The new era of college sports
USC athletes reveal a closer look at NIL
By Chloe Clark
July 1st, 2021, became a pivotal moment in college sports history. On that day alone, many college athletes around the world suddenly became flooded with direct messages across social media platforms from companies like clothing boutiques, gaming sites, and more after legislation passed that finally allowed colleges athletes the right to make a living.
With the name, image, likeness (NIL) legislation put in place, there looms a new era of college sports as college athletes can finally benefit from a system that consistently benefits from them.
As the first generation of college athletes to make money off their name, image, and likeness, this is an exciting yet new landscape for many, including three members of the USC men’s basketball team.
“I thought it was a big jump for college athletes all around the country,” said Isaiah Mobley, junior on the team. “I'll go as far as saying it's been almost like extortion. Schools, NCAA...been making billions of dollars for 100 plus years. Players are the people everyone's watching, they're creating the revenue, so it’s a monumental moment.”
The dollars are just starting to come in, but NIL is bigger than endorsement deals. This is about economic empowerment for young men and women whose talents and culture have created value for others.
A 2019 study conducted by the National College Players Association found that 86 percent of college athletes live below the federal poverty line. This new financial opportunity makes impacts for college athletes’ way beyond just themselves and the sport they play.
“I know people that send their stipend check back home to their families, but with this new NIL they can consistently send more,” said Ethan Anderson, captain of the team. “People come from poverty and come to college as the first person in their family, so it's tough when you only get that school check.”
For years, college athletes were tied under the umbrella of the NCAA, but with NIL, they have the privilege of only earning profits, while also becoming their own entity, and owning their personal brand. So now it’s also about how they perform outside of their uniform.
Thilo Kunkel, associate professor at Temple’s School of Sport, Tourism and Hospitality Management conducted a study on name, image, and likeness to understand college athlete’s value beyond the playing fields.
“The reputation of a university has an influence on the name, image, and likeness value of the athlete, but that influence is very small,” Kunkel said. “It really depends on the individual athlete to build their own personal brand and it differs from athlete to athlete.”
Many universities’ athletic departments have offered resources for student-athletes to make brand deals, connect with agencies, and sign contracts. One app USC provides the team is Iconcource, where brands can contact athletes and negotiate deals.
“Most deals also from Instagram DM with an elevator pitch and details,” said Anderson. “Then I decide if I want to sign the contract.”
Contracts generally lay out the logistics such as how many posts are expected to be made, how much money will be made for the deal, how long the athlete should be at an event or how long they should use a given product.
INFLCR, the nationwide leader in athlete brand-building, is another app that thousands of universities, including USC, provide to their student athletes to help grow their brands while staying NIL compliant.
With the rise of new NIL apps, one key question comes to mind: Can college athletes become the next wave of influencers?
“What we see in our research is that athletes in our sample had much more engagement than traditional influencers,” Kunkel said. “They have a natural brand community, and they have a very defined target market.”
So, it looks like influencers have now gained a lot more competition, as more apps and marketing agencies jump on the opportunity to work with college athletes across the globe to grow their social media presence.
Playmaker, is one sports media and marketing company that represents NBA and NFL players. The company took advantage of the NIL legislation to also represent collegiate athletes. They work on aspects off the fields and courts from community work, endorsement deals, brand partnerships, creating merchandise, and pushing out content for player’s platforms.
“You can be the best basketball player in the world but if your social media doesn't match up with it then the money that you're expecting is not going to be the same,” said Polo Kerber, Playmaker’s head of talent & partnerships.
Essentially, companies are looking for more than a good athlete— they’re looking for an influencer.
The three teammates had companies reaching out the same day the legislation passed. But, instead of immediately signing deals, they were strategic in how to navigate the new landscape.
“I didn’t want to be too quick to jump on a lot of different [deals],” said Boogie Ellis. “I wanted to keep my value and not go into it without knowing exactly what was going on.”
Simply understanding what NIL is about is a big part of this new era. Many athletes, families, universities, brand, and even agencies are unfamiliar with it all. This shows how important it is for student athletes to know logistics like managing finances and finalizing contracts.
“It really comes down to educating student athletes,” Kunkel said. “The main reason is that what they're doing now may hurt them in the future in terms of being associated with the wrong brand. It’s about taking a long-term focus on the brand building along with the monetization.”
With money on the line, athletes find themselves utilizing social media in a different manner to optimize their NIL. The bigger college athletes grow their platform, the more valuable they are in this landscape.
“I’ve never really been big on social media,” Ellis said. “But obviously now that you're able to really start marketing your brand to help you make money off the court and outside of your sport, I think it’s really important to make yourself marketable and presentable.”
Athletes across the country may find themselves following the Instagram algorithm more in detail to boost engagement with posts, likes, and viewership. These are aspects especially important for companies looking to work with a particular athlete over another.
“Followers turn to dollars,” Mobley said.
The amount of money a college athlete gets paid through NIL is not a set payment; it often depends on how many followers the athlete has. So, the more followers and engagement, the more money can be made.
When working with a brand, athletes are picky about certain qualities when prioritizing deals. After all, not all money is good money. College athletes are making sure they are placing themselves in the best position to benefit and showcase their personal views, interests, and overall personality. Their authenticity is what can make them so effective as marketers.
“If I just say yes to every business that wants to do a deal with me, my value goes down.”
“I definitely look for the companies that value what I do, and value who I am, and want me to represent their brand well,” said Anderson. “If I just say yes to every business that wants to do a deal with me, my value goes down.”
Since the new legislation, the three athletes have already signed brand deals.
Anderson’s first deal was with the clothing brand, We Love To Hate. He signed an ongoing deal, where he gets a commission from each post and the brand gives him a code for fans to use for 20% off items.
Other short time deals can be made depending on contracts, from a couple weeks to a month. For Ellis’ first brand deal, he signed a shorter deal with BYLT Basics. As part of the contract, he was given $2500 to shoot a commercial video with them and was required to then post it on his Instagram page and story.
There are endless ways to fulfill NIL opportunties. Mobley has already explored the full range. He signed a recent bobblehead deal, ran his own basketball camp, and made special guest appearances.
NIL gives student athletes more help financially beyond just their stipend. These yearly stipends often range from $2,000 to $5,000 intended to cover cost-of-living expenses.
“I have to pay for my apartment in L.A. which eats up a lot of my stipend money,” Anderson says. “With N.I.L, that money differs because I try to save most of it just to build up my money so when I leave college or go pro, I have money saved up either way so I can invest or still be able to live the lifestyle I want to live.”
Due to their time commitment to practices, travelling, class, workouts, there is less availability for college athletes to work a job during college, offering little chance to make outside money for their financial needs.
Though many athletes dream of playing in the NBA or NFL, there is a 2% chance of playing professionally. Athletes often lose out on their opportunity to play pro, but with NIL in place, college athletes can at least carry their personal brands with them after college, granting them greater access to professional opportunities.
From personal finance knowledge to media and marketing promotion, college athletes can sharpen such tangible skills through their NIL college careers.
“Those transferable skills are very invaluable, and it follows through with the NCAA’s mission of student first and then athlete,” Kunkel said. “If college athletes are able to create a positive and powerful personal brand, that is going to be helpful to them for the rest of their life.”