“Mustard Man” Bijan Robinson Dishes on the Opportunities and Dangers of NIL in College Sports

One college athlete's unique path to getting paid

courtesy of Bijan Mustardson

From a marketer’s perspective, former standout University of Texas running back and current NFL draft prospect Bijan Robinson is the holy grail.

On the field, he’s a one-man highlight factory. Off the field, he’s handsome, charming, and gregarious – “I need my son to be a bit like you, sir,” joked former UT wide receiver and SXSW panel moderator Quan Cosby.

Oh, and his name kind of sounds like a mustard.

“Bijan Mustardson” and its smash-hit line of gourmet dijon mustard is the kind of venture that could not have existed as recently as Robinson’s freshman year. It’s one of the more creative examples out there of how college athletes can now be paid for the use of their name, image, and likeness (NIL), something that had been outlawed for over a century of interscholastic athletics before the Supreme Court legalized it in 2021. It’s all fair game now, though, and Bijan Mustardson takes full advantage of all three letters of the acronym. Bijan’s name is right there in the brand’s title, his image (in cartoon form) graces every bottle, and his likeness is represented (loosely) in the form of an oddly-proportioned mascot peddling mustard on game days.

“The mustard is such a cool deal. I mean, not just because it's like a regular condiment, but you know, it really does make people happy,” Robinson said during a Sunday afternoon SXSW session on NIL partnerships, of which he has several. His influencer marketing deal with fast food chain Raising Cane’s was one of the first ever signed by a UT athlete. He’s plugged in with energy drink brand C4 and Lamborghini Austin, among others.

“We were all just kind of trying to see where this would go in the direction of trying to become profitable for yourself and doing it in the right way,” the running back reflected. “Obviously God blessed me to play football on the field, but it was more like he was blessing me for off-the-field things as well.”

Robinson is a trailblazer of sorts in the new and rapidly changing world of NIL. Players and administrators alike have spent the better part of two years adjusting on the fly as the lines of the NIL playing field continue to be drawn and re-drawn in real time. Opportunities that seem can’t-miss deals in one moment become empty promises in the next.

“NIL is changing pretty much every single week,” warns University of Texas School of Advertising and Public Relations Director Natalie Tindall. “No one knows what’s going on, and if people tell you they do know what’s going on, I wouldn’t trust them.”

Trust is at the core of the NIL conundrum. With massive earning potential comes an equally massive potential for exploitation of young, often teenage athletes. That’s why stars with Robinson’s demand have aligned themselves with NIL-specific representation for guidance and protection.

“Athletes of Bijan’s caliber are going to make money in this new climate. So whether I’m great or not, that’s going to happen,” said Bryan Burney, a marketing manager at sports agency Athletes First, who has worked closely with Robinson to sort through a sea of endorsement offers. “It’s up to me to make sure we’re doing the right job of aligning them with companies that fit their values and their brand… You have to make sure that [the companies] are going to have patience. A lot of people don’t understand the ebbs and flows of a student athlete.”

Inconsistency of opportunities available to athletes of different schools, sports, ability, and gender has also contributed to the complex rollout of NIL. Just like only a select few of Robinson’s Longhorn teammates will join him in the NFL, few can come close to matching the size and lucrativeness of his NIL portfolio. If not handled delicately, that kind of disparity can create palpable tension inside a locker room.

“I really don’t like bringing up NIL deals and stuff in the locker room, just because I don’t know where guys’ mindset is and I don’t want a lot of, like, jealousy or anything to fall into it,” Robinson said. “That’s the one thing nowadays that really separates a locker room.”

As for Bijan’s dijon, though, Robinson confirmed it rates highly among his teammates. And when, in private, a younger player approaches him for advice on how to capitalize on NIL, his response is always the same: Be yourself.

“If you love Star Wars, talk about Star Wars. If you love puzzles, talk about puzzles. Whatever it is that makes you happy, do it, because there’s a market for it,” Robinson said. “Don’t play it too cool.”

Featured Session: Bijan Mustardson & the Future of NIL Partnerships

Sports Track

Sun 12, 2:30pm, Austin Convention Center

Catch up with all of The Austin Chronicle's SXSW 2023 coverage.

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SXSW 2023, Bijan Robinson, Bijan Mustardson, Craig Allen, Quan Cosby, Natalie Tindall, Bryan Burney

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