Mizzou law school. MU professor Don Seitz heads the law school’s entrepreneurship legal clinic that offers contract reviews for new business owners free of charge — and the same service will be available for student-athletes and non-athletes on all four UM System campuses.

“In addition to reviewing their NIL contracts and helping the student-athlete navigate the complexities of the legal terms and conditions — convert the contract language from ‘lawyer words’ to more common explanations in layman’s terms — we can assist them in protecting their brand through Trademark filings as well and personal liability protection using certain corporate entities,” Seitz said.

Seitz believes the partnership between the legal clinic and Mizzou Athletics has the potential to evolve as NIL opportunities continue to grow.

“These student-athletes are entrepreneurs in their own right,” he said. “They have a product (NIL) that will be marketed and monetized. No different than any other business, as the growth cycle continues, entrepreneurs are faced with many legal challenges that the clinic can assist with. Additionally, as the NIL space expands, numerous student-athlete workshops could be conducted with the entrepreneurship clinic to educate the student-athletes even before they begin their NIL journey.”

Also at Mizzou, Jim Green, the director of the Office for Financial Success, has partnered with Athletics to offer the VITA program (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) to help student-athletes who have NIL contracts prepare their tax returns. VITA is an IRS-sponsored program that provides free tax preparation assistance for people of low- to moderate-income. Last year, Green and his team of peer financial coaches held five tax labs in March and April in the Mizzou Athletics Training Complex and offered their services to several student-athletes who expressed interest in the assistance.

“Sometime last year before tax season Brandon contacted me and we talked about me coming in and doing a one-time talk about taxes,” Green said. “I talked to a bunch of different athletes from multiple sports. In that connection, we came up with the idea of, hey, is there a way that we can encourage student-athletes to come help with their taxes if they need it, all of this in line with the fact that they now have NIL money. If anyone makes more than $400 as a contractor, they are required to do a tax return. Whereas previously even well paid by scholarship, students could get away with not ever actually filing if they didn’t have any other income.”

Unlike Andre, Mizzou wrestler Noah Surtin wasn’t sure how he could benefit from NIL opportunities. But that didn’t stop him from answering an email from Lee about the journalism school partnership.

“I knew I’d be paired up with someone who really knew how to market things and just articulate themselves well,” the redshirt junior health sciences major said.

“Noah was one of the first to sign up,” said Lee, a Mizzou football student-athlete from 2014-18. “I think that’s just a testament to him being interested in trying new things and taking the initiative to better himself.”

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Surtin paired with senior Maddie Meyers, a strategic communication student with a background in photography. In their initial interview, Surtin made clear he wanted to focus his branding on three areas: faith, fitness and fashion. Meyers was especially intrigued by Surtin’s interest in fashion. Together, they arranged a photo shoot of Surtin to portray a different side of the three-time NCAA qualifier.

“Most of the (photos) on social media, you see him in his uniform, but he’s more than a wrestler,” Meyers said. “So it was cool to showcase his personality and showcase his shoes as well because that’s something that’s really important to him. And he was kind enough to give my photography business a shout out, so it was nice that we got to help each other with that.”

Surtin has just started to explore his NIL potential, but now equipped with the experience of his partnership with Meyers, he appreciates the chance to expand his brand and network locally and nationwide.

“Being able to go to meets and see little kids and families wearing shirts with me on it or my name, I think that’s one really cool thing that we wouldn’t have had prior to all of this,” Surtin said.

Meyers came into the partnership without much serious interest in college athletics, much less wrestling, but called the experience “eye opening” and hopes it helps guide her career.

“NIL is growing so much and becoming so important,” she said. “And there’s so many aspects of journalism and strategic communication, which is more the route I’m going that really ties into athletics. I was just eager to learn. I think both Noah and I were like, we’re not really sure what this means, but we’re willing to figure it out together.”

Which is exactly why the partnership was born. When curiosity meets opportunity, results can follow.

“It’s one of those perfect opportunities where there’s so much learning that takes place on both sides,” Stemmle said. “The PR students are getting the ‘Mizzou Method.’ They’re getting their hands dirty and doing all these things where there’s a such a huge need in the industry. This could easily separate them when they go to an agency or the corporate world. Then for the student-athletes who don’t have communication experience or at least the strategy for these things and are just winging it, they get a real feel of how this is not just makeshift. You really have to have a plan and know how to develop that plan.”

“Next semester, I hope they build from this and it gets even bigger and they try different things,” Andre said, “because this was honestly a great, great experience.”

This article is provided by University of Missouri Athletics