Iowa wrestler Spencer Lee's key to success in the NIL era: 'If you want to make money, just start winning'

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

Spencer Lee has a simple but effective message for college athletes who are seeking to cash in big on their name, image and likeness opportunities.

“If you want to make money,” Lee, the Iowa wrestling program’s star lightweight, said, “just start winning.”

Easy enough, right?

Lee, of course, has won plenty during his own stellar wrestling career: three NCAA titles, the last of which came last March without any anterior cruciate ligaments; an NCAA team championship, the first for Iowa since 2010; three age-level freestyle world titles; two Hodge Trophies; the AAU James E. Sullivan award — just to name a few.

That success has opened up plenty of doors for Lee in the way of NIL.

Since the NCAA started allowing athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness on July 1, the 22-year-old has kept busy. Lee has inked local deals, like with the Cedar Rapids-based Ironside Apparel, as well as some bigger ones, like with MGC Sports Agency, Barstool Sports, and, most recently, Rudis, an Ohio-based wrestling outfitter.

Ironside Apparel, run by former Iowa wrestler Mark Ironside, release the first official line of Lee merchandise. Other Iowa wrestlers have partnered with Ironside, too, like Michael Kemerer, Alex Marinelli and Jaydin Eierman. Barstool made a shirt highlighting Lee’s “excuses are for wusses” quote after he won his third national title in March.

MGC Sports Agency, based in Nashville, represents NFL players and professional golfers, like Jacksonville quarterback Trevor Lawrence, Washington receiver Adam Humphries and 12-time PGA Tour winner Steve Stricker, as well as former Hawkeye football players Nick Easley (Buffalo Bills) and Nick Niemann (Los Angeles Chargers).

Spencer Lee joins the Rudis family

In a recent phone interview, Lee told Hawk Central that it’s been an exciting few months for him and his peers. He is especially thrilled with the Rudis deal.

“They do a lot of really cool stuff,” Lee said. “They’re trying to grow the sport, build my brand, build their brand. Their gear is really cool. I think what they’re doing is unique. They don’t want to just sell merch. They want to tell a story.

“They’re a wrestling company, built by wrestlers, that want to grow wrestling. They want to take over the sport. They’re a multimillion dollar company now, and they started in a basement. The sky is the limit for them. It’s going to be awesome.”

Rudis, founded in 2013, sells high-quality gear and bills itself as “the most authentic expression of wrestling.” They honor many wrestling legends, like Dave Schultz, Cary Kolat and Lincoln McIlravy, but also sponsor some current stars, like Kyle Snyder, a two-time Olympic medalist, and Tamyra Mensah-Stock, who won gold in Tokyo.

The Rudis deal will ultimately yield a line of Spencer Lee-specific gear — though he will continue to rep Nike during the ’21-22 college wrestling season since the Iowa athletics department is sponsored by Nike.

“It’s a real honor to have Spencer join our team here at RUDIS,” Rudis president and co-founder Jesse Leng said in a release, announcing Lee’s addition. “Most of the wrestling world is aware of his dominance of the sport over the last few years but just as impressive is the character and leadership he demonstrates off the mat.”

Lee has enjoyed the opportunities made available to him. He has explored some others, like some e-sports deals, but that would require him to live stream, he said, and he’d rather wait until after he’s done with school before doing things like that.

An MGC agent to take the 'busyness out of my hands'

He is especially thankful for his MGC agent, Kyle Strongin, who also represents Lawrence. Lee’s father, Larry, handled the phone calls and emails when the NIL madness first began.

The volume of requests was so high that Larry, the Vice President for Finance and Administration at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, took a day off from work to answer them all. (The family is choosing to keep the details of each deal private for the time being.)

“So we hired Kyle,” Lee said. “He’s helped with all the deals. He talks to compliance too, that kind of thing. I let him deal with everything. So if someone messages me and says, ‘Hey, I want you to sponsor this product,’ I say, ‘Message Kyle.’

“He takes the busyness out of my hands.”

Lee prefers it that way. He’d rather focus on school and his own wrestling career. But he also hopes to use these new opportunities as a way to grow the sport’s profile.

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Iowa's Spencer Lee, right, wrestles West Virginia's Killian Cardinale during their 125-pound match in the second round of the NCAA wrestling championships Thursday, March 18, 2021, in St. Louis.

Spencer Lee wants wrestling to become a high-profile sport 

For all the growth that wrestling has made in recent years — from nearly being axed from the Olympics in 2013 to Team USA winning nine wrestling medals in Tokyo and setting national viewership records throughout the ’20-21 season — the sport remains many steps behind football and basketball in terms of mainstream popularity.

Lee wants to see wrestling on par with those high-profile sports. 

“My main priority is to get better at wrestling, win wrestling matches, be the best I can be at my sport, and win titles for the University of Iowa,” Lee told Hawk Central. “I don’t want to be signing autographs every weekend. I don’t want to be doing appearances or photo shoots or things like that.

“I want to train. I have to focus on class. If the opportunity doesn’t clash with those two things, then we can look into it. My job is to get better at wrestling. It’s not to try and make as much money off of NIL. Obviously, making money is nice, but it’s cooler to try and grow that sport. That’s my goal more than anything.”

Lee points to the success of other well-known wrestlers as ways the sport can grow.

Gable Steveson, the Minnesota heavyweight who shared the 2021 Hodge Trophy with Lee, won both an NCAA title and Olympic gold this year. He scored two takedowns in 13 seconds to beat Georgia’s Geno Petriashvili in the Olympic final, a viral moment that put wrestling, if only briefly, in the mainstream. He recently signed with the WWE.

Mensah-Stock, the second American woman to win gold in Olympic wrestling, had her own viral moment after beating Nigeria’s Blessing Oborududu, 4-1, in the Olympic final. When she revealed plans to use her Olympic winnings on a food truck for her mom, she was gifted one by Cruising Kitchens, a food truck manufacturing company.

The common thread? They’re all winners on big stages, an opportunity Lee has taken advantage of time and again and will have again this upcoming season.

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Iowa 125-pound wrestler Spencer Lee speaks to reporters during Hawkeyes wrestling media day, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021, at the McCord Club level of Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.

What's next for Iowa's Spencer Lee?

Lee is in line for a potentially historic final season with the Hawkeyes. He will attempt to become the fifth wrestler in NCAA history to win four national titles. The other four: Oklahoma State’s Pat Smith, Iowa State's Cael Sanderson, Cornell’s Kyle Dake and Ohio State’s Logan Stieber. Lee has long wanted to join that exclusive list.

Accomplishing those goals would undoubtedly bring open more opportunities for Lee moving forward — and no doubt bring more attention to the sport of wrestling, too.

“If you want to be popular, win,” Lee said. “I’m just trying to win.”

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.