May 22, 2024
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Cal Poly marketing students embrace NIL


Cal Poly marketing students alongside Cal Poly defensive end Elijah Ponder, fourth from left, and Mr. Pickles sandwich shop mascot pose for a photo after working on a marketing campaign. (courtesy photo)

The 2021 federal ruling that made it possible for student-athletes to make money off their name, image, and likeness — NIL — has given a lot of opportunities for college athletes that go to big-name schools to make, potentially, millions of dollars.

But Randy Rovegno, a professor at Cal Poly SLO’s Orfalea College of Business, sees more than just potential dollars for student-athletes. He sees an opportunity for students in his marketing classes to gain real-life experience that will help them once they graduate to the real world.

“I have students lined up around the building ready to embark on a career path that isn’t easy to get into, but are ready to put in the work,” Rovegno told the Business Times.

In Fall of 2023, Rovegno launched Athlete Lab, which operates out of his marketing projects class.

The goal of Athlete Lab is to pair students with athletes on campus and try to help them facilitate marketing opportunities with the local community.

Rovegno is no stranger to the sports and entertainment world. For nearly three decades Rovegno was working hard in sports and entertainment, having worked at Fox Sports and CBS, where he was vice president of marketing.

With his agency, Longboard Marketing, he also performed work for ESPN, Disney, ABC and NBC. 

“When I went through school and learning about marketing, it was very textbook-oriented, black and white, and when I would guest lecture at universities, I would show case studies of what we did for ESPN and the kids would gravitate towards it and go ‘Wow, this was actually interesting,'” Rovegno recalled.

It’s those moments that inspired him to want to be a professor full-time.

“I tell the students all the time, ‘I’m not here to grade you. I’m here to hire you,'” he said.

Rovegno understands how difficult it is to break into the marketing world of the sports and entertainment industry, especially at the highest level, working with some of the most well-known athletes in the world.

That’s why he founded Athlete Lab, to give students a leg up by giving them a real hands-on opportunity to find an athlete marketing opportunity.

“This is all about education,” Rovegno said.

“This is about giving students a hands-on opportunity, it is helping student-athletes learn how a marketing team makes plans for them and this is something that is community-friendly and cost-effective.”

When NIL was started after the ruling, Rovegno noted just how much money was available for kids and how many people were itching to get in there to make as much money for themselves as possible.

“Everybody was jumping out of the woodwork to try and represent these big student-athletes to get deals,” he said.

An alum of Arizona State University, Rovegno saw the idea of how people spent millions of dollars to get top student-athletes — say a quarterback.

“But what happens when that guy leaves in a year or two to another school, are they going to keep spending millions,” Rovegno said.

“Where I want to stand out and where Athlete Lab can pan out is that it is going to be true marketing. That is the value.”

Students in Rovegno’s classes aren’t just going through the paces, they are putting in work.

The marketing students serve as account executives, project managers, and content creators. 

Once they identify a student-athlete, they perform a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis, complete with graphics and create an entire marketing plan around the athlete.

One example, students connected all-conference long snapper Cruz Rubion with local taco spot, Taquira Santa Cruz Express for “Taco Cruz Days,” where if you say Cruz’s name on Tuesdays after 6 p.m. you get 10% off your order.

“Cruz showed up for a bunch of these on Tuesdays, brought some teammates and really just embraced it,” Rovegno said.

The class also connected Aidan McCarthy, a record-breaking Mustangs track star in the 800 meters, with Quickie, a food delivery business that launched at Cal Poly, for promo spots, emphasizing the speed of Quickie deliveries. 

One of Rovegno’s favorite partnerships is connecting student-athletes with Mr. Pickles, the sandwich mascot for the San Luis Obispo eatery. 

Players such as women’s soccer goalkeeper Mac Samuel, defensive end Elijah Ponder and basketball player Kobe Sanders have all taken on Mr. Pickles in various videos where the student-athletes are besting the mascot in a one-on-one athletic endeavor.

“This isn’t an opportunity for students to get rich, but it’s a fun idea and it’s worth doing and everyone sees the value in it,” Rovegno said.

Students absolutely see the value in it. Rovegno noted that the class has currently taught over 80 students over the course of the year with another 100 on the waiting list, just itching for the opportunity to participate.

“For me, the spirit of NIL is what we are doing at Cal Poly, where you go in and a player endorses a local pizza place and in return gets a few hundred dollars or maybe even just some free food,” Rovegno said.

“It isn’t about money, it’s about creating opportunity for everyone involved.”