PHOENIX – When he was hired to be the next Arizona State football coach in November, Kenny Dillingham arrived in Tempe with the intention of activating the Valley.
Dillingham envisioned a future in which Arizona State supporters would regularly show up at games but also provide financial support through donations to the program in an effort to fuel its growth.
Fast forward to the beginning of the football season and athletes all around ASU are benefitting from signing name, image and likeness (NIL) deals that pay them for supporting local businesses.
However, it isn’t just athletes that are benefitting.
Around Tempe, local businesses are using their marketing budgets to sign the university’s athletes to endorsement deals and by getting into the NIL game, the businesses are receiving attention like never before.
Tempe-based State Bicycle Company has NIL deals with many athletes from both ASU and around the country. Since the company started signing athletes to deals, its website has seen a large increase in traffic.
“We’ve gotten publicity from fans of college sports throughout the country. The reaction overall has been pretty good,” said Reza Farsi, co-founder of State Bicycle. “There’s a lot more eyes on our product, and it has done well gaining interest from people who may have never heard of State Bicycle Company before.”
State Bicycle made headlines in the spring when it signed ASU freshman quarterback Jaden Rashada to his first NIL deal. The news came shortly after Rashada decommitted from Florida after the Gator Collective – a since-disbanded consortium of Florida supporters – pulled a $13.5-million NIL deal promised to Rashada.
By signing with State Bicycle Co., Rashada received a free bike, free merchandise and monetary compensation in exchange for brand promotion on his social media pages. When he first announced the deal on X, formerly known as Twitter, Rashada’s post received 100,000 impressions, 59 reposts and more than 100 likes.
Now potential bike owners and other athletes are reaching out to Farsi to inquire about the company’s products and get involved with NIL.
“We get a lot of applications now that people see us getting NIL deals,” Farsi said. “The one thing we’re looking for in an application is if the person genuinely seems like they studied our company and understands the company when reaching out for an NIL deal.”
That sentiment is common with other Tempe-based companies that have signed ASU athletes to deals.
One of the biggest advocates for both ASU athletics and NIL is the local Mexican food chain, Burrito Express. Currently, the chain has six athletes signed to deals, including ASU football’s Elijhah Badger and Jalin Conyers.
Brothers Trenton and Coben Bourguet are also ASU football players who have NIL deals with Burrito Express. They join their sister, Rylen, who is on the ASU beach volleyball team and their brother Treyson, who plays football for Western Michigan.
When searching out NIL deals, the Bourguet siblings gravitated towards the Mexican restaurant because they feel a connection with the small business.
“We come from a family that has a local business owner. We really wanted to find a company that wanted to help ASU athletics and Sun Devil athletes,” said Trenton Bourguet. “We want to not only help ourselves but try to use our platforms to give back to the community.”
Angel Marin, the owner of Burrito Express, is an ASU graduate and got into NIL as a way to give back to his alma mater.
Burrito Express has six locations around the Valley, but since collaborating with his first athlete during last year’s football season, Marin says business at his Tempe location has skyrocketed.
“Things weren’t going great for us at that location,” he said. “But when the NIL stuff became a reality, my partner and I thought it would be cool and fun to give back to the student athlete and see what kind of return we can get.
“It’s kicking ass now. Numbers are up, revenue is up, business is way better. We’ve done some stuff other than NIL that has helped, but I contribute some of that success to the athletes.”
The excitement that Marin has for the Sun Devils attracted the Bourguet family to join him for promotion of his restaurant.
“(Marin) is very passionate. He cares about what he does. He takes pride in giving back to everybody and you can see that with his business,” Coben Bourguet said. “The way he treats everyone the same. It’s cool to see him treat me, my brother and my sister the exact same. He’s taking care of us. It’s really cool to see.”
Although he has been successful with Burrito Express in the NIL industry, Marin is not keeping all the ASU athletes to himself.
Marin is a part of Activate ASU, a community organization that connects ASU athletes to local businesses looking to get involved through NIL deals. As a board member of the nonprofit, Marin helps facilitate meetings between athletes and businesses.
Peter Boyle, the founder of Activate ASU, realized that ASU is unlike other schools. In small towns such as Stillwater, Oklahoma where Oklahoma State University is located, businesses and boosters are devoted to the one show in town and are willing to financially support the Cowboys.
Phoenix is different, with NBA, MLB, NFL, NHL, WNBA and pro soccer franchises, plus NCAA Division I programs at ASU and Grand Canyon University.
“What the Valley has that the small towns don’t is tens of thousands businesses,” Boyle said. “They don’t care how good an athlete is or what sport they play, they just want a return on their investment. In the Valley that business model makes the most sense.”
While local businesses support pro and college programs through media advertising, signage and luxury suites, few were involved directly in supporting college athletes and nobody was making an effort to connect athletes with businesses.
“We saw no one else doing that,” Boyle said. “I didn’t see anyone doing the business model, so we went out and just did it.”
In total, since starting to connect businesses with athletes in March, Activate ASU has helped facilitate 50 deals between 55 athletes and 35 businesses.
And now Boyle and Activate ASU can show other local businesses that their return on investment in NIL is well worth the money.
“I would say 70% of businesses that we talk to don’t know what NIL is and are not fans of ASU athletics, but they see the return on investment,” Boyle said. “It becomes an influencer agreement, which is why the business model works so well.”
Once they decide to sign an athlete to an NIL deal, business owners have been so satisfied with their investment that many have come back to Activate ASU looking for more athletes to sign.
According to Boyle, 60% of companies come back within a month asking to sign additional contracts.
Right now, most businesses that are signing NIL deals with ASU athletes are located in Tempe or Scottsdale. As the organization grows, Boyle is hoping Activate ASU can expand into downtown Phoenix and Mesa businesses.
Despite the benefits, there are potential risks for local businesses dipping their toes into NIL waters.
Most companies supporting college athletics are small businesses that don’t have large marketing budgets like big corporations. And because NIL deals are so new, there is no data to prove that there is a long-term return for small businesses investing in individual college athletes.
Because of the unknowns, Activate ASU is still finding it difficult to convince some businesses to get involved with Sun Devil athletics.
“The biggest challenge we have is getting businesses to realize what kind of return on investment you can get,” Marin said. “It’s the fear of the unknown because it’s so new. They don’t know how much to pay players or what their return will look like.
“We want more businesses in our community to want to do NIL deals because of the benefits.”