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UVa students' startup matches local youths with Cavalier athletes
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UVa students' startup matches local youths with Cavalier athletes

Grant Sirlin and Jared Vishno did not expect to become entrepreneurs who were fluent in NCAA regulations when they enrolled at the University of Virginia.

But in the last three years, in between studying economics and Spanish, they’ve delved deep into the NCAA rules governing college students to craft a business model that allows student-athletes to put their skills to work and make money.

“As of right now, college athletes don’t have a flexible way to make money within the framework of the NCAA,” Sirlin said. “They should, because they have these highly marketable skills they can’t really take advantage of.”

Sirlin and Vishno received NCAA approval in 2017 for Division 1-on-1 Trainers. This summer, they’ve stayed in Charlottesville to focus on the company full-time and working with the i.Lab incubator at UVa. They’re looking to branch out to other Virginia universities soon and hope to see the company expand nationwide.

The rising fourth-years came up with the idea in their dorm room on a white board. Under their model, student-athletes give personal training lessons to local children, but names of participating athletes are not included on the website or promotional materials.

That’s because the NCAA does not allow student-athletes to profit off their own name, image or likeness. The two men worked with the Athletics Compliance Office at UVa to ensure their business would comply with the rules.

An NCAA working group that includes UVa Athletic Director Carla Williams is examining the rules on name, image and likeness. Sirlin and Vishno said they’ll be able to provide more opportunities if the rules change.

Although an NCAA requirement, not using athletes’ names puts a focus on the skills, Vishno said.

“Parents aren’t just requesting the highest-profile athlete,” he said. “They are actually requesting trainers who have the skills they want their kids to work on. So it’s not a popularity contest. It’s grounded in the personal training aspect.”

Student-athletes receive financial support from scholarships and a cost-of-attendance stipend that can cover travel expenses, personal expenses and school supplies, according to UVa Athletics.

Sirlin said finding a job that works around a student’s practice and school schedule can be difficult.

Vishno said the income from sessions allows the athletes to be “a regular college student.”

In addition to giving some extra cash to athletes, the business provides youths in the community the opportunity to work with and learn from UVa students.

“Young athletes don’t have access to that community of college athletes,” Sirlin said. “So they may be living next door, watching them on TV, but they’ve been pretty highly inaccessible.”

Before Simeon Okoro heads to Europe to explore playing soccer professionally, the former starting forward is helping Cole and Finn Davis perfect their dribbling, shooting and attacking. The two brothers have been working on their soccer game with Okoro for about a month.

“It was something to do but also grew into something I enjoyed doing,” Okoro said.

Okoro, who didn’t have experience working with children, said the sessions have made him more responsible.

“You have to prepare for these training sessions, and the parents trust me to teach the right things. That’s big for me,” he said.

Okoro said he tries to promote Division 1-on-1 Trainers to other athletes as much as possible.

“It’s giving a chance for the kids to connect with athletes that they watch on TV and see around town,” he said. “It’s huge. It’s different than just a trainer you pay a stupid amount of money for who is much older and doesn’t have as much emotional connection with them. It’s much different. This is a big opportunity for a lot of athletes, and I think more people should do it, 100%.”

Division 1-on-1 has provided nearly 300 lessons in the last few years. Vishno said 95% of their customers return for a second session.

For Sirlin and Vishno, the biggest benefit of a student-athlete trainer is the relationship built between the trainer and child.

“We offer these super relatable younger coaches, and it’s a lot easier for them to communicate with kids because they were just that age,” Vishno said.

Cole agreed.

“It’s kind of hard with a trainer who’s a little older and can’t do as much as they can,” he said. “But also it’s cool because you know that they’re really good to [be playing] in college. You know that they are teaching you the right stuff and for you to get better … It’s so much fun to train with him.”

Okoro said the extra money has been helpful, but hearing what Cole had to say was more fulfilling.

“It’s about helping kids,” he said.

So far, about 40 athletes from a variety of sports have signed up to provide training sessions. One-hour sessions cost $40 and typically focus on the fundamentals. Sirlin and Vishno take 25% of the training fee, which goes toward equipment and running the company.

The NCAA requires they charge a market rate for sessions. But Vishno said they also want to keep sessions relatively affordable.

“There’s a whole subset of people who would love to be able to give their kids the opportunity to form that one-on-one relationship, but they can’t do it because they don’t want to be paying $120 for a 10-year-old to learn basketball dribbling,” he said.

Holly Davis, Cole’s mother, found out about Division 1-on-1 Trainers through a friend. She liked the price and the fact that her boys could work with college students.

“I had no idea the level of athletes we were going to be working with,” she said.

The boys since have taken soccer and basketball lessons.

The student-athletes serve as good role models, Davis said. Her sons learn how to play the game, the importance of hard work, goal-setting skills and healthy living tips.

“It’s not an adult lecturing them,” she said. “It’s people they look up to and respect.”

Okoro was a hero to her sons, who are fans of the soccer team and other UVa teams.

“It’s so, so fun,” Davis said of the opportunity.

Finn, her youngest son, closely followed the men’s basketball team’s national championship run.

Recently, Davis booked him a training session with a member of that team.

“The intensity he was listening with, that was the happiest I’ve ever seen him,” she said.

Davis said she’s not looking for her boys to become superstars. She wants them to focus on their skills and have fun.

“Most important, they enjoy this and look forward to the sessions,” she said. “They’re really loving the time they spend with [the trainers].”

Cole and Finn train with Okoro at the Burley Middle School soccer field because trainers cannot use UVa facilities, per NCAA rules.

Vishno said they’ve learned a lot in the last two years from making both the trainers and customers happy and “jumping through NCAA loopholes.”

Getting Division 1-on-1 off the ground has required a lot of resilience, Sirlin said.

The roadblocks vary, “but we definitely hit a bunch,” he said.

“Bouncing back from that is something we’ve had to deal with on a consistent basis ... It takes a lot of grit to come back and problem-solving to figure out a solution to all these problems.”

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