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WICHITA — Player Card’s young co-founders see the NIL market as an opportunity to intertwine community, industry, and athletes, they said.
Wichita State students Jacob O’Connor and Jon Peterson started Player Card in October 2021 as a way to connect college athletes and businesses after the NCAA changed course in July 2021 — now allowing students athletes the opportunity to financially benefit from their name, image, and likeness (NIL).
“They’re a very prominent figure in the universities,” Peterson explained. “They bring a lot of money to the universities, especially some of the big sports. So this NIL (market) really allows them to benefit from that and kind of gives them compensation for their hard work for the university.”
Wichita is a great place for such athlete-business connections, added O’Connor, as it’s a place that a lot of large, successful companies have started and decided to stay.
“There’s always been kind of a feeling of how do we get them more involved in the community,” he said.
That’s where NIL opportunities come into play, he said, sharing Player Card’s recent event with Spirit AeroSystems as an example.
“We were able to bring six Wichita State athletes out to their annual employee benefits event and they were able to sign autographs, take pictures, and everyone was able to interact with each other,” he explained. “I think that was a really cool moment for the city of Wichita — everyone coming together and finally starting to cross that threshold of interaction.”
So far, the duo said, they have connected about 20 athletes in various sports with 10 local businesses. But they have access to the entire network of Wichita State athletes, so they are hoping to continue to expand opportunities to even more athletes.
“We have a lot of athletes who come to us and they’re like, ‘We weren’t getting any sort of attention for this before,’” O’Connor noted. “So whenever we come to them, and say, ‘Hey, this business wants to work with you and they’re gonna pay you a very fair amount of money to work with them.’ They’re super excited and they’re kind of taken aback. That’s been super fulfilling for us.”
It’s fun to watch athletes turn into fellow entrepreneurs, he shared.
“It’s been really kind of cool to see that mind switch for them – of how they can go from just to college athletes to I can actually make myself a good amount of money on the side and benefit the community as well,” O’Connor said.
O’Connor initially had the idea for Player Card after he worked on a digital marketing strategy for a local restaurant where the goal was to have local influencers come into the restaurant and post about it on social media, he said.
“When NIL (opportunities) came around, it was kind of like, ‘Hold on. Aren’t college athletes just another version of an influencer?’” he recalled. “And, perhaps, maybe a more valuable version of an influencer because everyone gets to watch them on TV. They know their names. They can follow their careers. So Jon and I had been brainstorming about how to best do that.”
The initial idea was to create an app that would use an algorithm to match athletes across the country with the best opportunities, he continued. The duo received money from the Kansas Department of Commerce to help fund the app.
“So we started pursuing that and realized — hold on — we’re trying to boil the ocean here,” he said. “Right now, we’re in Wichita, Kansas. And in our opinion, the NIL market was not being addressed very well at all. So we kind of took a step back and said, ‘We can have a pretty large impact here, just in the Wichita area.’”
They started off their local focus by connecting Wichita State athletes to partner restaurants that would be willing to exchange a meal for a social media post.
“It’s as simple as being able to help them get meals,” O’Connor added. “That was kind of where this whole thing started. As Jon and I were two broke college kids thinking, ‘Man, if I could get a free meal every now and again, how nice that’d be.”
It has now evolved to athletes attending events to sign autographs and pose for pictures, as well as photo shoots for ads and commercials. Peterson said they do all of the legwork by approaching businesses with the idea of partnering with athletes and then pairing them with athletes that will best complement their business and customer demographic.
“We’re the ones going and reaching out to these businesses and saying, ‘Hey, we think there’s a great opportunity here and it’s a new market,’” he continued. “So it’s something different that the businesses can do to differentiate themselves.”
The business partners also do all the event setup and coordination with the athletes. For example, they paired Il Primo coffee shop with three female athletes who are big coffee drinkers and matched the vibe of the coffee shop, O’Connor shared.
“We packed 60-plus people into that building, wanting autographs and pictures,” he recalled. “And Il Primo does not get that much traffic typically, but they do very well. But 60 people in their little coffee shop was super cool — to the point where it’s kind of breathtaking and they were super happy with that.”
Both O’Connor and Peterson — who went to high school and played basketball together — are from the St. Louis area and came to Wichita for the university, where they are both in the business school.
O’Connor — who won the entrepreneur of the year award through a high school program and who has a successful podcast — was the recipient of the Jabara entrepreneurship scholarship. Peterson transferred to Wichita State after spending a couple of years at Illinois State University to pursue his own entrepreneurship degree and help O’Connor start Player Card.
As transplants to the area, the founders — participants in Groover Lab’s Campfire tech startup program — said they have found the Wichita entrepreneurial ecosystem to be very supportive.
“I think the mentorship has been a big one for us,” O’Connor explained. “The people we’ve been able to network with, it’s just been honestly mind boggling. I came to Wichita and hearing some of these names in classes — they’re referred to as local legends — people that you read about in the textbooks. And Jon and I get to say that we’ve sat down with them, we get to have meetings with them, we get to stay in contact, and they’re mentoring us.”
Peterson said Tom Devlin with Rent-A-Center and Craig Barton with Barton Investments are two of the Wichita legends they proudly call mentors.
“They’re so supportive and are so helpful,” he added. “That keeps us going. They really push us forward.”
Both Peterson and O’Connor are seniors set to graduate in the spring, but they said they plan to continue to expand Player Card in Wichita and hopefully other cities while keeping the focus on a local approach.
“There’s a local aspect that’s not necessarily addressed with these large software platforms,” O’Conner explained. “So Jon and I like the boots-on-the-ground approach — where you can build a solid relationship — more of a one-on-one. I think expansion plans would probably have to include relocating to other cities, growing a team around that, and handling different universities with a more local approach. We’ll let the maybe more qualified and larger organizations handle the software platforms and more mass scale.”
It all goes back to the community, Peterson emphasized.
“It just brings a smile to your face when you see the impact that something like this can have on a community like Wichita,” he added.
This story is made possible by Entrepreneurial Growth Ventures.
Entrepreneurial Growth Ventures (EGV) is a business unit of NetWork Kansas supporting innovative, high-growth entrepreneurs in the State of Kansas. NetWork Kansas promotes an entrepreneurial environment by connecting entrepreneurs and small business owners with the expertise, education and economic resources they need to succeed.