Up until June 2021, the NCAA prohibited non-professional student athletes from receiving compensation for their participation in college teams. That all changed when the Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA could not keep students from profiting from education-related payments.
With the new NCAA policy, students are able to profit from their name, image, and likeness (NIL), and in San Diego, one local group of entrepreneurs have found a unique way to support student athletes while also boosting community involvement in local college sports.
Started by Jeff Smith (businessman and SDSU alumni class of ‘94), Mesa Foundation connects SDSU student-athletes with local charities in order for them to use their name, image, and likeness. These student-athletes then receive a stipend for partnering with the local organization and, in turn, help spread awareness for these nonprofits and causes.
“If you’ve actively followed collegiate sports for the past half decade, you’ve certainly heard of the NIL breakthrough,” Smith says. “Mesa Foundation helps SDSU men’s and women’s basketball players be more active and involved in the community, reminding San Diego that they are not just athletes. It provides a level of connection and humanity.”
Right now, the foundation is working on one of its first partnerships with local alcoholic beverage brand Novo Brazil Brewing. Together, they will produce Nova Easy Kombucha’s (the brewer’s spin-off brand) newest flavor—raspberry lemonade—launching in early 2024. A percentage of sales will be invested into the foundation to be redistributed amongst the athletes.
Nova and Mesa’s union was kismet, though it began out of necessity. Smith vocalized that he was looking to beef up SDSU’S NIL exposure, and Novo’s co-founder, Tiago Carneiro—a devout San Diego sports fan on the heels of a collaboration with San Diego Wave FC—threw in his bid.
“Tiago was one of the first business owners to step up. He gets it. The landscape of college sports is shifting,” Smith says. “You can no longer passively support your favorite college sports team and expect them to have continued success. It won’t happen. This is an ideal partnership because it allows the community to support the players.”
This system is more efficient than simply handing players a check because the money paid through this partnership will be recurring. It also allows the public to feel like there isn’t a steep barrier to entry to supporting the athletic department. If you’re a cash-strapped college student or a jet-setting entrepreneur, you can support in a way compatible with your budget.
But what goes into developing a hard kombucha for a college sports team, especially when your brand already totes craft flavors like dragon fruit, peachy lychee, watermelon mint, and cactus fruit with agave & jalapeno? You begin with establishing an organic relationship between your ingredients and the team you are collaborating with.
“Nova is 100 percent about sports in San Diego. We are already one of the sponsors of Snapdragon Stadium,” Carneiro says. “We thought of different berries and fruits that are similar to the colors of the SDSU uniform and created five flavors for the players to choose from. Same with the packaging. It will all tie back into SDSU.”
The result? A raspberry lemonade hard kombucha that is bright, effervescent, aromatic with floral notes, and slightly sweet with a crisp finish. It’s like drinking summertime and will be available in cans in retailers across the county and on draft in Novo’s Otay Ranch and Ocean Beach tap rooms.
Carneiro wants to be clear: the players are not considered employees, but are ambassadors for the brand and whose roles are to continue dedicating time to honing their craft.
For many, watching the demolition of Qualcomm Stadium felt akin to witnessing your childhood home reduced to ash. Or the unsavory reminder that it’s been decades since this town has won a major sports championship. We, too, deserve to parade around the streets of our neighborhood when the buzzer sounds, signaling San Diego as the victors.
He knows that SDSU Men’s Basketball often feels like our closest shot to achieving this, our nearest beacon of hope. And this is one way the community can help be a part of those dreams. But mostly, Carneiro knows it’s about the players, supporting their athletic journeys, and investing in their pursuits on and off the court.
“Yeah, it’s great to be at a program involved in NIL,” says Jaedon Ledee, a recent ESPN player of the week. “We get to do what we love and put a little money in our pockets. You can’t complain about that. And I’m in the MBA program, so it’s cool being a part of a business like this.”