Jordan Lynch can't tell you exactly how many items bearing his photo or autograph exist on eBay. But he knows they're out there.
Among the collection of 35 football cards, miniature Northern Illinois football helmets and even a pair of orange end zone pylons with the NIU logo on them that are up for bid online, 28 include the Heisman Trophy finalist's signature.
In today's open marketplace, fans seek top dollar for merchandise signed by star college athletes such as Lynch. The athletes, according to NCAA rules, are not permitted to be paid for their football services or for jerseys, photos and cards bearing their likeness are sold. And yet, universities such as NIU are benefitting financially from the exposure that comes from having high-profile players on the field and secured through full-ride scholarships.
Exposure means money. How much? The president of a Michigan-based firm that evaluates corporate sponsorships said that nationally recognized athletes such as Lynch can be worth up to nearly $5 million a month in media exposure, putting not only the player on a national stage but his school, as well.
"At the end of the day, you're exposing that name to potentially millions of readers and viewers and that's pretty powerful," said Eric Wright, the president and executive director of research at Joyce Julius and Associates in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Wright's firm tracks media exposure impressions, whether it be on TV, in print or online and uses a formula to determine how much money – using traditional advertising methods – would be spent to generate that kind of media attention.
Joyce Julius can't translate its formula into how much in real dollars the university takes in because of the exposure. But between the financial gain coming to the university and the money being made from the sale of signed merchandise, plenty of people – with the exception of the players bringing the attention in the first place – are being compensated financially.
Lynch told Shaw Media this week it's something he hasn't given much thought to.
"It would be pretty cool to be paid for some of this stuff – sign autographs and get paid for it," Lynch said. "But it's all about giving back."
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Lynch said, because he's on full scholarship, he feels like NIU has done plenty for him. Wright said that, in the 90 days before last week's MAC Championship Game, the number of media mentions of Lynch would be similar to that of players such as Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner. Wright's firm was commissioned to track Gardner's media exposure and valued it at about $4.5 million a month using traditional advertising pricing models.
For Lynch, who became the subject of an organized Heisman Trophy campaign that began before his senior season, the attention load can be a bit overwhelming.
"I'm still not used to it," Lynch said. "It still hasn't sunk in and it's kind of surreal. But I never really pay attention to the media stuff – New York Times or anything. This whole Heisman thing hasn't sunk in and probably won't for a while."
Since the six Heisman finalists were announced Monday night, Wright's firm tracked media mentions across the country. As of Wednesday morning, Auburn running back Tre Mason has generated the most media buzz among finalists, with 5,100 media mentions while Lynch had earned 1,900 mentions in the week leading up to the Heisman Trophy being awarded Saturday night in New York.
Throughout a year when Lynch's name and uniform number were printed on everything from notebooks to plastic lunch boxes, the third Mid-American Conference player to become a finalist remained as accessible to fans as ever.
Despite knowing that some signed items likely would end up on the open marketplace, Lynch said he never concerned himself with how much other people were making off of him. He said he tries to sign one autograph per fan and personalize it, if possible.
"I know there's going to be people out there – no matter how nice they ask – that are going to sell [signed items] out there and I have no part with that," Lynch said. "I mean, I just sign it to be nice."
NIU associate athletic director Donna Turner said the university does not sponsor autograph-signing events. Charities seeking signed items must go through NIU's compliance office to obtain the items.
Once given to charities, though, the school has no control over where they go.
The eBay listing on two of the items – a team-signed helmet and team-signed pylon – indicated players signatures were collected outside of the NIU locker room after the Huskies' win over Kent State this season. Three of the sellers with Lynch items currently listed on eBay either did not respond to interview requests by Shaw Media or declined to be interviewed.
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After leading the Huskies to the Orange Bowl last season, Lynch became the subject of "Jordan Lynch For 6," a marketing campaign that the athletic department spent $9,400 on, Turner said.
Turner said money was spent on putting together a website, lunch boxes, notebooks and mailing costs, putting promotional materials into the hands of media members who cover college football. Although the items were sent primarily to media members, Lynch said he got his hands on a couple of the lunch boxes, which were used by his mother and younger brother.
Although Turner estimates former NIU quarterback Chandler Harnish did as many media interviews as Lynch has done, it's been the level of media clientele that have requested time with Lynch that separates the two. Turner said she received two to three requests from national radio stations a week with requests picking up substantially during the month of November.
NIU received more than 100 credential requests for the Huskies' Nov. 13 win over Ball State, when the Huskies clinched the MAC West Division title. Among the national media outlets present: SI.com, ESPN.com, The New York Times, USA Today and others.
The attention given to NIU compares to that of another favorite example of Wright's of how one player can place a school on a national stage. When Robert Griffin III won the Heisman Trophy in 2011, Baylor University saw the popularity around its football program explode. According to an ESPN.com story, the school spent an estimated $10,000 on Griffin's Heisman campaign, mailing out football cards pushing the quarterback's candidacy.
The ESPN report said Griffin's Heisman Trophy resulted in a 10 percent uptick in giving to Baylor's Bear Foundation while licensing royalties went up 50 percent. The result? Plans for a new $250 million football stadium were announced after Griffin's Heisman win.
“We were still beating the trees for donors and money, and as soon as [the Heisman win] happened, we finalized all our plans” for the stadium," Heath Nielsen, assistant athletics director at Baylor, told ESPN.
Although Lynch is not the favorite to leave New York with the Heisman – an award expected to go to Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston – NIU will continue to reap the benefits of Lynch's legacy. Huskies coach Rod Carey said this week that Lynch's two seasons at quarterback helped put NIU's program into the national discussion, where it remained throughout the 2013 season.
The exposure paid dividends in recruiting and in ticket sales – somethings Carey hopes continue once collegiate Lynch's career ends.
"This gets you on a stage where, sometimes, we're not," Carey said. "We've been fortunate in the last year to be on it, but it gets us on that stage and gets our name out there and that's a good thing for our university, our students, our community and obviously, in this case, for Jordan."