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Michigan State grad creates company to help college athletes land NIL deals

Ashton Keys (left) poses at Bon Bon Bon dessert shop.
Ashton Keys (left) poses at Bon Bon Bon dessert shop.

Ashton Keys, a 2018 MSU grad, founded Athytic to foster deals between corporations and athletes in college. His portfolio is growing, with more than 1,000 athletes, including some at MSU.

EAST LANSING, Mich. - An eye-catching turquoise and white billboard billboard towers on the side of Grand River Avenue in East Lansing, features a posing Michigan State running back Elijah Collins and gymnast Skyla Schulte with a large “$100k” taking over the left side.

It’s an advertisement for Athlytic, a startup founded by 2018 Michigan State graduate Ashton Keys to help connect athletes with opportunities to foster name, image and likeness (NIL) deals.

Keys, the CEO of Athlytic, created the company alongside a partner two years ago before fully launching it July 1, 2021 when athletes and businesses were first able to sign endorsement deals. Now, nearly 18 months later, Athlytic is coming up on partnerships with over 1,000 athletes across the country.

“I know what an 18-year old, 19-year old athlete can commit to and what will they take serious,” Keys said. “I think building those guardrails into how the platform functions is extremely important because that's our secret sauce. We are part of the culture. We understand pop culture, we understand sports, we love sports, we watch games, like that's what we do.”

Keys’ journey toward creating Athlytic began during his time at Michigan State. Although he was an experience architecture major, most of his time went toward his entrepreneurship minor. Keys started a clothing line, Ninety6, where he traveled as far as Paris to showcase his brand alongside some of the top apparel companies in the world. He also brought MSU’s first fashion week to campus in 2017.

But his inspiration toward working with student athletes came while conducting research with the MSU Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology.

MSU running back Elijah Collins (middle) poses at NIL in-person event at Breadless in Detroit.
MSU running back Elijah Collins (middle) poses at NIL in-person event at Breadless in Detroit.

“That was kind of my first foray into what this could become just because I was just so enamored in terms of as we were building this course work, doing this research at the Hub, how athletes really just didn't view themselves as public figures,” Keys said. “...They look at themselves as like a normal student.”

Rather than immediately pursuing athletes in more well-known sports, Athlytic casts a wide net, working with athletes across all sports.

“We don’t go after sexy athletes,” Keys said. “...You hear about the million, but if we can make a whole bunch of thousanders where they're graduating with 30 grand in your pocket after four years, imagine how your life starts. You're debt-free with 30 grand in your pocket.”

Even though the financial compensation is an obvious benefit, Keys said there is more to it than just simple exchange of money between business and athlete. He believes there’s a lack of support for athletes post-graduation, especially for those that don’t go pro.

“One of the stories where I heard a guy was just like, 'I was just playing in the Rose Bowl and now like, I'm working at Amazon,’” Keys said. “That's a real story. On campus these players are lauded, but once they finish it's kind of like not a lot of resources set up for them kind of finished their career.”

Athlytic employs six people to oversee the athletes and businesses utilizing its site. Talent acquisition manager Will Stahmer was the company’s first hire, and briefly played football for Tulsa before transferring to Miami (Fla.) while working in the Hurricanes’ football office.

He said he experienced that same problem while being an athlete, and noticed it in others too.

“The idea of structure and who you are as a person is way different than when you put the cap and gown on and walk across the stage,” Stahmer said. “Life comes at you fast. It comes real fast and I was blessed to graduate and do all that kind of stuff, but I had no plan. I had no idea. My whole life had been football.”

Stahmer oversees the onboarding process for athletes and is one of their main points of contact. Upon creating an account, the athletes are able to list their interests in their profiles as well as link their social media pages. Then, they can utilize tools provided by Athlytic to set three different pricing options: social media stories (such as Instagram stories), timeline posts (such as Twitter, Instagram or TikTok) and in-person events.

From there, athletes are able to connect with local and nationwide brands such as MasterCard, Cadillac, Rocket Mortgage, Mountain Dew and others to ink NIL deals.

Athlytic banks on its return on investment from previous deals to encourage other businesses to utilize its platform. It is currently running a promotion handing out $500 for brands to use on their first NIL deal.

While the large $1 million deals are the one’s catching headlines, Keys and Stahmer said the small partnerships that help pay rent or get a car fixed are the ones that go a long way too.

“I just think that's just a common misconception with NIL and the kids you work with,” Stahmer said. “It is the Wild West, but there's people out there that really are benefiting from this in a positive way and that's at least been the most rewarding part for me working with Athlytic.”

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