NIL rules allow high school athletes to sign memorabilia deals

At just 15, Louisiana QB Peyton Houston signs deal with Leaf for trading cards

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Peyton Houston can't have a driver's license in Louisiana yet, but he does have a trading-card contract with Leaf. (Credit: FocusedByJai)

When Peyton Manning was 15, he lived a relatively anonymous existence.

His exploits in high school were covered by newspapers in two states: his native Louisiana and Mississippi, where his father, Archie, played his college ball.

Some 33 years later, a 15-year-old kid from Louisiana also named Peyton, is far from being off the radar. Even though he hasn't taken a snap in high school, Peyton Houston is covered nationwide. He has 14 college offers and recently signed a lucrative exclusive trading-card contract with Leaf.

Three years ago, when "Name, Image and Likeness" opportunities came to college sports, it opened up the floodgates. It started with companies such as Fanatics and Panini signing athletes to deals in the near term, and it developed into what we have today: companies signing long-term deals with college players so that the deal extends into their first couple years as a pro.

Houston is the youngest athlete Leaf has ever signed. (Credit: FocusedByJai)
Houston is the youngest athlete Leaf has ever signed. (Credit: FocusedByJai)

In the last six months, Leaf, which operates without the licenses of any major sport, has extended it back even further. The company has signed at least seven high school athletes exclusively — some as far back as their freshman years in high school (the college recruiting class of 2027). Houston is the youngest player Leaf has ever signed while at least 13 other freshman have signed deals on a non-exclusive basis.

In March, Leaf signed an exclusive deal with Georgia high school senior JuJu Lewis, a five-star quarterback who committed to USC. Lewis was on the cover of Sports Illustrated's Money Issue shortly after Georgia changed its NIL law to allow high school athletes to cash in.

Leaf is not only putting these players on cards in packs, along with the college athletes they've signed to NIL deals, but the company is also hoping that by the time at least some of them are stars, they will stick with Leaf over the major players in the card world.

"We want collectors to come to us now for the next group of future stars," Leaf CEO Josh Pankow said. "But this is also about us investing in these kids early, to build a relationship and for them to be with us when they commit to Georgia or Alabama and into the NFL."

Leaf wants to make it easier for collectors to know how its high schoolers are doing, so Pankow says they will share season stats on a weekly basis with their mailing list.

The way young people watch social media also makes it possible for the cream of the crop in high school athletics to become more relevant than ever before.

Leaf won't say how much it's paying Houston other than it's "life-changing."

Houston's father, Shaun, a football coach who works in the local parks and recreation office, can't believe what the last month has been like, including his son signing an exclusive NIL agency deal with IFA. They combined forces on the Leaf deal with another firm, Lionheart Sports Agency.

When they signed the deal with Leaf, Shaun said he and his wife were talking about how they couldn't afford to fly Peyton all around the country to all the high-profile camps — Shaun now says they can. He also wants to use the money to help build an indoor practice facility for his son's team at Evangel Christian Academy in Shreveport.

IFA, much like Leaf, has its best interests in developing relationships with athletes like Houston as early it they can.

"Given the environment we are in, the need for real professional representation at a younger age is imperative," said Blake Baratz, who founded IFA, which now represents more than 20 athletes on NIL deals. "The response we continue to receive from players, players' families, brands, and the universities is an appreciation for bringing professionalism and expertise to a system that is severely lacking it."

Houston's first appearance in packs will come in two months, but Pankow said a one-off release that will allow collectors to get Houston's first card will come in signed ($70) and unsigned ($7) offerings on the company's website next week.

Incoming Rutgers basketball recruits make history

Three years ago, NIL allowed active college players to sign live at autograph shows for the first time. In July 2021, then-Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler became the first when he signed autographs at the National Sports Collectors Convention.

Next Saturday, another milestone will be reached: The first high school athletes will sign at an autograph show.

Deb Nexon, who runs the Morris County Card Show in New Jersey, is known as an innovator in the card and autograph show business. With nearby Rutgers signing two of the top five high school basketball players in the country in Ace Bailey and Dylan Harper, Nexon thought to bring them in before they have even enrolled in Rutgers this fall.

"The NIL world has changed the ability to get these guys earlier than ever before, and we're proud to offer this opportunity to fans and collectors," Nexon said.

Bailey and Harper will sign for $70 each and will take a photo with a fan for an additional $25.

The race to sign these guys is happening at a breakneck speed.

Soon after Nexon signed Bailey to the show, he signed an exclusive contract with Fanatics. It means, she said, that Bailey can't sign trading cards, as is restricted in all Fanatics deals, but that because she signed him to the show first, she has rights to his signatures June 1.

Mail-ins for Bailey and Harper are being taken care of by a company called Sign Here.

"We've come a long way in a short period of time," Sign Here's Dave Nisanov said. "If the NIL rules existed when Zion was at Duke, you wouldn't have been able to get his autograph for less than $600."

Darren Rovell is the founder of and one of the country's leading reporters on the collectible market. He previously worked for ESPN, CNBC and The Action Network.