SportsSports Features

Track and field athletes showcase entrepreneurial spirit through startup 

Feb. 22, 2022, 1:04 a.m.

Dorien Simon did not have time to answer the direct messages he received after going viral on TikTok. 

At the time, in May 2021, Simon was a sophomore on the Stanford men’s track and field team, spending 20 hours each week training as a sprinter and an additional 20 hours working towards a degree in computer science. To cap off each week, he spent his weekends traveling around the country to compete for the Cardinal. 

The viral post — a video of Simon pretending to fake an injury to avoid running a difficult race — received over 429,000 views on TikTok. It sparked a stream of messages to his inboxes on TikTok and Instagram, all from young athletes looking to him for advice:  “What can I do to be fast? What can I do to get into college? How can I run at Stanford?”

To Simon, the demand for mentorship was obvious. It was not long before the idea of building a mentorship network for young athletes — or creating a platform of their own — caught the attention of then-freshman high jumper James Stevens. 

Nine months later, however, the pair’s’ entrepreneurial path has shifted direction. In light of NCAA policy changes, the two have founded CollegeFans, a website designed to help college athletes monetize their Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) without the commitment and restrictions of larger endorsement deals. 

In June 2021, the Supreme Court ruled that NCAA rules limiting education-related benefits for student-athletes were in violation of federal antitrust laws. A revised temporary policy took effect July 1, 2021 and allows collegiate athletes to engage in NIL activities in compliance with their university’s state laws, including profiting off of their NIL. 

Following the policy change, Simon shifted his attention from mentorship to entrepreneurship, with one central idea fueling his desire to help fellow athletes: “‘How can we empower college athletes to be entrepreneurs?'”

The question had been a difficult one to answer. “At the time, there really wasn’t much [opportunity],” Stevens said. “It was such a new space that even large companies didn’t really want to touch [NIL opportunities] instantly.” 

The urgency, however, was obvious. From the duo’s brainstorming arose the idea of building a website where college athletes could auction off personal gear and memorabilia for profit. To Simon’s enthusiasm for the project, Stevens brought experience launching projects from the ground up. 

“I was always kind of into startup culture in general,” Stevens said. “Not like the startup culture [in California], more like doing my own SAT prep or ACT prep [programs] and just doing side gigs here and there, whatever I could do.” 

To increase their brainpower, Simon and Stevens expanded their team to include fellow Stanford track and field athletes Karson Lippert, Miles Zoltak and Kevin Yang. Lippert would spearhead the group’s marketing strategy, Zoltak and Yang would operate as engineers and Simon and Stevens were to fill the roles of CTO and CEO, respectively. 

Launching an auction platform while the market was fresh was at the forefront of the team’s mind. 

“‘Let’s get this done. Let’s be the first people to actually tackle this,” Stevens said at the time. “We go to the best entrepreneurial school in the world probably, and we know a lot of athletes, so I’m sure we can get a pretty good head start.” 

In mid-August, the CollegeFans website was launched. Nearly every task that had made it possible — from coding the website to attracting clients — had been coordinated via Zoom amid conflicting schedules and time zones. 

Three months later, Simon and Stevens received the first confirmation that their young idea might be successful; on Nov. 22, 2021, a Nike Elite Camp Zip Up, autographed by owner Cole Sprout, sold for $107. Sprout, a sophomore on Stanford men’s track and field, had put the item up for auction 12 days earlier. 

Seeing how much fans were willing to pay for his old gear was an unexpected compliment for Sprout. “It is mind-boggling a little bit,” Sprout said. “To be at the level where people look up to you that much is an honor.” 

By February, Stanford athletes from two other sports had sold items through CollegeFans: a pair of high school basketball shoes had sold for $200, and high-bar grips of an Olympic gymnast had been bought for $150.

While Simon and Stevens now have a functional website and sales to show for their business, the pair admits that the journey from idea to reality has been full of challenges. The biggest obstacles might also be the most obvious ones: coding and designing an entire website, and navigating the complex legal circumstances of launching a startup, especially as Division I athletes. 

Yet for Simon, the daunting task of developing a website was a welcomed learning opportunity. “I’m very passionate about computer science,” Simon said. “And I really want to do everything I can to get more experience in the field.”  

Along the way, Stanford Athletics Compliance has served as a valuable resource in the group’s attempts to understand the legal background of their new business venture. The compliance team, Stevens believes, understands the startup’s goal of helping athletes benefit from their NIL and wants to help the CollegeFans team serve the Stanford athlete community. 

Now, Simon, Stevens and the rest of the CollegeFans team face the task of expanding the website’s clientele beyond Stanford student athletes. Earning the attention of major schools across the SEC, Pac-12 and Big-10 is a milestone Stevens considers critical to their success, but not impossible to achieve. 

“The [Stanford] track team is so big,” he said. “One person on the team will know someone from LSU, one person on the team will know someone from Clemson. It’s a nice ‘in’ just to know people.”

Though expanding CollegeFans may be first on Simon’s to-do list, developing a mentorship platform remains on his agenda. Preferably, the ideas could be combined, so CollegeFans would serve not only as an entrepreneurial venture, but also an impactful and positive resource for young athletes.

“We just want to empower college athletes, prospective student athletes, everyone to be their best,” Simon said.

Savanna Stewart is a managing editor in the Sports section. She is a junior from Twin Bridges, Montana studying Political Science and Communication and enjoys running and playing basketball. Contact her at sstewart 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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