Sportswear brand Actively Black is the latest to ink a NIL deal with North Carolina women’s basketball player Deja Kelly.
As per the one-year partnership, which marks Actively Black’s first NIL — or name, image and likeness — deal, Kelly is featured in a campaign video supporting the brand. Actively Black is Kelly’s latest NIL deal, joining previous agreements with Forever 21, Beats by Dre, Dr. Teals, Outback and Dunkin’, among others.
The UNC Chapel Hill junior was a standout player even before her collegiate career, being named a 2020 McDonald’s All-American, Jordan Brand All-American and the 2020 Gatorade Texas Girls Basketball Player of the Year. In her freshman season at UNC Chapel Hill, she was named to the ACC All Freshman Team, and in her sophomore season she earned All-ACC First Team, WBCA Coaches’ All-American Honorable Mention and the Greensboro Regional All-Tournament Team, after scoring a team-high 23 points against NCAA Tournament Champion South Carolina in the Sweet 16.
“Actively Black is changing the game in sports apparel as an unapologetically Black brand, and I’m excited to join their team as a partner,” Kelly said in a statement. “As both a Black woman and an athlete, it’s important to me that my work on-and-off the court serves as a blueprint for the next generation of Black youth and, in particular, Black girls coming up after me, so I’m humbled to partner with a brand that is also committed to uplifting our community.”
In addition, Actively Black was named official sponsor of Kelly’s EmPowerment Camp, the athlete’s grassroots program that brings extracurricular workshops to Texas schools, teaching elementary to high school aged students basketball fundamentals and life business skills.
“For too long, female athletes — and particularly Black female athletes — have been an afterthought in the sports community,” added Actively Black founder Lanny Smith.
Smith launched Actively Black in 2020 with a mission to support the Black community. The brand offers activewear and accessories for men, women, children and in genderless options, including T-shirts, joggers, hoodies, tank tops and shorts.
Smith unveiled Actively Black on Juneteenth in 2020 and launched the brand on Black Friday the same year. Actively Black, according to Smith, was the only Black-owned brand at the Winter Olympics, outfitting the Nigerian Olympic team, and has fans in former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama and NBA champion Steph Curry.
To date, the brand has sold just under $5 million and is projected to have sales of $10 million to $11 million this year. The company also closed a Series A funding round led by former Essence owner Richelieu Dennis and Black Star Fund chairman and chief executive officer Kwame Anku. Smith plans to put the funding toward building the team and catching up with demand. Now it has a new face with UNC Chapel Hill’s Kelly.
“It’s important to me to empower Black female talent,” Smith said. “I wanted someone that embodies what the brand represents. My niece used to play against Deja in middle school so I’ve seen her talent for a long time. I reached out and she loved it.”
Smith first started in the fashion industry with premium sports apparel brand Active Faith in 2011, merging his love of sports with his faith, which he leaned on after suffering a career-ending knee injury during practice with the Sacramento Kings just 33 days after signing with the team. He struggled with depression, realizing that his basketball career and everything that he had worked for in his life was over.
He put together capital and received seed funding to launch Active Faith, and with the support of fellow players such as NBA champion and Beijing Ducks player Jeremy Lin — who wore the brand during “Linsanity,” when Lin had breakout games on the New York Knicks in 2012 — Active Faith grew in popularity and achieved $20 million in revenue. The brand is still in operation.
“But I hid myself,” Smith said. “Being a Black man in America, I had fear that if people knew a Black man was behind Active Faith then it would negatively affect the business. I did customer service and the customer said, ‘You sound like you’re Black’ and then demanded a refund. I would have discussions with partners and as soon as I walked in the door, I could see a change on their faces and the conversations changed.”
Smith said he is proud of who he is but struggled with this issue internally. Then he saw the movie “Black Panther” in 2018, which fueled his desire to launch a brand supporting the Black community.
He moved to Los Angeles, had to lock down due to COVID-19 and decided then to launch the label. Then George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police.
“All of the brands put out declarations and it felt performative to me, because outside of the pandemic, the racism and the strained relationship with law enforcement wasn’t new to the Black community so I thought why now?” he asked.
Smith compared the first year of Active Faith to Actively Black and said Active Faith did $150,000 in revenue, while Actively Black did $150,000 in revenue in the first two weeks. “We did $2.5 million in the first 12 months.”
“At Actively Black, Black women are at the forefront of everything we do, so it was important that our first NIL athlete partnership was with a Black woman,” Smith said. “Deja is an incredible talent with shared sensibilities rooted in empowering and reinvesting in Black communities. Actively Black represents the greatness in our DNA, and Deja is a perfect reflection of that. We couldn’t have asked for a better partner as we move into this new chapter and we are humbled to be a part of her journey.”