NIL: Setting up an LLC and 501(c)(3) for student-athletes

College athletes can now profit from their name, image, and likeness. Here's how lacrosse champ Charlotte North has capitalized on the policy by creating LLCs and filing for trademarks for her brand.

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by Joni Sweet
updated January 25, 2023 ·  5min read

Charlotte North is more than the star attacker on Boston College's champion lacrosse team—she's also an entrepreneur who has transformed her athletic career into a business.

But she was only able to parlay her on-field performance into financial success after the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) put forth new rules allowing college athletes to get paid for the use of their name, image, and likeness (NIL) in July 2021.

The timing could not have been better for North. Just a month earlier, her six-goal performance helped her team take home its first-ever lacrosse title, and she was honored as the Tewaaraton Award winner for most outstanding college lacrosse player in 2021 and 2022. The recognition opened up opportunities to capitalize on her growing brand. And thanks to the NCAA policy change, she was able to take full advantage of it.

Today, student-athletes can leverage services from LegalZoom to help set up a business entity to help protect themselves throughout their NIL journey.

Here's a closer look at how North is building her business and ways other college athletes can follow in her footsteps.

From athlete to entrepreneur

North has harnessed her on-field performance into success outside the lines through diverse activities, including making appearances and running clinics. But sponsors have also been drawn to her website and social media channels, which have more than 63,000 followers and counting.

Before she could really get her business off the ground, she needed to formalize its structure. She set up two limited liability companies (LLCs)—Charlotte North Lacrosse and Ocho Lacrosse (a nod to her lacrosse jersey, No. 8).

An LLC is a legal status that turns a business into an entity separate from the person (or team) who owns it. That distinction offers benefits for student-athletes who want to earn money from their brand.

But perhaps the most important thing an LLC gives owners is protection against personal responsibility for business debts in the event of a bankruptcy or legal dispute. That gave North an important personal safety net when she ran her first Charlotte North Lacrosse Clinic at her old high school in Dallas in November 2021, drawing nearly 100 players. The event was a big success, but she knew her personal assets would have been protected had something gone wrong.

And when taxes are due next year, North can leverage another advantage of her LLCs: “pass-through" profits. This feature allows an LLC's profits to be passed through the owner and taxed at individual income tax rates, which are usually lower than the taxes corporations pay.

For student-athletes who run brands, the tax advantages of forming a business entity can mean more money in your pocket. But you can't start reaping those benefits until you set up a business entity.

You start by selecting a business name and checking to see if it's up for grabs. Then, you'll need to select a registered agent and create a business operating plan. Each state has its own specific requirements and processes for setting up business entities. LegalZoom can help you complete and file your formation paperwork to meet your state's regulations.

Considering nonprofit 501(c)(3) status

While an LLC made sense for North, it's not the only way to formalize a college athlete's brand. Those who wish to use their NIL for social good rather than profit may want to consider setting up a nonprofit corporation with 501(c)(3) status instead. This status is for not-for-profit organizations and offers exemption from some federal income taxes. That could mean more money goes toward your charitable efforts.

The status can also offer your nonprofit access to grants specifically for 501(c)(3) organizations, which could help you fund your efforts to give back to a community or cause. What's more, this status can help you attract more donors, since contributions to 501(c)(3) organizations are tax deductible.

Like an LLC, a 501(c)(3) can help protect your personal assets in the event of legal issues. But the setup for a 501(c)(3) is a bit different. You'll need to complete your state's nonprofit corporation registration process, which includes filing articles of incorporation. LegalZoom can walk you through the process of setting up a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

Protecting your brand identity with trademarks

With the NCAA policy changes in place for nearly a year, athletes are continuing to find new ways to protect and monetize their brands. For North, that has meant filing three trademark applications for logos based on her NIL—a first among athletes at Boston College.

“It's definitely a really cool opportunity for athletes all across the board," North told Emma Healy of Boston College's student newspaper The Heights. “I think it's something that should have come a while ago … It's really cool to see that there are so many opportunities to capitalize on it."

The logos feature core elements of her brand, such as a silhouette of her shooting a lacrosse ball while her signature braid blows in the wind, along with the stacked words “Charlotte North Lacrosse."

The process to register a trademark can be complicated. It requires careful research to make sure your logo, name, or slogan is distinct from other trademarks and won't be easily confused with an existing trademark from another athlete or sports organization. Your application will also undergo careful review from the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)—a process that usually takes between 12 and 18 months. LegalZoom can help you with your trademark registration, including researching your logo (or other brand elements) to make sure it's unique, filing the application, and making sure minor roadblocks don't become major obstacles.

Navigating the complexities can be worth it, though, given the protections a trademark offers. Assuming the USPTO accepts North's trademark filings, she'll be able to sell merch like cellphone cases, sports caps, lanyards, water bottles, and other branded gear knowing that no one else can profit from it. Down the road, she may also be able to license her logo to major companies, such as brand-name footwear and apparel makers, bringing in additional revenue from e-commerce and retail sales.

While no two people follow the same path to entrepreneurship, North's journey from lacrosse star to running a full-service NIL business shows just some of the ways student-athletes can leverage the NCAA's policy changes to elevate their personal brands.

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About the Author

Joni Sweet

Joni Sweet is a freelance writer.… Read more

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.