Mark Ironside is helping current Iowa wrestlers with NIL two decades after his own career

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

CEDAR RAPIDS — Mark Ironside is busy at work inside his Iowa Style Apparel store here on the southwest side of town on a recent Friday morning. He’s excited for many things now that wrestling season is back, but two things stick out.

First, his color commentary job as part of Iowa wrestling’s radio broadcast team.

Second, he expects to see a bunch of his shirts in the stands at Carver-Hawkeye Arena for each of the top-ranked Hawkeyes’ home meets — including this Saturday against Oregon State (1-2), set for 2 p.m.

“It’s been nuts around here lately,” Ironside said. “Ask Stacy Olson, my store manager. She’ll tell ya.”

Two decades after his own successful Iowa wrestling career, Ironside is helping current Hawkeye wrestlers through the beginning of the name, image and likeness era. Since the NCAA passed its interim NIL policy in July, college athletes have been able to profit from endorsements and sponsorships without eligibility penalties.

In the case of Iowa wrestlers, that mostly means branded apparel. Many have gone through Ironside and his Ironside Apparel and Promotions company to design, print and sell their own individual custom gear this season.

“I really never thought much about it or got into it until the day it passed,” Ironside said. “Since these guys are going to go out and pursue this — and they should — and since I’m in this line of business, I wanted to help and guide them. 

“It’s been a win-win situation.”

Ironside has partnered with Spencer Lee, Michael Kemerer, Jaydin Eierman, Alex Marinelli, Max Murin and Austin DeSanto, as well as South Dakota State wrestler Tanner Sloan, a two-time state champ from nearby Alburnett. Their gear ranges from t-shirts and long sleeves to hoodies and sweatshirts to hats.

Shortly after the NCAA passed its NIL policy over the summer, Ironside reached out to Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands and his team. He explained his services and what he could offer the wrestlers. He told them to start thinking about their image, brand, to design a logo or two, and figure out what kind of gear they wanted to sell.

Ironside’s process is simple. He launches webstores for each wrestler and they collectively share those links so fans can buy their personalized gear. The stores are open for a limited time, and once they close, Ironside creates the orders, handles packaging and shipping, then sends each wrestler a proceeds check afterward.

“The No. 1 thing I preach to them, I want them to focus on wrestling and winning national titles,” Ironside said. “That’s your No. 1 focus, and if you do a good job and you are successful and you build your name, image and likeness, then you can reap the benefits and make some money.

“I had a conversation, first, with Tom Brands, just to make sure we were on the same page. I didn’t want him to think I’m just here trying to make money off these guys and take their focus away from the sport of wrestling — which is where it needs to be.”

Brands heard the pitch and was on board: “Just because somebody is going to pay you money to be a spokesman does not mean you have arrived forever,” he said during the team’s media day last month. “You have to continue to earn it.”

A stack of T-shirts featuring Iowa Hawkeyes wrestler Spencer Lee are seen, Friday, Nov. 19, 2021, at Iowa Style Apparel in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

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Each wrestler’s design is unique to them. Some of their logos were designed by Ironside himself, while others were drawn by Jeret Chiri, another former Hawkeye wrestler who specializes in illustration and design.

Eierman leaned into his “Riddler” brand, a play on his slick, unique wrestling style. DeSanto’s logo is half-his face, half-robot, a play on his relentless, attack-first style. Marinelli used his nickname “Bull” and Kemerer did the same with “Kem Dawg.” Murin’s logo says “Mad Max Murin” and includes a snake, a nod to his pet, Miss Hiss.

Lee’s gear is now in limited supply, at least through Ironside. He inked an exclusive agreement with Rudis, an Ohio-based wrestling outfitter. Ironside can sell all his remaining Lee apparel — shirts, hats, hoodies, pajama pants with his “SL” logo and his “Excuses Are For Wusses” quote from last season’s NCAA Championships.

“This is kind of a cool year because we’re the folks that set the market,” Lee said in September, when he signed with Rudis. “But my job is to get better at wrestling. It’s not to try and make as much money as possible off of NIL. I could care less about that.

“Obviously making money is nice, but it’s cooler to try and grow that sport. That’s my goal more than anything.”

Iowa wrestling Spencer Lee T-shirts and hats are seen on Friday at Iowa Style Apparel in Cedar Rapids.

► RELATED: How Iowa wrestling's Spencer Lee became an NIL success

Ironside echoes Lee’s thoughts, on both accounts — to continue to get better at wrestling, for one, but to also help grow the sport. That’s ultimately how he got started in this business.

Back in the mid-1990s, Ironside was a star for the Iowa wrestling program. He won two state titles at Cedar Rapids Jefferson, then became a four-time All-American under Dan Gable. He won back-to-back national titles in 1997-98 and became the first Hawkeye wrestler ever to win the Dan Hodge Trophy, college wrestling’s Heisman, in 1998.

Ironside tried for the Olympic team in 2000, then became a sales rep for a custom company afterward. Five years later, he started Ironside Apparel out of his basement. He moved into a warehouse unit two years after that, then bought his own building. By this time next year, he’ll have his own brick-and-mortar store here in Cedar Rapids.

“Back in 2010, there just wasn’t a lot of Iowa wrestling stuff out there, even though we were super successful,” Ironside said. “With the connection there, I got licensing and it took off. We built this new Iowa Style retail store, and here we are in a strip mall.

“I’m hoping to have my new building built next year, and we’ll have a really big, kickass Iowa wrestling store. It’ll be like three blocks from here. There’s a ton of Iowa fans in this area, so it made sense to have a store like this around here.”

On Feb. 18, 1996, Iowa coach Dan Gable congratulates Mark Ironside after he beat Iowa State's Jason Derry at 134 pounds.

Ironside owns and operates two separate businesses: Ironside Apparel and Promotions, which does embroidery and apparel, and Iowa Style Apparel, which is the actual retail store that sells both the gear he creates and other Iowa, Iowa State and Northern Iowa licensed apparel.

Over the years, Ironside has grown his apparel and promotions business into one that many in the Iowa wrestling community trust. He’s helped with gear for high school programs like Cedar Rapid Jefferson, Cedar Rapids Prairie and Southeast Polk, and has also helped clubs like Eastern Iowa Wrestling Club and Sebolt Wrestling Academy.

He operates with those clients the same way he does Hawkeye wrestlers in their NIL pursuits — from the webstores to backend logistics. He helped Southeast Polk wrestler Nate Jesuroga by creating shirts before and after Jesuroga won a bronze medal at the Cadet world championships this summer. 

“You’re talking hundreds,” Ironside said when asked how many schools and clubs he’s worked with over the years. “I really enjoy being able to work with these coaches and teams. It allows me to give back to a sport that did so much for me.”

Mark Ironside poses for a photo on Friday at Iowa Style Apparel in Cedar Rapids.

Ironside and his businesses have benefitted from the increased NIL opportunities, but the coolest part of him has been getting to know the Iowa wrestlers more. He’s helped them build their personal brands, which starts with their on-the-mat performances, of course, but extends to off the mat, too.

“The most fun part for me is just building relationships with the guys,” Ironside said. “I’m already around them. I travel with them. But just seeing them and talking to them off the mat and outside of wrestling, that’s been a lot of fun for me.

“But it’s been fun to see the fans get excited about it. They have an opportunity to buy something other than generic Iowa gear. They feel they have more of a connection to that athlete, like buying a jersey of your favorite baseball player. The connection between the fans and the athletes is one of the biggest benefits of this NIL thing.”

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