SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The mind reels with the possibilities.
In 134 years of football, Notre Dame has produced 104 consensus All-Americans and seven Heisman Trophy winners. What if these newly unleashed name, image and likeness branding opportunities had existed for all of them?
Who would have been the most marketable, assuming a level playing field and social-
media accounts available to all?
It’s hard to conjure a more dashing spokesman-athlete than Paul Hornung. If the Golden Boy could win the Heisman on a 2-8 team in 1956, just imagine the crowd he could have drawn for an appearance at the local Studebaker showroom.
Four decades earlier, George Gipp might not have had to spend so much time in South Bend pool halls had he been able to cash in on his fame. Instead of having to claim that he was “the finest freelance gambler ever to attend Notre Dame,” his smiling visage could have graced billboards for DraftKings.
Joe Montana was years from morphing into Super Joe, but his rise from seventh-string afterthought as a freshman from Monongahela, Pennsylvania, to the unlikely leader of a national championship outfit in 1977 might have brought him out of his shell to do some shilling for a fledgling pizza joint called Barnaby’s.
Clearly, there’s no shortage of marketable personalities who have passed through campus. All would be justified in wondering if they were born ahead of their time, at least in terms of the marketing machine that whirred to life on July 1.
Thirteen states now have laws on the books that lay out at least some sort of NIL guidelines, and five more will by New Year’s Day 2022.
There will be no NCAA clearinghouse for NIL opportunities. In states without formal legislation, it will be left up to the individual schools and their student-athletes to determine what is appropriate.
Which Golden Domer would have had the most earning potential? For Jonathan A. Jensen, a Notre Dame graduate and assistant professor of sport marketing at North Carolina, the answer is clear.
It’s Raghib “Rocket” Ismail, who starred for the Irish from 1988-90 and was a 2019 inductee to the College Football Hall of Fame.
“‘Rocket’ hit the scene immediately,” Jensen said. “He caught a touchdown pass in the national title game as a freshman, won a national title as a freshman and then — bam! — right out of the gate, sophomore year, No. 1 vs. No. 2, at Michigan, returns two kickoffs for touchdowns.”
His speed was captivating enough. Add in all the other attributes, including a powerhouse program under Lou Holtz that went 33-4 with Ismail on the roster, and it’s hard to think of any company that wouldn’t have wanted to be associated with Ismail.
“He had built up enough equity in his first (13) games that I think the sky would have been the limit for him in 1990,” Jensen said. “Notre Dame contended for the national title in all three of his years.
”Then he had the nickname, he had the performances, he was very outgoing. He had a big personality.”
Notre Dame’s status as a national program figures to boost the earning potential of its modern generation of student-athletes. This week Mission BBQ became the official sponsor of the Notre Dame offensive line, all 17 of the big hungries.
The reputation of the Mendoza College of Business, where student entrepreneurship dovetails nicely with the sudden need to boost individual profiles throughout the region, should only strengthen a multiyear recruiting resurgence under Brian Kelly.
Group licensing is the “low-hanging fruit,” Jensen said, for all Power Five programs that seek to spread the wealth already flowing freely from video games, apparel sales and the game-worn memorabilia market.
In time we’ll find out which modern Irish stars might transcend a crowded NIL marketplace, but it’s hard to imagine another ”Rocket” launching anytime soon.