Apr. 11—Ashton Keys' favorite pastime as a kid in Detroit was to walk around the corner from his house on the west side and practice shots on the neighborhood basketball rim.
Keys would practice for hours and hours, aiming for just the right angle to make the ball swish through the net.
Some years later, the Michigan State University alum turned that same dedication and love for sports into a startup company that is now competing for a piece of a $1 million cash prize in a pitch competition.
"I feel like I've worked for this moment and I'm super excited to finally have an opportunity to be able to put myself in a position to push our company," said Keys, 25.
Keys and his co-founder, Jared Eummer, started Athlytic, a fully integrated marketplace to connect college athletes with brands for endorsement deals.
After a year of making hundreds of calls with athletes and brand marketers for research development, Keys and Eummer will be showcasing their company during the Mountain Dew Real Change Opportunity Fund pitch competition, which airs on TV networks BET and VH1.
The Athlytic team lasted through three rounds of the competition to make it as one of final five competitors. Each of the finalists will get a portion of the $1 million fund, with the winner receiving the most money.
On Wednesday, Keys and Eummer will make their pitch to celebrity judges such as actress La La Anthony to make their case for the grand cash prize and a partnership with iHeart Media.
"We saw a significant gap in the market where states are opening up the athletes' opportunity to make money and monetize their name and connect with endorsement partners but it wasn't a real great way for them to do that and we want to create that platform to help them identify the right partners so they can reach their potential," said Keys, a 2018 graduate of Michigan State.
Keys said the goal of Athlytic is to help athletes develop their brand identity while also providing a space for the students to get paid from deals with other brands.
In December, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed bipartisan legislation allowing college athletes to profit from their own name, image and likeness (NIL) starting in December 2022. Michigan is among the first states to allow college athletes to benefit financially while attending college.
Keys said the Athlytic app will go live in July for college athletes in Mississippi and Florida, where legislation for students to be compensated will be in effect.
The move to allow student compensation faces opposition from those who believe it diminishes college sports and threatens universities and colleges.
"Some people think that we're asking for universities to fund athletes but we're not looking to take any dollars away from the marketing and TV rights that universities receive," said Eummer, 27, who graduated from Florida A&M University in 2017. "We're not trying to make sure that coaches receive less money, we're just asking that athletes be able to monetize what they're bringing to the table."
Keys and Eummer touted their support for students profiting from NIL by commissioning a billboard in Indianapolis during the NCAA's March Madness tournament.
The billboard showed up to support the #notNCAAproperty movement; University of Michigan forward Isaiah Livers and two other players met with NCAA president Mark Emmert to discuss the movement and demands for changes to how college athletes can be compensated.
Keys said the players' fight for reform is the driving force for Athlytic.
"We understand the challenges some student athletes go through while they're playing sports, whether it's the financial burden of being in poverty... but also from the social standpoint of we believe it's their right to be able to monetize their name," Keys said.
Viewers can see Keys and Eummer pitching their company Wednesday on BET, VH1 and Youtube Live.