The South Carolina’s women’s basketball team is undergoing its share of roster turnover this winter, but the Gamecocks remain fixtures in the world of name, image and likeness.
At the center of that universe is Erin Kane, the vice president of women’s sports for Excel Sports Management. Kane is one of the bigger names in the agent world and represented Gamecocks star Zia Cooke during her time in Columbia. Her client list also includes current South Carolina players Te-Hina Paopao, Bree Hall, Chloe Kitts and MiLaysia Fulwiley.
The State spoke with Kane about the NIL space and what it’s like to be involved in the ever-changing part of the business.
(Answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length)
Ben Portnoy: Now that we’re two years into NIL as something people in your role are working with, how would you describe how it fits into what you do as an agent?
Erin Kane: “Representing college basketball and football players for NIL isn’t really different than what we were doing for marketing and endorsements for athletes. I would say it doesn’t really feel like much of a different workflow. You’re just working with younger and younger clients.”
BP: Beyond just having a younger client base, is there any other kind of uniqueness to the NIL space?
EK: “The only thing really unique about it is navigating the rules on the front end. It’s such a patchwork across the country and they kept changing. But very lucky to be at Excel, where we have dedicated counsel just for NIL. I had a team member who was responsible for keeping an eye on the legal part of things.
“From my standpoint, it really was just the same kind of workflow for our other clients — which is taking a look at an athlete as an individual, what they stand for, what their brand looks like, and then looking for partners that fit their brands or enhance it, or amplifies who they are and what they’re doing.”
BP: More specific to South Carolina, what was it like working with Zia Cooke during her time in Columbia and how did you all attack NIL with her?
EK: “Zia is amazing. She just had such a great energy, she’s so much fun and obviously such a talented basketball player. I love her style of play, as well.
“Early days, it was like, ‘OK, what brands are coming into play in this space?’ That’s always sort of the question. In a professional landscape — not that it’s formulaic — but brands are attached to leagues or into teams and there’s kind of infrastructure and framework and then talent partnerships that are within that infrastructure. At the collegiate level, the question was like, ‘OK, are these brands that are partnered with the NCAA, or the school, going to participate in this in any way?’ And in the early days, too, there were question marks on the brand side about compliance and not wanting to endanger anybody’s eligibility. So it took a little bit for people to be comfortable.
“But how did we attack it with Zia, it was looking at her, figuring out what getting to know her. The first step with any of our clients is really getting to know who they are, what makes them tick, what their goals are, what interests them. And then being extremely proactive and looking for brand partners that makes sense for them.”
BP: What are some of the biggest misconceptions or misunderstandings about the roles of agents in the NIL world?
EK: “I think what should be obvious and sometimes isn’t: that success on the court or on the field of play really is what generates follower growth and visibility, and therefore partnership opportunities. That’s why in women’s sports, we’ve been fighting for so long to be on the main channels and to be in prime time, because we know that’s the key to the continued growth of our sports.
“I think when kids are coming into college, it completely changed the consideration set for kids and where they’re gonna go to school. That’s the sort of misconception — although now two years in, I feel like parents are really getting a pretty good grasp on it. Just initially it was like, ‘How automatic is this?’
And also the biggest misconception about what we do as agents is that anybody can do it. Well, in a sense, that’s true, because it’s not rocket science or brain surgery, there is a certain amount of expertise that you get from having done this for many, many years. Also, when you’re working with an agency there’s exponentially more information, more input, more connectivity to brands, more connectivity to partners. … That’s the part that I think people are like, ‘Oh, I can just do that.’
“I’ve seen it for so many years, not just at the NIL level, but at the professional level, to where it’s a very well-intended, well-meaning family member is like, ‘Let me save you some money by doing this for you and not taking commission.’ The reality is that there is expertise, there is contract history, there is an understanding of the marketplace that you want to make sure your person is being paid appropriately and fairly. And if you don’t have access to information about a whole array of deals, not just in your sport even — we have visibility into what’s going on in men’s college basketball and professional sports and in football — and having that kind of context and data set to look at is crucial and really helpful.”
BP: With NIL and the expansion of women’s sports in recent years, how do you think that’s opened more doors for the athletes themselves?
EK: “I think athletes like Zia have been really fortunate to be able to make real money and a real impact. In the NIL space, it’s completely different. She’s coming into her professional career with a foundation not just financially, but knowledge-wise in terms of what it takes to be successful in this other area of business. That’s a game-changer.
“I also think the audience (is important). The dynamics in all college sports is so different. People are so loyal to their university or their conference and it’s this perfect storm to create an audience and a base and to grow that. What is so exciting to me is now you see that translating already into the next level. You have these incredibly popular players who are bringing their fans with them and to a great spot where the product is also great and lots of fun.
“The expression that’s overused, ‘A rising tide lifts all boats.’ I really do think growth in women’s sports coming out of collegiate sports, it’s just a huge driver.”
BP: You’ve worked a lot with South Carolina players past and present, what’s that experience been like?
EK: “I love working with them. First of all, (coach) Dawn (Staley) has great recruits, great players — and great players choose to come to the University of South Carolina. That part is always really fun. And then they’re just awesome people.
“… We’re really excited about this upcoming year. With the ‘Freshies’ leaving, it opens some doors and some opportunities for some of the other players on the team. I think it’s going to be super fun to see how they look. We’re so excited about that game over in Paris at the beginning of the season. We’re pretty pumped for the stage and the platform they’ll be on and what I think they’ll be able to do.”
This tale was at first revealed August 7, 2023, 9:00 AM.