Michigan’s Will Johnson balances business, football and a growing brand
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — In many ways, Will Johnson is a typical freshman making the transition from high school to college.
Johnson is living alone for the first time, even though his house is not far away. He learns to take his own responsibilities and manage his own schedule. Like most freshmen who play for Michigan, Johnson had to start on page 1 of the playbook and learn a bunch of football concepts from scratch.
In other ways, Johnson is doing something that has little precedent in college football history. Along with finding his footing in Michigan high school, Johnson leads the life of a five-star cornerback in the age of name, image and likeness. That means analyzing contracts, consulting with accountants and advisers, making promotional appearances and managing a burgeoning brand that could make Johnson a rich man before he plays a breeze in the NFL.
“The way we view the mark of William and William is that of a professional,” said Michael D. Stein, Johnson’s attorney. “William behaves like a professional. William doesn’t do anything amateur.
These odd juxtapositions have become commonplace now that college athletes can earn an income from their NIL rights. Players remain amateurs in the eyes of the NCAA, but for many of them, running an NIL brand is a high-level business venture, if not a full-time job.
Johnson was the No. 14 player on the 247Sports composite rankings for the Class of 2022, making him one of the most marketable players on Michigan’s roster. He is a brand ambassador for Valiant, the apparel brand affiliated with the NIL marketing agency of the same name launched by two Michigan graduates. He also made paid mentions for Positivity Alkaline Water and The Morrie, a Michigan restaurant with locations in Birmingham and Royal Oak.
That’s a lot for a freshman to juggle, but Johnson hasn’t found it overwhelming so far.
“I don’t take every deal that comes my way,” Johnson said. “I’m selective about it to not make it overwhelming, but still make it a positive thing. Bringing in people who I think will help my brand and I can help their brand – that’s really it.
Stein, an Oakland County-based commercial transactions attorney, helps Johnson identify NIL transactions and verify contracts. Stein has worked with professional athletes in the same capacity and said the process was no different with a freshman, aside from the obvious age difference.
“These are big boy companies,” Stein said. “There are real dollars at stake, and there are huge future implications. You’re still dealing with an 18-year-old. I don’t forget it.
Johnson committed to Michigan in February 2021, months before the floodgates opened on the NIL deals. As a freshman inherited from nearby Grosse Pointe, Johnson had deep ties to Michigan. He didn’t make his decision based on which school offered the best NIL package, but once those deals became legal, he assembled a team to help him navigate the market. The team included Stein and Johnson’s family, as well as financial advisors and accountants.
“We looked at it primarily as a business approach rather than going in and signing a bunch of deals,” Johnson said. “We just took it step by step.”
Michigan has not plunged into the NIL world as aggressively as some schools, opting for a more cautious approach in the first wave of deals. Since then, Michigan has partnered with INFLCR to launch an exchange platform that allows sponsors to connect with athletes and automatically generates compliance documents used to track NIL transactions.
Michigan may have been slower initially, Johnson said, but the school has added resources to become more competitive.
“They’re going to make sure they’re doing everything 100% before they put their brand at risk,” Johnson said. “They went slower and made sure they got it all right, but they have plenty of opportunities and plenty of people who want to go down the NIL path who will help them. I think they’re up there with everyone else.
The latest trend involves donor collectives pooling funds with the goal of compensating athletes. Notre Dame, Alabama and Ohio State are among the schools where donors and former players have banded together in recent weeks to form collectives, each with a slightly different goal.
Some collectives have been more brazen than others in offering contracts that, while ostensibly compensating athletes for their NIL rights, essentially exist to direct athletes to the collective’s preferred school. Stein predicted that the fear of missing out on top recruits will drive donor collectives to become increasingly influential.
“We live in a country of ‘FOMO,'” Stein said. “Nothing is more of a fear of missing out than college football. Every booster, everyone wants to see their school succeed because they take the greatest pride in it. This is the world we live in.
Michigan has positioned itself as a school where athletes can create a brand that will last long after they are done wearing corn and blue. Head coach Jim Harbaugh likes to say that “your squad is always your brand”, a reminder that players are ultimately judged by what they do on the field. For Johnson, business goals are a byproduct of other aspirations he has for his time in college.
“My goals for my time at Michigan are several things: win a national championship, win the Jim Thorpe Award, be a good teammate and contribute to the team in a really positive way,” he said.
Johnson’s career is off to a promising start. He started as a cornerback for the blue team in Michigan’s spring game, and Harbaugh said he expects Johnson to fight for game time in the fall.
“Will Johnson, you can just see it,” Harbaugh said on Michigan’s “In the Trenches” podcast. “He’s that type of athlete. When he’s covering for guys, he’s right there with them. He will play and fight for a starting position.
Johnson had a lot to do this spring. So far he’s handled things like a pro. It’s no exaggeration to imagine him playing an important role for Wolverines in 2022, but like anything else, he’ll have to earn it.
“I think I definitely have a great opportunity,” he said. “I have to keep doing what I’m doing, keep improving every day, keep giving them reasons to put me on the pitch and I’ll be good.”
(Photo: Courtesy of Will Johnson)