Sports & Lifestyle

‘Athlytic’ Looks to Pave New Wave of Collegiate Empowerment

on

This is an interview with Ashton Keys, Michigan State University sports business alum and founder of Athlytic.io, a service connecting student-athletes with sponsorship opportunities. Read about Ashton finding his rightful place on the cutting edge of sports business, his thoughts on the NCAA landscape, and his Draymond Green stories as a bonus.

Where are you from, how did you get started, and how did you get into Athlytic?

“I’m from Michigan, grew up in the Detroit area. I went to school at Michigan State University, which is a huge, huge sports school. Got my start working in sports there, worked with the athletic department, really focused on helping our student athletes learn about themselves being a public figure.”

“We had a big issue where a lot of athletes were getting in trouble for various reasons. And I wanted to create a curriculum around educating athletes that they are public figures and how they should move and be prominent figures in the community to reduce that. A lot of athletes at that time just didn’t understand it, and they wanted to act like normal college students. Normal college students and how they act is not the way you want to act in the public.”

“I got my start in technology after graduating, been working in tech for about four or five years, going to various startups. My latest role was working at Rocket Mortgage, under the Dan Gilbert tree as a product manager, where we were really focused on helping people find their homes.”

“I did a couple of consulting jobs as well and now I’m in Oregon, in realty. I met my co-founder Jared Eummer through a fellowship called Venture for America, where the goal is to connect to entrepreneurial-minded people with the resources as well as the talent to be able to create economic value in underrepresented cities like Detroit and Cleveland. He works for the Cleveland Cavaliers and NBA on corporate partnership development.”

“We both love sports. We grew up playing sports and we saw our skills kind of matched. He was very good in the corporate side, as far as partnerships and working with brands and campaigns and the technical side as well. So, with NIL (name, image and likeness laws) and all the conversation and us being so involved in the industry, we felt “Who better than us to really solve the problem, and do it in a way that is empathetic and focuses more on the athletes and creating equity?”.

I was going to ask regarding the new NIL laws. Was that what set it off for you?

Ashton: “I’ve always had conversations on the education around athletics and how it’s just not enough when it comes to preparing student athletes for what it really means to be a public figure in the communities of the university. With the NIL laws, I think it really pushed us. Honestly, it came from just conversations with people. When we first started, we didn’t want to work on a company, we just wanted to learn more. And when we started to talk to more parties, we realized nobody has this figured out at all.”

“It’s actually kind of scary because it’s like brands don’t understand it. Schools don’t understand it. And athletes don’t understand it and we’re like, okay, we have to actually figure out how to make this less of a headache than what it already is. And it still is to this day, as you know, where his stuff is updated in real time, especially in Florida. It was realizing that no one has a plan for it at all right now.”

Charlie: “It seems like no one knows what to do right now. It’s like the Wild West, like all over and the NCAA is on their back heels and they haven’t been in that position for decades. So now’s the time to really push and try to affect some change. Some people are really getting behind player freedom of movement and freedom of choice.”

Ashton: “We’ve talked to athletes after they graduated. And a lot of them feel lost, they were like, “we have so many resources while we’re there”. You feel like you’re on top of the world, but it ends eventually. And a lot of these athletes are still trying to figure out what’s next. And the university isn’t as engaged or active with them anymore because they don’t have value to them anymore. Their playing time is over. They can’t do anything for them. It’s kinda messed up when you think about some of these athletes, if you don’t go pro you just had to figure out a life, but you dedicate all your time to go to school and sports.”

Charlie: “A friend of mine, he planned on going and playing at least for a few years overseas when he graduated and we both graduated last year, right in the middle of COVID and suddenly that’s out the window and you have to change gears. And to his credit, he had other options that he had worked out and landed in a great spot. But I know people who didn’t work out those options because they sort of got lost in the dream.”

Ashton: “I grew up with someone that went to school with me, played with me growing up same situation. He was actually playing overseas when COVID hit and then the season got canceled and he had to come home and literally just didn’t know what to do at all, because he had a contract already for his next team and everything. You just don’t plan like that. Cause he was doing well. He had a long career just playing professionally overseas and it just got canceled. And he’s still trying to get back on his feet and figure out what’s next.”

“And you think of the opportunities that are presented, where it’s not only this opportunity to leverage yourself personally, to attract scouts, whatever it may be, but also get your own education. It opens so many doors at once.”

Who better than us to really solve the problem, and do it in a way that is empathetic and focuses more on the athletes and creating equity?Ashton Keys

What’s been the biggest challenge so far from your perspective?

“The law, it is like a whirlwind. My co-founder is from Florida and we’ve been preparing our company in a sense of starting there strong as a main base. Then the law changes, or there’s an amendment and now it’s pushed to 2022. You have to be able to pay attention to it. And that’s the good thing about being a startup is that we can stay close and stick to the law because we don’t want to do too much. You don’t want to affect a player’s eligibility. The scary part is they could change at any second.”

How do you see things changing for student athletes over the next several years?

Ashton: “I don’t know about other universities, but my university is really leading where they’re seeing people as people. They actually did a partnership with the business school where every athlete has to go through this course to learn how to run a business and be a businessperson. And I think that emphasis on education is really important. Athlytic really pushes that because now everyone has to think about what their brand is and like how they can grow their brand and what type of businesses they can create. I think it really creates a change about the educational aspect of athletes, because every athlete has to be educated now.”

“Realizing as a collective, our voices are important. Look at Florida where literally all the coaches just spoke up with players and they made an amendment to bring [eliminating eligibility restrictions] back to 2021. And they were looking to push it back to 2022. I think more and more, as people are seeing this, you will start to see athletes have more power and control.”

“If they want things to change and they want things to be more equitable, I think we’ll see more of those people speak up on several issues. And they’ll be more educated on how to use their collective power to start to make change on different things that they want.”

Charlie: “I agree, it’s so evident to anyone who tries to watch it closely that the power dynamic is just so imbalanced. When you look at a guy like, say, Justin Fields, and his college linemen. They received the same equity on that team. And then Fields goes to the draft, made millions in signing bonuses and his guys still get nothing, unless you go to the league. Say his left guard at Ohio State asks “Can I tweet about Gatorade and get paid like two grand?”. People judge him, saying “Oh, you’re getting an education, are you not grateful?”.

Ashton: “I don’t even know if you saw it, but Fields was on a tear [before the draft]. I think he did over 10 to 15 endorsement posts on social media. He was moving with everybody, but we understand those people will be okay. But what about, like you said, the less popular left guard, this is who it really helps because those are the people that could really benefit and that money can make a big difference in their lives, whether they decide to go pro or not go pro.”

“It all changes when they have this. Monetizing their athleticism, monetizing their peak, and being able to use that money to do whatever, whether it start a business, help their family, which most athletes that we talked to said that was always their goal. They can make a difference in their community, make a difference for their family when they reached their peak. Because a lot of these athletes, they are darn good in college. It’s not like opportunities are bad, it’s just a different game. You can promote your local restaurant, your local credit union. And this adds value to both parties. They’re looking for people that have an authentic brand and could really communicate their message.”

People have a tough time accepting these new rules. So how do you go about having conversations with those who have doubts?

Ashton: “My co-founder really digs deep into it. We’re not trying to take money away from the school, the league or anything like that. That’s not our goal at all. We’re just trying to give the athletes an opportunity to monetize their name and get a piece of what they deserve.”

“It’s hard to be a denier at this point. They see the writing is on a wall. It was more how to understand and make sure that it’s equitable for every party. The fear is universities or things of that nature taking advantage of that. We’re really trying to separate university sponsorships and things of that nature from actual students and the decisions they want to make.”

Charlie: “When it comes to sports, especially basketball, there’s this baked-in racism and intense masculinity that is forced to go on. Athletes can’t just coexist when you have to ruin the other guy. There’s this system where all of the players are usually disadvantaged economically, and they’re being taken advantage of. And then the worst part is that they’re all pitted against each other for these very limited opportunities. It’s a different dynamic for NBA athletes where I’m trying to take your job, you’re trying to take mine but we’re both making $2 million right now, we can recover. When you throw something like Athlytic into the equation, that’s the real way that you can balance things. I’m curious how you see it from the equity and social perspective.”

If everyone gets to see a bit of the money, do you start to remove those tensions?

Ashton: “What some of our brand partners are excited about is this tremendous opportunity to really make an impact and underrepresented communities. And there are a significant amount of athletes that come from underrepresented communities that matriculated to play division one. Especially in college, it’s like you have to get yours so that you can get to where you’re trying to go. It’s just like that in the NBA. The KDs, Russell Westbrooks and LeBrons of the league are a community that’s supportive of each other. I think if we can really make it equitable a lot of athletes will be excited and want to support their brothers in order to make a change. Because I know when everyone wants someone to feed their family, no one is against that. And for me, I think that’s the most exciting part about it.”

Charlie: “I’ve been around a handful of startups, inside and outside of sports, and it’s really clear you and Athlytic are coming about this in the most honest way possible. You not only know what you’re doing but you know exactly how these players, coaches and programs are feeling.”

Ashton: “Yeah, I grew up with a lot of people that matriculated to division one, and actually play professionally. So I talked to them and that’s how we started. We just had honest conversations, and for me, that’s the biggest thing. I want to have an honest conversation and really learn about how this is happening. Like what do people really feel?”

“Because I think, and you know, [college basketball] is a cash grab. That was the main thing that I didn’t want. I want to make sure that I don’t come off like that. How can I push the message, but not come off as someone that’s trying to take advantage of that opportunity? In tech in general, as you know, there’s so many companies where people feel like they’re not doing that.”

“That’s why we have had a lot of engagement so far, by being authentic. We want to make sure that sincerity is the center of our process and our product.”

Charlie: “So many people want to come in and make a quick buck and leave because that’s just what the system is. I can’t even fault them. That’s what the NCAA is doing. That’s what these players, to a certain degree, are trying to do. Everyone’s trying to grab and run, but to actually affect change you have to plant roots in deep and really build those relationships and leverage it.”

Ashton: “If you recruit a kid that’s coming from an underrepresented community and you hand them $100,000, the NCAA really believes that someone’s going to turn it down. You know what I’m saying? You’re putting kids in a really bad situation. You can’t turn down a hundred grand.”

“And when you take it, you’re indebted to the university and to the coach. Like I said, with most athletes I’ve talked to, their goal always was to change their family’s situation. Now you present them the opportunity, so they’re going to take it because that was their goal. They’re thinking “I’m taking one for the team for everybody, even if I didn’t want to go to that school, I have to do this because my family needs me”. That’s the bottom-line situation.”

They can make a difference in their community, make a difference for their family when they reach their peak.”– Ashton Keys

Charlie: One more thing I gotta ask. You’re a Michigan State guy, I’m a big Warriors fan. Draymond Green is my guy. I love everything about him. I’ve also heard some pretty ridiculous stories about that man in college, and I’m curious if you’ve heard any.

Ashton: “I was walking downtown in the city of Detroit. I do a double take and I see Draymond, sitting in a park, playing chess with a random guy. Just sitting outside, hat and sunglasses on, nobody around him as if he’s a normal guy.”

“I left, came walking back that way 4 or 5 hours later, and he was still there. Bro, everybody left and he was just still playing. A few people came now and then to take pictures but that’s it. He was just in his own little space, playing chess with random people.”

“Denzel Valentine was a big person on campus in Detroit data, Cassius Winston too. Miles Bridges another one, these guys were the leaders on campus. Those guys are still around, heavily involved in the school and the community. Draymond’s got a hundred million dollars in his pocket and he’s on campus eating at Conrad’s at 3 AM, which is like your typical late night college food.”

Charlie: “That checks out. Dray is an enigma. Is he that alumni we all know who is filthy rich and still hangs around campus?”

Ashton: “Not at all. That was very mild as far as Draymond stories go. That’s my guy though. I can’t say anything but positive things about him. He’s made such a profound impact on our community.”

Ashton Keys is a rising sports entrepreneur from Detroit. Keep an eye out for his newest venture Athlytic on Instagram, Twitter, or check out their website for more!

“I know when everyone wants someone to feed their family, no one is against that. And for me, I think that’s the most exciting part about it.” — Ashton Keys

About Charlie Cummings

Warriors writer born and raised in the Bay Area. University of Denver graduate currently living in Denver

Recommended for you

Powered by themekiller.com