MISSOULA – If you’re driving the streets of Missoula and see a white Jeep Grand Cherokee passing by, there’s a chance it’s Montana Grizzlies standout wide receiver Junior Bergen.
The electric playmaker was granted the slick ride as part of his second year of a Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) deal with Lithia Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram. The vehicle comes equipped with state-of-the-art interior technology and completely tinted windows, all free, allowing the Billings native to be incentivized for his hard work on the football field.
"Just the fact that he's a big face of the Griz, one of the most popular players and a standout star is big for us," dealership general manager Mike Duff said.
The NIL movement has taken the college sports world by storm in recent years. NCAA athletes are now welcome to profit off their names. In the summer of 2021, a policy was passed to allow compensation, whether monetary or not, for college athletes who oftentimes wouldn’t be able to otherwise.
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Team meetings, position meetings, practices and weightlifting, amongst other regularly-scheduled obligations, act as a full-time job for college athletes. They are left with little to no spare time to work a job to pay for the other necessities of life — a car included.
In Bergen’s case, the only time he’s able to work is during the summer at the Dazzlers Car Wash on North Reserve Street. That money only lasts so long.
Getting a car to use for the duration of the calendar year helps ease at least one area that would otherwise be a financial burden.
All the speedster has to do is show up to the dealership for some autograph signings and post 16 social media posts that mention the dealership.
"It’s really big,” Bergen said of the partnership. “Obviously they make sure I’m riding around in something nice. They make sure it’s up to par, nothing wrong with it … and it helps get my name out there and allows other businesses to reach out and we can make more deals that way as well.”
Being a smaller NCAA Division I school, it took Montana a little longer to get into the NIL mix compared to other areas of the country. But it has now arrived.
Aside from Bergen, there are other ex-Griz players who had similar deals with large companies last season. Justin Ford and Marcus Welnel had a deal with Lithia Ford. Welnel, along with teammate Patrick O’Connell, was also connected with a clothing company named UpTop.
A few guys on the team, Bergen says, have deals with Liquid I.V., an electrolyte drink mix.
“It’s really nice,” Bergen said. “We don’t have time to go out and work a job during the day … but we pretty much do work a full-time job so it’s always nice to be rewarded in some way.”
There’s still untapped potential for growth in this sector, especially in a Missoula market that is just getting started. Duff is glad to be a part of it.
Bergen’s presence within Duff’s dealership makes business sense as it helps build brand recognition. It’s also his way of giving back to athletes that do so much for the city.
“There’s so many Griz fans in this town … having a familiar face of the community (Bergen) shows that we’re integrated in the community and that we’re doing things to make Missoula more recognizable,” Duff said. “And these players should be able to benefit from their name just like any other individual that has some popularity … having the ability to gain something for who they are is awesome.”
There should be more opportunities in the works, too, as Montana alum Toby Weida continues to grow the now-named Good Ol’ Grizzlies Collective. The non-profit partners with the Missoula Food Bank and Community Center as well as the UM Food Pantry in order to get Griz athletes paid.
Donors make donations to the collective, which then disperses that money to Griz athletes after they do a service for either of the aforementioned organizations. That service could be promoting the organizations on social media or making a physical appearance.
To get his first NIL deal, Bergen had to reach out to the dealership. But with evolutions in Name, Image and Likeness such as the collective, the athletes will soon be the ones sought out.
“I hope that Missoula gets that collective (going) out here,” Bergen said. “We can have more players on our team benefit from it and more players at the university benefit from it.”
Lucas Semb is the Griz football beat writer for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @Lucas_Semb or email him at email@example.com.