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May 13, 2021

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March Madness is big business for the NCAA but not for its athletes. A Chicago student is helping former players cash in

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Jason Lansing, 22, a University of Michigan senior from Chicago, sits with some of his Michigan gear for his online business selling game-worn sports gear in partnership with former college athletes on March 25, 2021, in Chicago. The Players Trunk, which stores merchandise in a suburban family garage, is growing so fast it was recently funded by a Chicago venture capital firm.
Jason Lansing, 22, a University of Michigan senior from Chicago, sits with some of his Michigan gear for his online business selling game-worn sports gear in partnership with former college athletes on March 25, 2021, in Chicago. The Players Trunk, which stores merchandise in a suburban family garage, is growing so fast it was recently funded by a Chicago venture capital firm. (Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune/TNS) Photo Gallery

CHICAGO – As head manager for the University of Michigan men’s basketball team, Jason Lansing has spent four years doing scut work – mopping up floors, unloading equipment and showing up for early morning rebounding duty.

With Michigan ousted from the NCAA tourney Tuesday, Lansing, 22, a senior from Chicago set to graduate in May, will turn his attention to a potentially more lucrative role – helping former college players across multiple sports cash in by selling their game-worn gear online.

The Players Trunk, an e-commerce website launched last summer by Lansing, two fellow managers and two former Michigan basketball players, sells everything from used jerseys and shoes to locker room nameplates. The startup, which stores its growing collection of player-supplied products in a suburban garage, has taken off so quickly it has already drawn seed funding from a Chicago venture capital firm.

“It’s really about growing it and getting as many athletes as we can to the platform, and sharing our mission of really empowering the athletes to monetize themselves,” Lansing said. “Because they haven’t been able to monetize their whole career and, in a sense, have been exploited.”

College sports is a multibillion-dollar industry with broadcast rights, merchandising, sponsorships and ticket sales, built on the performance of amateur athletes who have long been unable to monetize their success without forfeiting their eligibility to compete. NCAA rules prevent current athletes from receiving compensation beyond a scholarship providing a free college education.

The Players Trunk features gear from more than 400 former college athletes representing nearly 100 schools. Prices range from $20 for a football beanie offered by former Ohio State lineman Brady Taylor to $4,000 for a game-worn jersey from Cassius Winston, a four-year star point guard for Michigan State, now in his rookie season with the NBA’s Washington Wizards.

Players keep the “vast majority” of the revenue, Lansing said. He declined to provide specific revenue figures but said the site has processed more than 5,000 orders.

“Sales have definitely been above our expectations,” said Lansing, whose father, Andy Lansing, is president and CEO of Chicago-based Levy, which provides food service at major sports venues across the country.

A former high school basketball player at Francis W. Parker, a private school in Lincoln Park, Lansing knew he didn’t have the ability to play at Michigan, but wanted to stay in the game.

During four years as a team manager, Lansing developed close friendships with players while shagging rebounds from the crack of dawn until midnight. At the top of the list was Charles Matthews, a fellow Chicagoan who transferred to Michigan after playing his freshman year at the University of Kentucky.

Matthews, a 6-foot-6 shooting guard who grew up in the Avalon Park neighborhood on the city’s South Side and starred at St. Rita High School, led Michigan to the Final Four in 2018.

After his junior season, Matthews decided to turn pro but tore his ACL while working out for the Boston Celtics two weeks before the 2019 NBA draft, ending his college career and putting his pro aspirations in jeopardy. He went back to Michigan to finish his degree and begin rehabbing for another shot at the NBA.

No longer bound by NCAA restrictions on marketing himself, Matthews asked Lansing to help him sell some of his gear online through Instagram. There were sales, but it wasn’t a great process, both said.

“It was just becoming a hassle of people trying to message me on Instagram,” said Matthews, 24, who is back home in Chicago after playing this season for the Cleveland Cavaliers G League developmental team.

Last year, senior Michigan guard Zavier Simpson asked Lansing to sell his gear after the pandemic canceled March Madness and ended his college career. Simpson now plays for the Oklahoma City Thunders’ developmental team.

Lansing teamed up with fellow Michigan basketball manager Austin Pomerantz and his brother, Hunter Pomerantz, the former basketball manager at Syracuse University. Partnering with Matthews and Simpson, they launched The Players Trunk in July.

Matthews helped get the venture off the ground with his remaining collection of college-issued gear.

“Basically, I had to play tug-of-war with my mom. She’s a bit of a hoarder,” Matthews said. “Whatever I was able to get her to let me have, I put it up on the website. I’m pretty sure she still has stuff hidden all over our house as well.”

Everything from his jerseys to a locker room nameplate sold, “stuff I didn’t think anybody would want,” Matthews said.

The Players Trunk also includes lesser known athletes such as Kenzie Maloney, a University of Nebraska volleyball player who sold everything from her game-worn sneakers to a signed 2016 NCAA volleyball championship runner-up trophy.

Then there’s Matt Sportelli, a recently graduated long snapper from the Rutgers University football team, who sold items ranging from a team-issued beanie to a game towel, but whose size 13 football shoes are still available at $100.

As more athletes signed up, the Pomerantz brothers repurposed the family garage at their home in Old Westbury on Long Island as the company’s warehouse. Corporate headquarters shifted from an Ann Arbor apartment to Chicago and suburban New York homes as the founders all move on from college.

Starting Line, a Chicago-based venture capital firm, soon noticed the hubbub around The Players Trunk.

“We discovered them in November and raced to get an investment done,” said Ezra Galston, 36, founding partner of Starting Line. “Because we just thought that this had all the trappings of a really massive idea.”

Founded in 2018, the Starting Line was an early investor in several successful Chicago-based startups including parking app SpotHero and Cameo, where fans can buy customized video greetings from celebrities. Galston sees similar potential in The Players Trunk.

While Galston declined to say how much his firm invested in The Players Trunk, he said the capital will help accelerate growth and perhaps get them out of the garage as business ramps up.

Backing recent and soon-to-be college graduates is a good long-term bet, Galston said.

“When you invest in someone of that demographic, you know that they’re a missionary, rather than a mercenary,” Galston said. “You know they’re in it because they care deeply about what they’re building, they’re not trying to just flip a dollar.”

Central to The Players Trunk business model is the long-standing NCAA restriction on players receiving compensation while still playing college sports. The platform is positioned as the go-to place for players to monetize their college careers as soon as they’re eligible.

But that may be changing as the 115-year-old governing body of college sports faces increasing pressure to allow current players to profit from their own name, image and likeness through such things as product endorsements or social media posts, something several states have already signed into law.

The social media hashtag #NotNCAAProperty has gained traction during March Madness and is featured prominently on The Players Trunk website, with a T-shirt bearing the merchandising battle cry selling for $25.

The lion’s share of the NCAA’s annual $1 billion budget comes from revenue generated by March Madness – its annual 68-team men’s basketball tournament, according to published financial statements.

If the NCAA opens up marketing opportunities for current players, The Players Trunk is positioned to take advantage, Galston said.

“My suspicion is there will be a gold rush to monetize college players,” Galston said. “One of the reasons we invested in The Players Trunk is because there’s going to be so many scams and money pouring in to try to take advantage of these college athletes, and we wanted to be affiliated with a partner they’d inherently trust.”