CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) – A new company wants to connect fans with the world of college sports – digitally. They’re also giving student athletes a way to make money from their name, image and likeness.

If it weren’t for scholarships, college athletes would’ve played for free – until last year.

“Every year, they [athletic programs] make billions of dollars on the talent that makes nothing,” NextName president and co-founder Steven Thayer said.

But then, Illinois lawmakers changed the game. They started allowing players to make money using their name, image and likeness.

“We’re in a new world of college sports. And if you want to attract talent to your teams, you’re going to have to support those teams,” he said.

U of I alum Steven Thayer and his son wanted to give fans a unique way to support their favorite teams and players.

“As a lawyer, it hit me, like ‘oh my gosh, that’s the solution. We can sell the NIL of a player by selling NFT’s the player,'” he said.

NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are digital collectibles. Thayer co-founded “NextName” – a company that sells NFTs of athletes – starting with some Illini.

“Buy a pack of baseball cards. It’s a picture of the player with some stats and information on him. That’s really all we’re talking about – digital trading cards,” he said.

He said some NIL business deals can be complicated, and athletes might not see much profit. But through NextName, over half of the profits from each token go directly to the players.

“Oftentimes it’s businesses that are wanting to get something in return from athletes, so this seems like a real, genuine way for fans to show their support for us,” U of I volleyball player Kyla Swanson said.

The platform aims to support all Division I U of I teams that are interested. Swanson said it’s nice to be recognized along with football and basketball.

“It was eye opening to see how many people really do support us,” Swanson said. “Now people can walk around and have Kyla Swanson in their phones.”

Thayer said this is just the beginning – there’s a digital world of possibilities ahead. He hopes to work with more schools that have a large fan base.

“Way down the road, you’ll be buying tokens and putting them into a fantasy football league, or basketball, or volleyball league,” Thayer said.

Fans can already purchase some Illini NFTs. If you’d like to find out how, you can visit the NextName website.