By R.L. Bynum
When star sophomore Carolina guard Deja Kelly signed a big endorsement deal last week, building her brand and making a difference were as important to her as the money, which is the envy of former college athletes who never got this chance.
Gone are the days of scholarship athletes pinching pennies because they weren’t allowed to make money off the court, thanks to the NCAA giving them the right to profit from their name, image and likeness (NIL).
But the job a typical college student takes could never have the impact or earn as much money as the deal Kelly’s agent, Cecil White of Endeavor Group Holdings’ WME Sports, struck with Dunkin’ (formerly Dunkin’ Donuts). It was announced last week.
“They just really cared about helping me really build my brand like what I wanted to be,” Kelly said of WME. “They weren’t trying to change my values or change anything like that. They were like, ‘Whatever you want, that’s what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna promote whatever is important to you.’ I think that is really important with me making my decision with going with WME and it’s just been great ever since.”
Dishing out assists on the court draws cheers, but so should the help she dished out through the deal.
Giving back is important to Kelly, and that’s why Dunkin’ donated $5,000 on her behalf to the Velle Cares Foundation as part of the deal. The foundation assists community-based organizations that promote health, education and life skills for children and families in at-risk situations.
Among the philanthropic work of the foundation, the brainchild of N.C. Central men’s basketball coach LaVelle Moton, is the annual Single Mothers Salute. The foundation’s mission is close to Kelly’s heart since her mom Theresa Nunn (pictured in the above Instagram post with Kelly) is a single mom.
“That’s really important to me,” said Kelly, adding that the donation is one of the main things she asked for. “My mom is one, so just being able to give back and help out single moms like that, and help out kids that have single moms? I think that’s really important to me. That’s something that I’ve valued throughout my whole process so far.”
Kelly met Moton during her sophomore year in high school, continued to connect through social media and they have become close.
“He’s like family to me, basically,” Kelly said. “And he’s been taking care of me ever since I’ve been out here in North Carolina. He’s been a huge blessing to us.”
Kelly, the ACC women’s player of the week, is the leading scorer for the No. 18 Tar Heels (21–5, 11–5 ACC). UNC, which got a signature win last week over then-No. 3 Louisville, has won five of its last six games entering the final regular-season games at Virginia (7 p.m. Thursday, ESPN3) and at home against Duke (4 p.m. Sunday, ACC Network).
Kelly is fourth in the ACC at 16.3 points per game, leads the league in free-throw percentage (86.3%) and is averaging 19.2 points in the last five games.
Several other top women’s basketball players have NIL deals, including Connecticut’s Paige Bueckers, who signed a multi-year deal last year with Gatorade. Kelly and Georgia track and field star Matthew Boling were the first college athletes to sign deals with Dunkin’, which also has a deal with NFL running back Saquon Barkley.
Kelly promotes Dunkin’ on social media. At the East Franklin Street Dunkin’ location, as part of the deal, you can order the Deja Kelly Drink, which is a cold brew with cold foam, five pumps of French vanilla and light ice.
“Everyone’s new to it,” Kelly said. “I think with us really taking our time and not really rushing into things, I think it’s brought a lot of good opportunities for me.”
Not only was Kelly happy to give back by making the Velle Cares Foundation donation possible, she hopes that deals like this can be helpful for other woman athletes.
“I think it’s just a big steppingstone for us to be able to showcase what we value and what we support and what’s important to us, other than just being a basketball player,” Kelly said. “So, for us to just be able to show what we value, just being able to give people a deeper look at our lives. I think it’s really, really important and it’s really exciting.”
The Dunkin’ deal was Kelly’s biggest but just the latest, after being part of Outback Steakhouse’s “Teammates” promotion with Caleb Love, who also is a sophomore guard for UNC.
Neither Kelly nor Coach Courtney Banghart revealed how much the sophomore guard is earning with those deals, but Banghart suggested that they are lucrative.
“I can tell you she’s doing quite well for herself,” Banghart said, adding that the earnings are substantial enough that Kelly has someone managing her finances. “What I’m really proud of, honestly, is that it’s not a distraction. That’s really hard. If I was able to share how much she’s making, you would be astonished; and it’s not a distraction.
“She’s not been late to one practice. She’s not been more fatigued,” Banghart said. “She’s not been more important. She’s only been committed to the collection of our group and the connection of our group and the amount of pressure she has to carry through that? She’s a remarkable human being.”
During Kelly’s impressive career at Duncanville High School in Texas when she earned McDonald’s All-America and Texas Girls Basketball Player of the Year honors, she heard that the NCAA might grant NIL rights to college athletes. But that didn’t happen until last summer after her she earned ACC All-Freshman honors last season.
“I think everyone’s goal is to play professionally and being able to build your brand and build your name and get paid for what you do basically off the court and based on your on-court success,” Kelly said. “I think that something that is really deserving, especially the people that have worked hard to build their brands forever. I’m just doing it now. I think that’s really important.”
Kelly’s impressive debut season at UNC got the attention of WME Sports, an agency that counts Candace Parker as one of its clients, and White contacted Kelly in August about representing her. Kelly took her time thinking about what she wanted before signing with WME at the beginning of September.
“He just wanted to let me know what they’re all about and the vision they had for me,” Kelly said of White. “I fell in love with the vision and we’ve been going by it ever since. And I think that’s what I love most. They’re doing everything that they said they would and just everything is falling into place like it should be. I think that’s the best part about it.”
There will be more promotional deals ahead, said Killian Lewis, the Director of Communications, Sports Talent for Endeavor.
“She still is a college student and school and basketball come first,” Lewis said. “But I think that we’re all — including Deja, including her mom — are just trying to find deals that make sense for her, make sense for who she wants to become as a woman and as a professional athlete. So, definitely more deals to come. But I think that we’re taking our time. Most importantly for Deja is finding the right deals and not just any old thing. It’s finding things that she actually connects with.”
Will deals such as Kelly’s help the Carolina program on the recruiting trail? There has been a lot of talk about some college football programs using NIL deals to attract recruits.
Banghart says that her program will take a thoughtful approach in talking about the possibilities with recruits.
“What I tell our recruits is that I’m committed to helping you understand and helping you work through and be creative and innovative about how to utilize your name, image and likeness to the best to what’s important to you,” Banghart. “I think these student-athletes that end up in North Carolina are smart, talented and they’re impactful. They’re big fish in a big pond. And so I talk more about in recruiting that I’m going to help them think thoroughly and thoughtfully about what their impact should be in the NIL space.”
Carolina women’s basketball fans can now not only get to enjoy Kelly’s fine play on the court, but can buy a drink named after her between games in Chapel Hill.
Photo courtesy of Dunkin’