Sean Clifford will leave Happy Valley as the most statistically decorated quarterback in the rich history of the Penn State University football program.
As successful as he was on the field– from setting school records for career passing yards, touchdown passes, completions, completion percentage to winning bowl games– what he’s building off the field for current and future generations of college athletes may prove to be more significant.
The Nittany Lion faithful were happy to have Clifford return for his sixth year and further his football legacy in front of 100,000 fans at Beaver Stadium. However, Clifford also returned to Central PA to build his own company, Limitless NIL.
As trading cards and memorabilia featuring current athletes become more commonplace and opportunities increase for players to make additional money by marketing themselves, the business side can be intimidating for people in their late teens and early 20s.
“When I made the decision to come back to Penn State I knew that I wanted to do something in a big way to affect college sports across all landscapes.” Clifford shares. What we are trying to do is give extreme ownership to the players so they can make sound decisions for themselves, starting in high school.”
With the rapidly and constantly changing Name, Image and Likeness landscape in amateur athletics, young athletes have the ability to build a foundation for current and future earnings at an earlier age than ever before. Clifford and his Limitless team have positioned themselves to be at the forefront of helping them navigate the deep and sometimes choppy waters of the NIL world.
“Realistically, with laws changing and laws passing, it starts when you are 16 years old.” Clifford states. “That is when your brand begins and when your digital image is important. That is when you truly need to have extreme ownership in your brand so that way you can make decisions at 23 or 24 in your professional career.”
As with any great business, the mission and ultimate goal is to have a unique ability to solve problems for customers. Clifford, with his lengthy experience as a Division I player, saw a need for legitimate representation for college athletes. He believed player representation by other players was paramount.
“I saw a huge problem in the space and I knew we weren’t going to have much representation from the players’ side.” Clifford shares. “That is where as an older player, a 24-year-old in college sports, I knew I had to do what I thought was right, which is give that representation for the players.”
The Cincinnati native has invested a substantial amount of time and energy networking and building relationships with the powers that be across the entire college football landscape to further the NIL conversation and encourage transparency for all involved parties. Most importantly, he wanted Limitless to be a clear voice for the underrepresented athletes.
“Having communication with the coaches, having communication with the athletic department, with the president, with the administration and also with the Big Ten, going all the way through it, that way everyone was hearing what the players were saying in the locker room that day, in that time period, that they needed to say. That is where we were missing early. We were missing out on players having representation. We were missing out on the players having a voice and that is what NIL is all about, it’s about having your name, image and likeness and how you display it to the world.”
“The most fulfilling part has been the conversations with athletes and seeing their minds grow.” Clifford states. “It’s giving them the tools, putting them in place and then letting them flourish with those tools and those capabilities that they might not have had before. It’s the education. It’s the day to day phone calls with athletes asking questions about negotiations. It’s really about having conversations that they might not have had until they were much older. These thoughts that are within the company aren’t based of off me, they are based off of hundreds of college athletes that I have spoken to directly and asked what they thought about his topic. It’s the case studies across all platforms and all universities that have led us to this point. Now I feel very confident moving forward because it’s not me making decisions, it the decisions made by numerous people across all landscapes, both male and female, to make decisions for college sports moving forward.”
As much time and dedication Clifford has put in on the field, he has immersed himself in the NIL world in its infancy. The 2022 Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Year Award finalist likes to walk into any room and feel like the most knowledgeable person on the NIL topic.
“You have to self-educate.” Clifford shares. “That is something I set out from the jump when I stared Limitless NIL. I knew I was behind the curve when it came to business, financial literacy and education. When you are creating a business and handling clients you need to be educated in numerous areas. That grew to where I am now and I would like to say I’m an NIL expert. It’s not what I know, but the experiences I’ve had. I know what it’s like to be in the locker room. I know what the coaches need out of NIL. I have spoken to Coach (James) Franklin and other college coaches. I know what the athletic directors want out of the NIL. I’ve spoken to (PSU Athletic Director) Pat Kraft. I understand what the Big Ten wants. I know what the conferences want to get to in terms of NIL. I want to be able to position the players in the best light so when decisions are made we are represented and we can make strides as players specifically moving forward.”
Already having inked his own deals with iconic sports card brands such as the Topps Company and others, Clifford understands and appreciates the sports trading card and memorabilia markets. To be sure, the collectibles community will have its place and products within the Limitless portfolio moving forward.
“The coolest part of NIL is getting to experience the deals and getting to experience the companies that come along with these deals.” Clifford said. “The history of the companies and the history of the players that have done deals similar and the brands that they have worked with is special. From a merchandising and a business aspect, it’s fun because you can share that passion you have for the sport with the fans in a direct way.”
“I remember my first trading card deal.” Clifford shares. “I remember seeing my own card for the first time, too. It was cool feeling that card and checking out the information on the back. I was into the trading card game when I was younger. Seeing that card was a really cool moment. You are signing them and seeing all of the different memorabilia and just being able to know you can monetize your name, image and likeness to help support yourself and your family. I think that is one of the best parts of sports.”
Liam Clifford, Sean’s younger brother and teammate at Penn State, is also a teammate and partner at Limitless NIL. The brothers have grown up and grown closer as the years pass and the bond has become stronger in sports and in their personal lives, in part, through the growth of the company.
“Liam and I are four years apart, so we definitely had that big brother-little brother rivalry early.” the older Clifford jokes. “As we progressed and as I left for college, we actually became closer. Our morals, our ethics and our passions grew the same way. One of the happiest days of my life, to see my brother follow in my footsteps and now create his own path as an entrepreneur as a young and very intelligent athlete, I feel that Liam has just as many opportunities or more than I do because of the position he is putting himself in right now. As an older brother, I am inspired by him and I am excited to be a business partner with him. I think we can make a lot of change in college sports atmosphere.”
For good reason, the redshirt freshman wideout looked up to his big brother in many aspects of life but the talented wideout had college options outside of Penn State and had he taken any of those offers, the brothers would have never had the opportunity to share the field together and Limitless NIL might be a very different version than the one we see today. Eventually, the younger Clifford was ready to commit to wearing the blue and white. Through some extenuating circumstances and a once in a lifetime worldwide crisis, the brothers made the best of an otherwise bad situation by suiting up on the field and launching a game-changing business off of it.
“We had a crazy best of both worlds scenario come to fruition. Going through the first year and then this year with him having a sixth year due to COVID was the biggest blessing in disguise. It gave us the opportunity to continue to get closer and then actually play together on the field and then grow this business to where it is now. It’s a dream come true and we are just getting started.”
The Clifford brothers’ entrepreneurial spirit was evident from a young age and as they grew older and closer the thoughts and ideas turned into a reality as the tag team launched a handful of small, unsuccessful ventures. The valuable experience and knowledge gained from those speedbumps paved the way for them to build and run Limitless.
“It’s always been there.” Liam said. “Growing up and playing sports my whole life, I love going through the process of getting better at something and seeing the rewards of that work. I think entrepreneurship is similar to football. You work hard at it and you go through the process and then you start to see rewards and you always want more. There is always something more. You continue to build through that. It goes back to even before we got into the Limitless stuff. We tried a few side hobbies, ecommerce stuff, diving into creating product and other things. They failed but we learned through it. Then once NIL hit Sean and I came up with the idea and it quickly became a passion of mine. The same passion I have for football became the same passion I have for entrepreneurship.”
The involvement that big brother had early in the NIL process was on full display when little brother made his way to the Penn State campus. The star quarterback was in the early stages of brand development while Liam was getting settled on campus and into the college life. The Clifford family entrepreneurial spirit rose up once again and led to the creation of the company the world sees today.
“Sean and our CMO Trevor Robinson had a class together back in 2020.” Liam shares. “It was before NIL even started but there were talks of it. They worked on a project together to help build Sean’s brand. Once NIL officially dropped he dove into it pretty hard. I was a freshman. I was just figuring out where to go to class, making friends and making the team. I didn’t get too into it but watching Sean go through it and see the ups and downs was cool to watch. As soon as the first year of NIL came to a close, we were thinking of what we could do to make a difference, rather than just doing a deal here and there. We wanted to be different. That is where the idea came about. We wanted to change athletes’ lives and do it the right way. We pulled all the different things Sean had seen from different agencies and me being a younger guy, relating to athletes on a different level, guys that were just getting recruited and coming in to the program, we had all different perspectives. We pulled it all together and created Limitless.”
In short order, Limitless NIL, the first student athlete owned and operated NIL company, has grown leaps and bounds. Starting in 2020 with just five employees and seven athletes represented, Limitless has grown to a double-digit team representing more than 50 athletes at over two dozen different schools and universities around the country. More expansion and growth is likely. Quite possibly the most fulfilling piece of the company growth is that the core group is still together flourishing and enjoying the process all while shattering the misconception that college athletes aren’t capable of taking their brands into their own hands.
“Being in it from the beginning and from the ground up has been cool for me and Sean but not only for ourselves, but for Aeneas Hawkins, Trevor Robinson and Daniel Bodisch, people that we brought on and that have bought in to not only the company but in us as well and, as friends, to trust us that we are going to grow this thing.” Liam offers. “Aeneas just finished playing. He could have gone out and got a job anywhere. He stayed with us because he believes in us and what we are doing. It’s about spending time together and growing together. It has been a dream come true.
After a chance introduction from a mutual business acquaintance, Pat Waters, President and CEO of Strategic Sports Marketing, found himself in State College, PA checking out Limitless NIL first hand.
“We were in the process of repositioning our business in taking it from an LLC to the next step of becoming a Pennsylvania C-Corp, getting some capital and really growing this thing the right way.” Waters said.
“When NIL passed in July of 2021, we realized there was a great opportunity there. Representing professional athletes for 20 years, we pride our integrity in doing it the right way in that world. It became that much more important that we are applying all of those same principles with the college athletes. If there is a business here, we need to make sure we are applying all of those same principles and then some with student athletes. They are a lot more impressionable and have not been around the world as pro athletes have.”
The 30-year veteran of the professional sports and collectibles world with so impressed with Clifford and company that he knew he wanted to not only be involved in the space but aligned with Limitless.
“They already had what I wanted to build. The amount of energy this team has, I still feel like I have most of it but no, let’s give these guys the resources to take what they already built and bring them in and let them run and build this business. That was the genesis of just one meeting. Between our structure and our experience, we are just going to stay out of the way and give them all of the resources and everything they need.”
T.E.A.M. Group Holdings, Inc. is now a Pennsylvania Corporation that houses the brands of Limitless, Strategic Sports Marketing, Sports Vault, and Elevate Sports and Media.
Limitless NIL is now a wholly owned subsidiary of T.E.A.M. but will continue operating as its own standalone brand. T.E.A.M. wants to give the Limitless team the tools they need to continue to grow the business.
“Pat and his team have successfully monetized professional athlete brands for almost 20 years,” Peter Luukko, Chairman of T.E.A.M. Group Holdings, Inc., stated. “We are proud to match our values with the Limitless team and strategically expand our reach in the NIL category.”
“2023 is going to be a very fun, interesting and potentially the best year we’ve had.” Clifford said. “With the opportunity in front of us and the ever changing landscape. For the Limitless team, it’s about problem solving. Its about getting with the right people like Pat and sit down and talk about what’s really happening, not what you see on the news, not what people say about NIL, just the real facts. There is a lot of wild, wild west conversation of this hurting college football and college sports. That is coming from the people that aren’t in it. The people that are in it, the people that do it every day, The truest form of NIL is extreme ownership in one’s brand and company. That is what we are doing in 2023, showing athletes and giving them the tools to do it saying you do what you want to do with this and we are just a spoke in the wheel. I believe in student athletes. I believe in the sports industry. It can make change for college athletes but it can also make change for the world.”