Marshall lineman Will Ulmer
TAMPA, FL - DECEMBER 23: Marshall offensive lineman Will Ulmer (50) shows off the Marshall logo shaved into his hair during the Gasparilla Bowl between the University of Central Florida Knights and the Marshall Thundering Herd on December 23, 2019 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, FL. (Photo by Mary Holt/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Business

How College Athletes Are Making ‘Massive Decisions’ in the NIL Era

Why this matters

Before the NIL floodgates opened in 2021, plenty of people around college sports claimed that compensating athletes would distract them, overwhelm them, or make it harder for them to focus on competition and schooling. In the months since NIL deals were allowed by the NCAA, athletes have instead found that the new rules are not only often lucrative but freeing.

When the National Collegiate Athletic Association decided to let athletes be paid for the use of their names, images, and likenesses (NIL) this past summer, the main governing body for college sports in America did so at what amounted to legislative gunpoint. Lawmakers in roughly two dozen states – Democrats and Republicans – had passed laws making it effectively illegal for the NCAA to restrict the NIL earnings of college athletes through amateurism rules, something the association had done for its entire history.

The first of those laws went into effect on July 1. So the NCAA threw up its hands and unveiled an interim NIL policy that increasingly feels like it will become permanent. Before making this policy shift, the association spent months begging Congress to create a national law governing NIL use. Nothing happened, and nothing seems immediately forthcoming. Today, college athletes in every state can earn NIL money without sacrificing playing eligibility.

The athletes who have participated in this burgeoning market describe it as a significant breakthrough. In most cases, they’re not making mints – but they can generate income that fits into their booked-up schedules and that their schools don’t control. Athletes with large social media followings and NIL earning potential to match have felt the relief of not needing to choose between building a sports career and growing a business. For years, the vast majority of college athletes couldn’t do both.

“I could now see why athletes, before the passing of NIL legislation, would have a hard time choosing between social media and their sport,” says Chloe Mitchell, a volleyball player at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In December 2020, Mitchell took advantage of the NAIA’s move to allow NIL payments 10 months before the NCAA did, and the do-it-yourself TikTok star became what’s believed to be the first college athlete to earn NIL money. “It gets to a point where you have to make massive decisions on where your time and money is best spent.”

Since July, several hundred college athletes reportedly have agreed to sponsorship and advertising deals. Global Sport Matters recently spoke to a handful of them; they describe the first few months of the NIL era as transformative in some ways and hardly life-changing in others. More broadly, college sports have gone on almost as exactly as usual – except that athletes have more money, and less fear of being themselves.

Getting, and Vetting, a Deal

The athletes interviewed for this story took similar paths to finding and capitalizing on NIL opportunities, albeit with some key differences. Several set up profiles on Opendorse, an athlete marketing clearinghouse that partnered with dozens of schools well in advance of the NCAA’s policy shift. Opendorse and its primary competitor, INFLCR, which together seem to touch a large but currently unmeasurable share of the NIL market, allow athletes to set up profiles for prospective marketers to browse. Both platforms also facilitate payment – for a 30 percent fee paid by advertisers, the company says – and aim to serve as a one-stop shop for connecting athletes and people who would like to pay them.

Of course, NIL deals also happen outside of those platforms. For example:

  • Marshall University offensive lineman Will Ulmer previously performed musical gigs under a stage name to ensure he didn’t run afoul of NIL restrictions. Hesays he found a few preseason gigs by “word of mouth” around the Thunder Herd’s home of Huntington, West Virginia.
  • Mitchell, who has more than 2 million followers on TikTok and another 40,000 on Instagram, fields offers by email. She rarely reaches out to brands and gets most of her inquiries passively. She has done deals with a range of sponsors for different videos, including golf brands Bloodline Golf and Delta Putt (in conjunction with a do-it-yourself mini-golf course she’d posted about on TikTok) and has also started her own NIL firm, PlayBooked, that aims to connect athletes and brands.

Mitchell, whose social media stardom exceeds that of most college athletes, says she uses an agent to “help me navigate offers and pitch me for deals that pertain to my brand.” She retained the agent when her TikTok following took off early in the pandemic, before she arrived as a freshman at Aquinas. Most athletes engaging in NIL deals don’t use agents, either vetting deals themselves or consulting with family members. “My most trusted advisor is my father, and part of that is because he's my father,” says University of California, Los Angeles quarterback Chase Griffin, who has made NIL deals with Degree deodorant, Clearcover insurance, and Boost Mobile wireless telecommunications, among other brands. “I trust him. But another part is he’s worked in this world. He’s an expert on some of these topics.”

Nicklin Hames, a setter for Nebraska’s five-time national championship volleyball program, has struck NIL deals with clients ranging from the Lincoln-based New Mexican barbecue restaurant Muchachos to the insurance company Ameritas. She’s working now on an arrangement with First National Bank of Omaha. “I’m not very good at saying no,” Hames says. “I’ve learned a lot through this whole process, trying to choose things that I’m really passionate about and go with my brand and that I feel like I can give my hundred-percent support to. I never want to do something with a brand where I’m not a hundred percent sure about the product or what I’m putting out there.”

What a Deal Looks Like in Practice

Three months after the NCAA changed its NIL rules, Opendorse reported that nearly 90 percent of the deals made on its platform were for posting content on social media. However, that posting made up only 43 percent of NIL compensation, with athlete licensing rights (20 percent) and autograph signings (11 percent) accounting for large portions of the total amount of money changing hands.

According to his coach, Nick Saban, University of Alabama quarterback Bryce Young made nearly a million dollars on NIL deals before the 2021 season, his first as a starter, even began. But on a per-person basis, the NIL market is not overwhelmingly lucrative. Over the first four months of NIL, according to Opendorse, the average Division I athlete who made at least one deal earned $686 before taxes. In Divisions II and III, it was $68 and $35 per athlete. Much less than half of all NCAA athletes appear to have made any NIL deal at all.

Of the deals that have been struck, Opendorse reports, 34 percent were for football players, followed by women’s volleyball and men’s basketball players at about 8 percent each. In terms of total compensation, football players accounted for 64 percent, followed by 14 percent for men’s basketball players. Though the big football numbers jump out, it’s worth considering that football generates the vast majority of Football Bowl Subdivision athletic department revenues. The NIL market, at least over its first few months, appears less football-dominant than the business of college sports as a whole.

“It’s been really cool for women’s sports in general, just to get some recognition finally,” Hames says. “I think a lot of people feared that only football [players] were going to get money, but I’m pretty sure at Nebraska we’re pretty close. We’re second to football, maybe third behind basketball. It’s a chance [for fans] to get to know us, and we promote our brand, and they get to see our games a little bit more.”

 

The market also has not been limited to superstars within their respective sports. Griffin is a backup at UCLA but has built a devoted following and been able to turn that into advertising deals that might have seemed destined for higher-profile players. “Their brand is that they’re a Heisman contender this year. That’s great,” he says. “For me and my brand, it isn’t tied to necessarily one aspect of me, but all of me as a person, as a story. I learned that, through these deals, it’s actually something that people frankly pay money to hear.”

Griffin has lived in the public eye since 2014, when an ESPN story labeled him “a 13-year-old prodigy in every sense of the world.” It touted him as a “99th-percentile test-taker and chamber orchestra violinist who’s already plotting one day to run a water purification startup, then maybe run for president.” He’s built a following in the years since.

“And I'm by no means an influencer,” Griffin says. “In the world we live in, where social media followings can be monetized, it helps to have that influencer level of followership. For me, those who do follow me, they truly respect my story. I think it’s quality over quantity when you go with someone like me.”

What NIL Means

The fact that most players aren’t pulling in thousands of dollars per semester doesn’t diminish the significance of the NCAA’s policy change. Every player interviewed for this story described their daily schedules as packed with classes, practices, workouts, and games – giving them little time to earn money through jobs. NIL deals have been welcome, in part, because many don’t require significant time commitments.

“I feel like I work extremely hard, and we really don’t have a lot of time during the day,” Hames says. “Then when you go to school, we go to our practices, we do film, we go to games, and so there’s not a lot of opportunities for us to get jobs outside of that. So it’s been nice to be able to do something where I can make money for the sport that I’ve worked so hard for my entire life.”

College athletes are heavily dependent upon their schools, which exert control over their schedules, their meals, their finances, and their academic and athletic futures. NIL deals are one way for athletes to own something that is wholly theirs, over which their schools have little influence. It also lets athletes have control of their creative pursuits away from the playing field – something that Ulmer, the Marshall offensive lineman, singer, and guitarist has relished.

Before the NIL era, Ulmer says, “I had an alias, and I couldn’t advertise it on any of my social medias. If I was playing somewhere, I had to specifically tell them, like, ‘Hey, you know, don’t say my name. Say ‘Lucky Bill.’ That was my stage name.

“I’m not going to say that it necessarily affected my confidence, because I still had an opportunity to do something that I enjoyed, but, you know, it’s super nice now to have the luxury of being able to place my name on it. And if I have original material, it’s really great to be able to say, ‘This is mine. I wrote this. I’m Will Ulmer. This is what I love.’ I think that’s really what it’s all about.”

What Comes Next

On Capitol Hill, the NCAA continues to push for a national NIL law – one that would standardize rules across states, probably with more restrictions than some have now. By contrast, the athletes interviewed for this story were clear about what they wanted out of a potential federal standard: fewer restrictions on the kinds of deals they’re allowed to make.

Hames says that she would like to see all athletes be able to strike NIL deals that incorporate their schools as well; currently, some states prohibit athletes and schools from striking joint deals. And while state NIL laws vary, many bar athletes from going into business with companies in alcohol, tobacco, or gambling, even though the latter is becoming a source of income for college athletic departments.

“You can be stopped by entities that had previously made capitalizing off NIL illegal,” Griffin says, referring to the NCAA. “I think that now that those groups have taken a step back and let those play out, I think it’s important that things stay that way and that student-athletes are left to make the most out of their opportunities and to have as many decisions on the table as they can have.”

For decades, the people running college sports have argued in federal antitrust court – as well as the court of public opinion – that allowing athletes to be paid for the use of their NILs would fundamentally change their enterprise for the worse, harming athletes while driving away fans. But six months into the NIL era, it seems clear that this isn’t the case. Fans continue to buy tickets and watch games. Meanwhile, athletes have shown they can manage their personal brands on a Friday, play a game on a Saturday, and study for a test on a Sunday.

What this means for the future of amateurism remains to be seen. But it does not not help the NCAA’s ongoing contention that college sports will somehow spin off its axis if athletes are granted the same economic rights as everyone else on campus.

“[NIL] doesn’t take away from an athlete’s ability to focus,” Mitchell says. “It just adds to their level of opportunity.”

Monthly Issue

NIL & the Future of College Sports

College sports changed dramatically this year with new NCAA rules allowing athletes to profit from their names, images, and likenesses (NILs). For athlete empowerment advocates, it was a major victory—one that could prompt further reform and reorganization across the landscape of intercollegiate athletics.

How has NIL already impacted college sports, and what is on the horizon for campuses and their communities around the United States?