The Business of Winning

Women’s basketball standout Sam Thomas leads the way in college athletics entrepreneurship.

Spring 2022
Sam Thomas

Sam Thomas '20 '22 arrived at the University of Arizona in 2017 with dreams of contributing to a top-ranked women’s basketball team and earning an equally robust education. Those hopes came wildly true: this year alone, she led the Wildcats in blocks per game, shot a powerful 83% from the free-throw line and placed second in steals per game. Off-court, she was named a College Sports Information Directors of America First Team Academic All-American in 2021 and 2022 and the 2021 Pac-12 Scholar-Athlete of the Year, and she earned an Elite 90 Award for the best GPA of any Final Four student-athlete in 2021.

These days, though, Thomas has another dream. Thanks to recent, long-awaited policy revisions by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, she and other student-athletes can now use their names, images and likenesses — or “NILs” — for income. And UArizona has simultaneously launched Arizona Edge, a program designed to help Wildcat athletes reach business goals like operating sports clinics, endorsing products or, in Thomas’ case, launching a clothing line.

Sam Thomas Clothing Line

“I was super happy that I got to take advantage of this,” Thomas says. She was the sole student representative on a Washington, D.C., panel convened by UArizona that urged the U.S. Congress to enact NIL reforms nationwide. “I know a lot of athletes who put a lot of time and effort into the things they do outside sports,” Thomas says. “It’s a big step for them to be able to get paid for it.” 

Arizona EDGE is a collaboration among Arizona Athletics, the James E. Rogers College of Law and the Eller College of Management that helps student-athletes with business development, personal brand management and financial skills. An offshoot called Arizona EDGE Marketplace serves as a conduit between the business community and UArizona student-athletes, establishing protocols for marketing their personal appearances, sports camps or brand promotions.

Sam Thomas

Thomas is already leading the charge. Last year, she competed in a Sam’s Club scholarship competition for student-athletes named “Sam.” She also interned with Nike, where she learned about branding and marketing. 

And in January, she launched a clothing line with women’s basketball letterwinner Danielle Adefeso. The pair met several years ago at a UArizona women’s basketball reunion; today, Adefeso owns a clothing company called HGHT that caters to NBA players. She helped Thomas develop a clothing line that includes sweatsuits, T-shirts, crop tops and hooded sweatshirts, all branded with an “ST” logo that, of course, includes a basketball. 

“I’ve worked with her closely,” Thomas says, “and she’s been awesome.”

Thomas’ latest dream also dovetails with the classroom; a research paper for her master’s degree in educational leadership focuses on how athletes brand themselves with NIL. To help others, she plans to share her findings. “My goal is to have a map or platform for incoming athletes,” she says. “The do’s and don’ts of branding yourself with NIL; what works and doesn’t work.”

Thomas’ popularity as a successful student-athlete on the court and in the classroom propels her brand. “That’s exactly what I want my brand to be,” she says. “It’s myself, with athletics, and also off the court with academics. And that I always have a smile on my face.”

The positivity cuts both ways: Fans wore Sam Thomas T-shirts during an Oregon game, she says. “And then I went to Pro Day for the football team, and one of the coaches was wearing my gear. It’s the most insane feeling ever.”

The feeling of a dream fulfilled.

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