College Athletes Already Cashing In on Name, Image, Likeness

College Athletes Already Cashing In on Name, Image, Likeness
portrait of Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.
By Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.

Published on August 4, 2021

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University of Alabama quarterback Bryce Young hasn't started a single game for the Crimson Tide. The sophomore largely rode the bench last year and isn't exactly a household name among sports aficionados.

Yet he's set to rake in upwards of a million dollars in endorsement deals, says his coach, Nick Saban.

"Our QB has already approached ungodly numbers, and he hasn't even played yet," Saban told a group of Texas high school coaches. "It's almost seven figures."

Welcome to the Wild West of NIL — name, image, and likeness — and a new era of college sports where millionaire athletes compete as "amateurs."

NIL Opportunities Benefitting a Wide Range of Athletes

It's been only a month since the NCAA adopted its interim policy allowing athletes to earn money from NIL activities. Already, Young has signed with a marketing agency and negotiated a deal with Cash App, a mobile payment service.

As the quarterback for a perennial football powerhouse frequently featured on national television, Young will have enormous exposure and, potentially, rock-star status among college football players. Now he's cashing in on his imminent fame.

"NIL could be the greatest grassroots marketing opportunity in the history of sports," said Vince Thompson, CEO of MELT Atlanta, a sports marketing firm.

You don't have to be a star quarterback to make money. Twin sisters Hanna and Haley Cavinder, who play basketball at Fresno State University, capitalized on their social media popularity by becoming spokespersons for Boost Mobile. The Cavinders also announced a deal with Six Star Pro Nutrition and plan to begin selling branded merchandise.

Stephen Stokols, Boost Mobile's CEO, told ESPN the company has targeted 400 athletes for social media advertising campaigns.

"A lot of these guys are local heroes," Stokols said. "We think it's a big opportunity to get regional and local with relevant names in those markets."

Dozens of other athletes have quickly boarded the NIL gravy train. Nebraska volleyball player Lexi Sun, Kentucky basketball player Dontaie Allen, Texas football players DeMarvion Overshown and Josh Thompson, and University of Miami quarterback D'Eriq King are among the many athletes getting into the apparel business. Five members of the Jackson State University football team inked a deal with 3 Kings Grooming products. Arkansas football player Trey Knox has partnered with PetSmart. And Auburn University quarterback Bo Nix signed an endorsement deal with Milo's Sweet Tea.

Male and female athletes alike are taking advantage of NIL opportunities. Unilever plans to enlist college athletes in promoting the deodorant brand Degree, spending its $5 million evenly between men and women across various sports. Some female athletes, such as the Cavinder sisters and LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne, boast huge social media followings that provide ready-made audiences for lucrative product endorsements. University of Oregon women's basketball player Sedona Prince has promised custom merchandise to her 2.5 million followers on TikTok.

How much do these students stand to earn? One analysis estimates star athletes in major sports can make between $500,000 and $1 million annually through endorsements on YouTube, Twitter and Instagram, with each post netting around $10,000. Lesser-known athletes in minor sports might earn only $1,000-$3,000.

Yet NIL opportunities don't always involve endorsements. Marshall University football player Will Ulmer hopes to profit from country music gigs. University of Miami volleyball player Taylor Burrell plans to monetize her TikTok videos offering advice on college volleyball and recovering from injury. University of Florida gymnast Trinity Thomas wants to launch her own athletic wear business and start modeling.

To help its athletes navigate such unchartered waters, the University of North Carolina partnered with The Brandr Group to launch the nation's first group licensing program. The voluntary program enables Tar Heel student-athletes to benefit from co-branded sponsorships.

State Laws and Congressional Action on Name, Image, Likeness

The NCAA calls its NIL policy "interim" because the assumption is Congress eventually will pass a federal law providing consistent standards for NIL endeavors, though members of Congress cannot seem to agree on the parameters. What's more, the NCAA is concerned it could face antitrust violations if it creates its own set of NIL restrictions without the backing of a federal law, writes ESPN senior writer Dan Murphy.

Thus far, 15 states have NIL laws in place. Similar measures in additional states have passed but are slated to be in effect sometime in the future. Meanwhile, colleges in states without NIL laws are responsible for devising and enforcing their own policies.

Bills in the various states have common elements. They allow athletes to hire agents. They prohibit colleges from restricting students' NIL rights. They require students to disclose endorsement deals to their schools. And they stipulate that NIL deals cannot be used as recruiting tactics.

In addition, the NCAA doesn't allow athletes to use their school logos in endorsements or to promote businesses in conflict with "institutional values," such as gambling or alcohol outlets.

But gray areas do exist. The NCAA doesn't regulate the involvement of boosters, outside parties that provide financial or other assistance to student-athletes or athletic departments, and state laws address the matter inconsistently. Some states restrict colleges from brokering deals for their athletes, while others do not. And there seems to be a lack of clarity around exactly what business activities conflict with institutional values.

Says Julie Sommer of The Drake Group, a watchdog organization concerned with academic integrity in college sports: "It's like whack-a-mole keeping track of them all."

Changing Landscapes and Uneven Playing Fields

University leaders now wait patiently for federal guidelines promising to corral some of the chaos, though national ground rules won't do much to level the playing field. The free market will continue to dictate individual and institutional fortunes.

The ESPN analysis suggests athletes in bigger markets stand to earn more than those in mid-size and smaller markets. Female superstars, it concludes, could earn roughly $700,000 annually in a big city, $525,000 in a midsize city, and $575,000 in a smaller college town. Moreover, athletes seeking to endorse local businesses will find far more opportunities in urban locations.

Might this provide recruiting advantages to colleges in and around larger cities? Let's say a high school football player receives offers from UCLA and the University of Nebraska. If the student has his eyes on the NIL prize — and who wouldn't these days? — then UCLA's location would no doubt tip the scales in its favor.

As more and more NIL activities are announced, enterprising recruits will gravitate to colleges where athletes are striking the best deals. Rich programs will get richer with top talent, and more wins on the field will beget even more lucrative contracts. The gulf between the haves and have-nots will widen even further.

We're witnessing a seismic shift altering the sports landscape almost beyond recognition. Where this ultimately leads is anyone's guess, though it's safe to say what we've come to know as amateur collegiate athletics over the past 170 years is gone forever.


Feature Image: Todd Kirkland / Stringer / Getty Images Sport

College athletes rake in millions of dollars each year for their schools, but these full-time players aren't making any money for themselves from the gig. The Supreme Court ruled on June 21 that the NCAA cannot bar universities from making education-related payments to student-athletes. Although college sports play a big role in bringing in money for universities, they rarely generate a positive net revenue — especially in light of COVID-19.