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The father of TikTok’s first family is a major player in U-Conn.’s NIL

The father of TikTok’s first family is a major player in U-Conn.’s NIL

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

If Marc D’Amelio stopped smiling, it was probably a mistake. For two hours in mid-March, he had watched his favorite team (the Connecticut Huskies) in his favorite building (Madison Square Garden) surrounded by some of his closest friends. This was where he saw his first concert, the Village People, in 1979. These were the guys he met on campus in the early ’90s, back when they fell in love with the Huskies because of high-scoring guard Chris Smith.

D’Amelio, the father of TikTok’s first family, was here for a few reasons. As a super fan, yes. As a proud alum, yes, too. But also because he runs one of the two name, image and likeness (NIL) collectives that support U-Conn.’s athletes, including players on the men’s and women’s basketball teams that both reached the Final Four.

From his courtside seat last month, D’Amelio chatted with a security guard before waving a group of athletes down. They were in New York for a paid appearance with his D’Amelio Huskies Collective. D’Amelio had sent black cars to drive them down from Storrs, Conn. After the game, after the Huskies kept steamrolling through the Big East men’s basketball tournament, they would all attend a fan event, where everyone had donated money for a ticket.

Under one roof, D’Amelio had the athletes, his crew, the Huskies — not to mention the hallways he had rushed through as an independent apparel salesman. Smith, once the biggest man on campus, came by and wrapped him in a bear hug. D’Amelio took a selfie with the pep band. This was awesome, he thought, over and over and over. This was his life.

“I don’t know why I do it,” D’Amelio, 55, said with a laugh on his way out. He wore a U-Conn. varsity jacket. He was talking about the collective, about opening his wallet and his schedule for the Huskies’ NIL cause. He couldn’t stop looking around.

“But I’m having so much damn fun.”

SO WHY DOES HE DO IT? For U-Conn., sure, but what’s in it for him?

“I look at it as a charity,” D’Amelio said in February, untangling a philosophical question at the root of paying college athletes. When a booster foots the bill for a building on campus, they can see their name on it. Same with a weight room or a bench on the quad. But NIL is different, a lot less structured, a clear half-measure until the NCAA permits schools to pay athletes themselves. The modern college sports economy — of the transfer portal, of who comes and stays and goes — is driven by collective money, which relies on donors not getting discouraged (by an uncertain return on investment) or fatigued (by being repeatedly asked for cash to build and maintain rosters).

But D’Amelio is unlike any other collective leader. Most are lawyers or former fundraisers for the school they support. He, on the other hand, has 10 million TikTok followers. His family has a three-season Hulu show that chronicled their move from Connecticut to Los Angeles, where his influencer daughters — Charli and Dixie — have grown their social media empires. The D’Amelios sell women’s footwear. They now have a line of popcorn called Be Happy Snacks. In the era of impressions, couldn’t the collective be seen as another way to get eyes on … everything D’Amelio?

D’Amelio doesn’t see it that way. If anything, he says the people who followed him because of his daughters are probably annoyed by all the U-Conn. content. Sometimes, such as when he posts about a D’Amelio Footwear event, a few will sarcastically congratulate him for it not being about the Huskies. They should probably unfollow this weekend, when D’Amelio will be in Glendale, Ariz., for the Final Four. The U-Conn. men’s team is going for back-to-back national championships. The U-Conn. women’s team will face Caitlin Clark and Iowa in a national semifinal in Cleveland on Friday night.

“Now, do I get a benefit? Yeah,” D’Amelio said. “Is there some ego part of where I see people come and sit and hit me up and say, ‘Marc, I love what you’re doing for U-Conn.’? That’s so important to me, as it is important when we do something really good for Stand Up to Cancer. … And I’d much rather have notoriety on the campus of the school I love than walking down Sunset Boulevard. There is definitely some aspect, in your head, of, like, why do you do it? People look at me like why would you spend time on this?

“There is no money, no profit. You expose yourself to criticism. But that’s what I think we do for the things we love.”

IN THE SPRING OF 2022, almost a year after the NCAA changed its NIL rules, D’Amelio felt he could fit right into the new college sports world. First of all, he knows social media, the driver of which athletes get brand deals and how much they are paid. Combined, the D’Amelio family has about 229 million TikTok followers (152.8 million for Charli, 56.3 million for Dixie, then about 10 million each for Marc and Heidi, his wife and their mom), about 69 million Instagram followers and about 10 million followers on X, formerly Twitter. Their popularity exploded when Charli became a TikTok sensation in 2019, when each dance and peek of her life went viral. Charli, 19, won “Dancing With the Stars” in 2022. Dixie, 22, is a recording artist with nearly 7 million followers on YouTube, where she hosts her own talk show.

For younger generations, they are everywhere.

But D’Amelio also knows apparel and licensing, another key to the NIL market. When he graduated from U-Conn., he answered a New York Times ad to sell boxer shorts for Concept Sports. That was his way in. He eventually started his own clothing brand, Madsoul, and sold it. He then became an independent sales rep for Mitchell & Ness, and he is now a partner and sits on the board.

“I was already in the middle of working on behalf of my daughters,” D’Amelio said. “Not alone but to help them land what are essentially brand deals, essentially name, image and likeness deals for my family. And I saw the connections. . . . I knew the value of what they were getting and what the rates are. So I was like, ‘Wow, I could definitely help out some of these student-athletes navigate this process.’ ”

“He’s as much of an expert in social influencing and brand management as there is based on what he’s accomplished,” said David Benedict, U-Conn.’s athletic director. “I think Marc is going beyond just compensation. It’s about helping athletes understand what building and leveraging a brand is all about.”

At first, D’Amelio thought he would be a quasi agent, facilitating deals between athletes and brands he had relationships with. But the idea morphed because of OpenDorse, a platform that already serves that function. Instead, D’Amelio would pay athletes directly, mostly through appearances, and help them build their social followings.

Before the Big East tournament, he had put about $250,000 of his own money into the collective. Even with donations on top of that, it’s not a ton, not in the range of seven-figure deals for star quarterbacks. But D’Amelio doesn’t view himself as the make-or-break factor in recruiting decisions. Bleeding Blue for Good, U-Conn.’s nonprofit collective, pledged $500,000 to help the Huskies’ football team retain and add players this past fall and winter. When it comes to raising big money to retain and recruit football and men’s basketball players, that’s Bleeding Blue for Good’s game.

So while many schools have struggled to maintain multiple collectives, these two work because of their distinct functions. Their executive directors talk regularly. D’Amelio’s collective is built around a small roster of athletes, though he still will do one-off deals with players not officially signed on. It includes two men’s basketball starters, star center Donovan Clingan and freshman guard Stephon Castle; Amari DeBerry, an injured forward for the women’s team; then athletes from football, field hockey, women’s soccer, men’s golf, women’s ice hockey, men’s ice hockey, softball, baseball, women’s lacrosse, women’s volleyball, women’s rowing, swimming and track and field.

The goal is to have them all verified on Instagram soon. D’Amelio likes to make experiences out of the paid appearances, such as when he flew a group of athletes to Los Angeles for a D’Amelio Footwear event last spring. The current gender split for the collective is 21 men and 17 women.

“He realized there were areas that weren’t covered yet that he could fill in,” said John Malfettone, who co-runs Bleeding Blue for Good. “It’s a different model because of the fame of his family and his girls and all that. It’s much different than us.”

WHEN CLINGAN MET D’AMELIO, he asked whether they could take a photograph. D’Amelio told him it should be the other way around.

“I mean, it’s the D’Amelio family,” said Clingan, who was visiting campus then ahead of his freshman year in 2022. “They’re huge. I had followed them all on TikTok, on Instagram, for a while already. Of course, I had no clue there would eventually be an NIL opportunity there. But that there is now? It’s awesome.”

“When he comes to our campus, it is very clear that he is a big deal,” Benedict said. “With a certain demographic, he’s as big of a deal as you can get.”

The night before that game in New York, D’Amelio wanted to catch the men’s hockey team’s game in Storrs. Time was tight. He would have to be at Madison Square Garden by noon the next day. But when you have a friend with a helicopter, you can just about be in two places at once. They flew up, landed 10 minutes from campus and caught the whole tournament game at center ice. When Vermont’s athletic director met D’Amelio, he called his kids, and they flipped out over their dad meeting Charli’s and Dixie’s dad. Then D’Amelio zipped back down to Manhattan to sleep there.

He had courtside seats at the Garden. He had a party to throw, money to raise, athletes to walk through the room. Marc D’Amelio had it all — except any desire to slow down.

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