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How Illinois helped Chase, Sydney Brown finally earn NIL money

On July 1, 2021, Chase Brown’s phone filled with messages from business owners who wanted him to endorse their company, however big or small. Name, image, and likeness legislation had become legal in Illinois, allowing Fighting Illini athletes to earn money.

Through some quick addition, Chase determined that he was looking at about $15,000, and was excited to start helping business owners market their companies. Until he learned it was illegal for him to capitalize on name, image, and likeness.

Chase and Sydney Brown are identical twins who star for the Illini football team. Chase plays running back and totaled 1,005 yards last season and was an All-Big Ten third-team selection by conference coaches and media members. Sydney earned All-Big Ten honorable mention as a junior in 2021 and has been a starting strong safety since his freshman season in 2018.

Chase (left) and Sydney Brown speak on Big Ten Network at Big Ten Media Days -- Credit: Sydney Brown Instagram
Chase (left) and Sydney Brown speak on Big Ten Network at Big Ten Media Days -- Credit: Sydney Brown Instagram (Sydney Brown Instagram)

The two twins are talented, intelligent, and good-looking. Altogether they are a perfect combination of what to look for in a college athlete as a potential endorser of your company – but for the most part, their NIL opportunities are limited.

As citizens of London, Ontario, Canada, it’s illegal for Chase and Sydney Brown to earn an active income while they are in the United States because they are in the country on student visas, which limits their ability to earn money. For the Browns to earn NIL income while they are in the United States they are restricted to forms of passive income.

Passive income is “kind of like royalties earned from ownership,” Kam Cox, the coordinator of Illinois Athletics’ INFLUENCE program said. While being restricted to avenues of passive income, the Browns are able to help design apparel with their name, image or number or personal logo on it, but another individual or organization is doing most of the work in regards to advancing the actual product.

Student visa laws are so strict that if the Browns wanted to get a part-time job in the very little free time they have, they might encounter obstacles that would restrict them from doing so.

“What you can’t do is anything that requires you to take an activity while you’re in the United States,” Cox said. “Because you’re here only to be a student. You’re not here to do other stuff. You’re not here to work or do anything that looks like work.”

What all this means, is that for more than nine months of the calendar year, the Browns twins aren’t held to the same standard many other athletes on the Illinois campus are in opportunities for NIL. However, in the less than three months the Browns return to Canada, their home country, they are open for business as it relates to NIL, and in May both twins returned home and were finally able to make money for the use of their NIL.

“It was fun to go home and explore those opportunities that we’ve been begging for since my freshman year,” Sydney said. “I remember as a freshman looking back and being like, ‘I want this, I want this, I want this,’ and then it finally came. It hit college football like a storm and it’s been nothing but a blessing and an opportunity to make money while we are in school.”

Due to their earning potential being so regulated, Illinois football and Illini athletics helped the Browns communicate to the world that they would be in Canada for the entire month of May. Through a photoshoot with Patrick Pierson, Illinois football’s director of football branding and creative media, both the Browns were given a graphic that explained they were “open to all business opportunities” in Chase’s words.

Illinois head coach Bret Bielema has forcibly favored NIL opportunities for his players since July 2021. But he too learned of the many restrictions the Browns faced because of their citizenship. Still, he helped work on the fundamentals of getting Chase and Sydney opportunities while they were back in Canada. Bielema can’t help facilitate NIL deals, but he wanted to learn more about ways the Browns could operate while in Canada.

“They obviously are on a student visa,” Bielema said. “So, it limits the amount of work they can do while they’re here in the United States. So, I said, ‘When can they work?’ They said when they are in Canada. ‘Well, let’s figure out what we can do when we’re in Canada.’ So, they were home for a short amount of time and took advantage of some deals, opportunities.

“But the thing that I love, they truly are the greatest representation that we can have. … These are two very unique kids.”

One opportunity the Browns agreed to partner with while in Canada is LSKD, an Australian-owned sports and streetwear apparel company that strongly values community and sport, fitness and adventure, according to the company’s website.

“It stands for Loose Kid and they’re like a Lululemon,” Sydney said. “Their thing is chase the vibe, that’s what it’s been. They are trying to expand out to the United States, and my brother and I being international students ourselves, we kind of met the role and the ambassador position, so they gave it to us. So, we like what they’re about, we like what they represent, and we’re looking forward to continue to help with them.”

The Browns have shared videos and images of themselves wearing LSKD apparel on their Instagram accounts. Social media is integral in the Brown’s NIL value. Together, the twins have nearly 10,000 followers on Instagram and they have more than 3,000 combined followers on Twitter. Opendorse, a company that helps athletes manage NIL opportunities says Sydney’s value of a post on social media is more than $73.

“They succeed by continuing to keep a really strong image,” Cox said. “They’ve done that the way they continue to kind of be real bright spots in our program, which we believe in our upward trajectory. And they’re a big part of that. So, I think that’s kind of the main way they continue to succeed and they were ready to hit the ground running when they got back to Canada.

“They capitalized on that in certain ways, and that was really, really interesting. I was proud to see them do that. I was proud to see them not get frustrated because when NIL first came out there was this sense that ‘Oh my gosh, it really is real.’ And then, I think, it took people a couple months to realize, ‘Hey there’s no way around this issue.’ And I’ll say that Chase and Sydney were very positive throughout that whole journey, and I think that’s commendable because it can be frustrating to be told no over and over again. They didn’t, at any point in time, get down on themselves. I think those are the main things, but they’ve adjusted well, and they understand what the limitations are.”

Cox has been one of the biggest reasons the Browns have comprehended many of the limitations they have in the NIL world. He’s readily available to answer any questions the twins have about what is legal and what’s not. He’s also been helpful in explaining the NIL from an international perspective.

“Words can’t describe how grateful I am for Kam,” Chase said. “What he’s been able to do for Syd and I, and the cases he’s looked into, the people that he’s contacted, he’s done a really good job. He’s been able to kind of unveil the issues and what we’re allowed to do and not allowed to do.”

Now back in the United States, preparing for the upcoming season, Chase is looking into ways he can continue to build his brand by starting to design apparel with his own personal logo and number on jerseys, t-shirts and sweatshirts with the goal of something “people would actually want to wear.”

The ability to earn NIL income, albeit just for one month, has also presented Chase with an opportunity to learn more about being financially responsible, saving money – and investing in ventures that will put him in a “better position” when he leaves college.

“NIL has completely changed that to a point where I’m not just thinking about saving money,” Chase said. “I’m thinking about investing, putting it in different places. Building a financial portfolio.”

The Browns are limited in their NIL endeavors for the remainder of their college careers. Sydney is out of eligibility after the 2022 season and Chase could decide to go to the NFL if he has another successful season rushing the football for the Illini this Fall. So, the Browns likely aren’t going to make as much money as some of their teammates or other star college football players across the country.

“Looking for more opportunities going forward,” Chase said. “That one month showed me how much I’ve been missing out on.”