Utah State basketball star Justin Bean is being paid by Utah-based Mexican fast-food chain Taco Time to promote its crisp bean burrito, a natural fit for obvious reasons.

University of Utah football star Britain Covey has signed an exclusive deal with sports radio station ESPN 700 to appear on a weekly show, and should be trying to get something lined up with the time management company that shares his name, if he hasn’t already.

BYU defensive back Chaz Ah You works with Sports Illustrated, KSL Sports and a startup company called Deliver to promote his and their brands, and to make a little extra spending money.

Rising BYU basketball star Caleb Lohner teamed up with Utah-based software company Gigg Inc., Deseret First Credit Union and one of the world’s premier wakeboarders, Shaun Murray, to stage a video-submission contest that ended with the winner getting to hang out with Lohner and receiving private lessons from Murray at Lake Powell.

University of Utah rugby player Nate Ete is one of more than a dozen athletes representing Deseret First Credit Union, which has representation contracts with superstars and not-so-well-known student-athletes alike from all seven of the state’s Division I schools

Perhaps nowhere in the country are more student-athletes benefitting from the name, image and likeness (NIL) legislation passed in July by the NCAA than in Utah, which is clearly on the forefront of the movement to get college athletes paid.

“We can now do so much more for collegiate athletes financially. We are going to align the best brands with the best athletes, and get these kids paid.” — Jesse Christiansen, Oncoor’s chief revenue officer

A big reason why is due to the work and vision of a Utah-based sports marketing company called Oncoor Sports Marketing, founded by BYU graduate Brian Fagan in 2017 to originally represent professional athletes from Utah colleges such as former BYU football players Taysom Hill, Daniel Sorensen and Jamaal Williams and ex-Utah basketball star Kyle Kuzma.

“The nation’s largest NIL agency is here in Utah, which I think is super cool,” Fagan said.

Having been acquired by the Orem-based Mercury Marketing Group in May, Oncoor has expanded its services to college athletes beyond the state of Utah, most notably Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford of the No. 4-ranked Nittany Lions.

“We can now do so much more for collegiate athletes financially,” said Mercury Group founding member Jesse Christiansen, who is now Oncoor’s chief revenue officer. “We are going to align the best brands with the best athletes, and get these kids paid.”

How did they land Clifford, a fringe Heisman Trophy candidate?

Mercury’s Kevin Trost said Christiansen is a “big college football fan” and reached out to Clifford “cold” on Instagram in July after NIL was passed and made a Hail Mary sales pitch, of sorts.

“Clifford’s response was, ‘Hey, if you are good enough for Taysom Hill, you are good enough for me, or something like that,’” Trost said. “And that was it.”

Oncoor is now helping Clifford launch a merchandise line, a custom trading app “and a whole bunch of brand deals because obviously he is a big name,” Fagan said. “So that is a fun one.”

Oncoor is born

This all started when Fagan, who now lives in Orange County, worked in marketing for the BYU athletic department during his time as a student in Provo and became friends with now New Orleans Saints quarterback/utility player Hill and Williams, drafted by the Green Bay Packers but now with the Detroit Lions.

“Chatting with them, they felt like there was an opportunity to do more in marketing,” Fagan said. “I said, ‘Well, I can help you grow your social media, and help you get some endorsements off the field.’ And that’s what we did.”

Fagan named his new business Oncoor — a knockoff of the word encore — because it “suggests that we are helping athletes prepare for their second act and help them build brands that outlive their playing careers, because their sport will end, but their ability to continue making money and have influence is something that will last forever if they do a good job building their brand,” he said.

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Months, even years, before the NCAA began allowing student-athletes to be paid for the use of their NIL, Fagan saw it coming and began preparing to capitalize. Although Trost and Christiansen and their partners acquired Oncoor in May, Fagan is still a partial owner and still involved as the group has “gone really hard and really fast into the college athletics space.”

Like Fagan, Trost and Christiansen saw the NIL movement coming and began positioning the Mercury Group — whose main business is Clear Home — to move into that space as well. 

“As it got closer and closer, we realized there weren’t many people educated in the space and so we were kinda on the front lines of what was out there,” Trost said. “We had coaches calling us and different universities reaching out to us, trying to figure out what was going on. It was moving pretty rapidly.”

Mercury Group talked to several sports marketing agencies and firms, but decided to go with Oncoor because Fagan was so proactive with his athletes.

“While a lot of agencies would sit back and wait for deals to come to them, Brian just went out and actually approached businesses for his athletes,” Trost said.

Utah schools on the forefront

In the middle of August, BYU garnered national attention by agreeing to a multi-year NIL package with American Fork-based Built Brands that will financially compensate all football players, including walk-ons “in the amount comparable to the costs of tuition for the academic year.”

A Built Brands logo appears on the practice helmet of this BYU player. | Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo

On Sept. 21, all female athletes at BYU were given the opportunity to earn up to $6,000 apiece in an NIL deal with a Provo-based company called SmartyStreets. 

Fagan says the agreements show how the state of Utah as a whole has been “more proactive in the NIL space than just about any other state” and “at the forefront” of where NIL deals are trending in the future.

“People in Utah should probably know that, No. 1, their schools are being proactive, and No. 2, it is really cool that BYU, Utah and Utah State had positioned themselves to be ready when this became an option. The players are definitely benefitting from that.”

More than 50 student-athletes from Utah schools have signed on with Oncoor, joining a dozen or so professional athletes — most of them with Utah ties.

Fagan declined to disclose exact dollar amounts per deal, but said his group did more than $300,000 in deals in the first month that NIL was available.

“People in Utah should probably know that, No. 1, their schools are being proactive, and No. 2, it is really cool that BYU, Utah and Utah State had positioned themselves to be ready when this became an option. The players are definitely benefitting from that.” — Brian Fagan

“And it was almost all in Utah,” he said. “Since then, we have several brands that are spending more than $1 million each and we have just kind of exploded from there.”

Here are some of the individual stories

• BYU tight end Isaac Rex, who has caught three touchdown passes in the last two games, was approached by Oncoor via social media in July and was invited to dinner by Trost.

“I just decided to sign with them, and they have been really cool,” Rex said. “Between OhanaX (another agency that helps BYU athletes get deals) and Oncoor, there are a lot of good deals being made.”

Rex has agreed to represent Deseret First, along with injured BYU cornerback Keenan Ellis, but has mostly taken it slowly so he can concentrate on football for the No. 10-ranked Cougars.

“Because if I suck playing football, no company is going to want to sponsor me,” he said.

• Ah You has been more heavily involved in the NIL possibilities, and doesn’t plan on slowing down any time soon. He became acquainted with Fagan through a doctor that he trained with in the offseason.

“As soon as the NIL thing was passed and they let us start getting paid, I signed a contract with (Oncoor) right away,” he said. “They are good at finding all these creative ways to get their athletes money, so it has been really cool.”

Ah You does a weekly podcast with KSL in addition to providing a weekly “vlog” to SportsIllustrated.com’s BYU page. Where does he find the time?

“I thought it would be a lot harder, but they do a pretty good job of making sure that they work around our schedules,” he said. “So any company that reaches out to us has to understand that football and school and our lives are going to come before them. They handle it very professionally and they make it very manageable for us to do those deals and kinda meet the standards that they want us to meet.”

• Deseret First Credit Union not only sponsored the aforementioned competition involving Lohner and professional wake boarder Murray, it has set up deals through Oncoor with up to five student-athletes at Utah State, Utah, BYU, Utah Valley, Southern Utah, Weber State and Dixie State universities, for a total of 40 local student-athletes.

“We got a handful of players from every college who are on a yearlong contract with Deseret First to do advertising. It is thousands of dollars each,” Fagan said. “It is awesome to see a brand like Deseret First genuinely and truly supporting their community and going that deep with college athletes to help them get paid in return for local advertising efforts. So that was really cool.”

Trost said DFCU wanted to sign deals with female athletes and players from lesser-followed sports, which is why it signed a Utah rugby player (Ete) and BYU women’s basketball star Paisley Harding. Other DFCU agreements through Oncoor have been made with UVU basketball player Fardaws Aimaq and Olympic gymnast MyKayla Skinner.

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Skinner, the former Utah gymnast, “is maybe the most popular female athlete in Utah right now,” Fagan said.

As detailed in a Deseret News article in late July, USU’s Bean was contacted by Taco Time well before NIL went into effect, but had to turn down the opportunity to pair with teammate Diogo Brito to promote the restaurant’s crisp bean burritos due to NCAA rules at the time.

The day after NIL happened, Taco Time made another run at Bean, through Oncoor, and the partnership was formed. The rebounding machine became the first USU student-athlete to get an NIL deal.

“We are still in shock, honestly, at how blessed we’ve been able to be with all this,” Bean told the Deseret News. “As a student-athlete, you receive a stipend of about $1,000 a month, and half goes to housing. So this is definitely a huge blessing for us and something we are not going to take for granted.”

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