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Saturday, May 18, 2024

How Two College Students Helped DJ Burns Cash In on a Final Four Run

  • A student-run agency is working behind the scenes to facilitate deals for NC State’s big man.
  • In the fast-paced, precarious business of March Madness NIL, it’s all about staying alive.
Mar 16, 2024; Washington, D.C., USA; North Carolina State Wolfpack forward DJ Burns Jr. (30) cuts the net after defeating the North Carolina Tar Heels for the ACC Conference Championship at Capital One Arena.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 17, 2023; Denver, Colorado, USA; General view of field level Coors Field broadcast cameras during the sixth inning against the San Francisco Giants against the Colorado Rockies.
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Two Saturdays ago, at a restaurant in Bloomington, a pair of Indiana students were glued to the television as NC State inched closer and closer to eliminating Oakland and advancing to the Sweet 16. The average observer may have assumed that Jordan Green and Matt Bergman had a financial stake in the outcome. “We were probably the most fired-up people in the restaurant,” Green tells Front Office Sports. “Like standing up, like, ‘Let’s gooooo!’”

They did have a business interest, but it had nothing to do with gambling. Green is the founder of Glacier Marketing Group, which, among other things, works as an agency in the name, image, and likeness space. Bergman is his partnerships marketing manager of NIL. The two college juniors had lined up a tentative NIL deal between NC State’s center and viral sensation, DJ Burns Jr., and the grooming company Manscaped—in fact, the pact came together so quickly that they didn’t have time to finalize it before tip-off. The deal would be dead unless the Wolfpack could, in the words of legendary NC State coach Jim Valvano, survive and advance. Hence the excitement.

Since the beginning of the NIL era, previously unknown college basketball players have monetized Cinderella runs and the viral moments that come with them. But the most marketable moments are also the most fleeting. And because companies want to capitalize immediately, executing a deal can be a logistical nightmare for players and management who may not be accustomed to the barrage of interest—or to putting deals together in a matter of hours, rather than days or weeks. 

Enter Glacier, the agency run by Gen Z for Gen Z. In many ways, the company is one of a kind: Green launched it as a high school student in Alaska, hardly a hotbed of Power 5 college programs. Green has since grown the brand to represent clients all over the sports and entertainment industry. 

Green and his team have begun to master that art of anticipating, and then monetizing, iconic social media moments in the sports world and beyond. “Our entire team is comprised of college students at the moment,” says Green, who recently turned 21. “So we’re very ear-to-the-ground on what’s trending, what’s popular—especially when it comes to college basketball.”

The duo and their team were able to coordinate an entire content plan for the Manscaped deal within 48 hours of NC State beating Oakland. It’s not their first time: They also managed San Diego State guard Matt Bradley last year, facilitating multiple deals during the Aztecs’ run to the championship game. 

Green and Bergman first signed Bradley in May 2022, Green says. At first, business was slow. Bradley had only about 3,000 Instagram followers and was much more focused on basketball than on making bank. For months during the season, Green had been reaching out to local companies in San Diego, asking for as little as merchandise or comped meals for his client. But when the NCAA tournament rolled around, everything changed. 

Bradley, the team’s regular-season leading scorer, helped lead the Aztecs to an unexpected Final Four run that included upsetting No. 1–seeded Alabama in the Sweet 16. Bergman recalled reaching out to Oakley sunglasses, for example, and securing a “care package” leading into the Final Four. Green traveled to Houston and spent the weekend meeting with potential clients, inking several other deals in the process.

Deals stemming from the NCAA tournament are not only more abundant for overnight sensations but also more lucrative. “A player might have 10,000 followers, but a brand will overpay to be part of that person’s moment—especially through March Madness,” Green says.

The Aztecs lost to UConn in the championship, but Bradley went home with a consolation prize: During the course of the weekend, he had earned five figures.

Leading into this year’s NCAA tournament, Bergman and his team were much more prepared for the “roller-coaster ride.” First, they identified brands looking to ride the coattails of whichever players dominated the spotlight. Then they looked for “teams to watch throughout the tournament, the specific players we think could be breakout [stars]—specifically, breakout on social media,” Green says. 

DJ Burns checked every box for a unique, lovable, viral sensation. At  six-foot-nine, 275 pounds, the center is built like an offensive lineman, but he has been gracefully spinning and dishing to the tune of 18.3 points and 3.5 assists during the Big Dance. (Because of his size and agility, multiple NFL general managers and scouts have expressed interest in Burns as an offensive tackle prospect.) His impressive performance is only a small part of the fun, however. During TV timeouts he dances, flashing a gap-toothed grin rivaling the likes of Aaron Judge or Michael Strahan. In interviews, he gushes about the joy of playing basketball, appearing to take himself much less seriously than the straight-faced stars whom he’s outplayed.

“Burns also arrived at the tournament with plenty of business acumen. He’s a seasoned pro in the NIL world, with existing partnerships, a clothing line, and a vending machine business. He’s been working with Inkstars Creative Group brand manager Jameisha Trice-Rayborn for the past two years. “DJ was [already] a star at NC State,” Trice-Rayborn says. “He’s the mayor.” But, she noted, not everyone outside the local community had been acquainted with his infectious personality. “Early on, there wasn’t a whole, whole lot of companies coming out the woodwork for DJ. So we wanted to create some more moments that would highlight him.”

Of course, that’s all changed over the past few weeks. “It’s been complete pandemonium,” she says. “Deal after deal, meetings with everybody.” Trice-Rayborn has been able to land deals with Raising Cane’s and TurboTax—and before he took off for Phoenix, Burns did a meet-and-greet at a local Applebee’s. Trice-Rayborn even facilitated a licensing deal for CBS to use a song Burns recorded called “Beast Boy.” In all, Burns has made in the mid-six figures in deals in the past three weeks, his agents told On3.

But the unique challenge of executing March Madness business is no better exemplified than the creativity and chaos of the Manscaped deal. Glacier, which has a working relationship with the brand, operated as a conduit for the deal, pitching Burns to the company and then reaching out to Trice-Rayborn to finalize the deal. (The communication almost didn’t happen—Trice-Rayborn had just written on her LinkedIn page that Burns was her client. If she hadn’t, the two may not have connected.) The second that Burns and the Wolfpack made it to the Sweet 16, everybody sprung into action. 

Manscaped shipped product to arrive at Burns’s hotel in Dallas on Thursday, where he had landed ahead of the matchup against No. 2–seeded Marquette. Bergman “spent all day” Wednesday looking for freelance videographers to shoot an ad, given that the mostly Bloomington-based Glacier team couldn’t make it to Texas on such short notice. TCU athletics videographers took the gig, drove to Dallas, and shot the video based on ideas from Bergman and Green. Bergman FaceTimed Burns before the shoot, encouraging him to showcase his goofy personality.

Around midday Friday, Burns posted the video, which was also featured on Manscaped’s and Glacier’s accounts. It was just six hours to tip-off.

NC State wasn’t expected to beat the Golden Eagles that Friday night, let alone reach the Final Four. But after steamrolling No. 4–seeded Duke on Sunday afternoon, Burns was clearly the darling of the men’s tournament on and off the court, winning the South Region’s Most Outstanding Player.

He brought that crown to Phoenix as he and Trice-Rayborn dealt with the media circus of the men’s championship event for the first time. “It’s been pretty cool just being able to have your work pay off every day,” he says. “It’s just been hectic, honestly.” (Burns noted, though, that his agent and management team are handling most of his business dealings while he’s in Phoenix.) 

Trice-Rayborn will be spending the weekend taking meetings with a long list of companies hoping to sign deals either now or when his Final Four run ends as he pursues a career in the NBA. “We’ve seen all the Cinderella runs,” Trice-Rayborn says. “But I don’t think we’ve had … one where a player emerged with this level of impact.” 

For Glacier, meanwhile, there’s plenty of life after Burns. The company will continue to try to connect brands seeking their own “One Shining Moment” with players during this year’s Final Four, whether that be Burns or anyone else. “I’ve been in class the last two mornings sending emails … doing as much outreach as we can,” Bergman says. After all, schoolwork is just going to have to wait for everyone involved in March Madness—whether it’s the players on the hardwood or the students helping them cash in.

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