For decades, the National Collegiate Athletic Association(NCAA) has restricted both incoming and current college athletes from using their name, image, and likeness(NIL) to be compensated beyond the bounds of their athletic scholarship. With the promise of free education, the red-tape restricting Division I athletes from being paid went largely uncontested. But over the past ten years, an unforeseen change occurred as social media represents a new catalyst for amateur athletes to make money off their personal brands.
Over the past decade, both individual high school athletes and companies dedicated to covering college athletics’ top recruits have become increasingly popular. In the basketball world, Instagram accounts like @Slam_HS(1.2 Million Followers), and @Overtime(5 Million Followers) are solely dedicated to covering high school basketball’s premier talents and have paved the way for several players to become household names.
From Zion Williamson(@Zionwilliamson) to Lamelo Ball(@Melo) to Mikey Williams(@Mikey), many of these “amateur” athletes have racked up over 1 million followers before ever stepping foot on a college campus. For perspective, Influencer Marketing Hub estimates that individuals with over 1 million followers can charge up to $10,000 per sponsored post. But for years, the college athletics governing body has exploited the name, image, and likeness of these athletes for their own benefit.
The most blatant way is through broadcasting deals surrounding college athletics’ largest events like March Madness and the College Football Playoff. As the premier collegiate showcases for these budding professional superstar athletes, top networks like TBS and CBS pay nearly $800 Million annually for exclusive rights to March Madness, while ESPN pays upwards of $600 Million for the College Football Playoff. Additionally, the revenue brought in by programs such as men’s basketball and football at Power 5 schools has resulted in 40 out of the 50 U.S State’s highest-paid public officials to be state university head coaches like Kentucky’s John Calipari and Alabama’s Nick Saban, as opposed to the Governor of that state.
It has become increasingly more difficult to deny that the NCAA’s policies need to change concerning these young athletes’ “amateur” status. But long before Zion Williamson broke the internet as a 15-year-old, the crusade against the NCAA began as a former UCLA college basketball star, and former first-round NBA Draft Pick took the NCAA to court on these very issues.
Twelve years ago, Ed O’Bannon sued the NCAA, challenging the title of “amateurism” endowed upon both incoming and current collegiate athletes. O’Bannon’s class-action lawsuit specifically pointed to the trade violation committed by the NCAA in relation to men’s basketball and football players whose name, image, and likeness were used in video games, live game telecasts, re-broadcasts, and archival game footage without any compensation beyond an athletic scholarship.
From 2009 until June of 2021, the ripple effect of O’Bannon’s lawsuit was limited to the discontinuation of Electronic Arts(EA) NCAA Football and Basketball video games and an onslaught of other lawsuits filed against the NCAA. But dating back to March of 2019, former Division I collegiate athletes Shawne Alston and Justine Harman revitalized O’Bannon’s cause with a lawsuit regarding educational compensation for collegiate athletics that would ultimately end up in the Supreme Court. Under the guise of “educational benefits and compensation,” the 9-0 ruling on the Supreme Court permits universities to have flexibility in the packages offered to recruits and forced the hand of NCAA President Mark Emmert to remove restrictions for athletes to make money off their name, image, and likeness.
In other words, college athletes can be represented by marketing and advertising agencies and profit from their brand.
In the world of influencer marketing, high school and college athletes represent an untapped market with tons of earning potential and no defined leaders in the space. As a result, businesses from large-scale sports agencies like Creative Artists Agency(CAA) to media companies like Barstool Sports have begun signing athletes to their brand.
For agencies like CAA, Klutch Sports, and VaynerSports Agency, the strategy is clear as they represent leaders in professional athlete representation. With Alabama Quarterback Bryce Young signing with CAA and Clemson Quarterback Dj Uiagalelei signing with VaynerSports, these blue-chip prospects will soon be top picks in their respective draft classes, and their relationship with their specific agency is not a coincidence. But for companies like Barstool Sports, the goal is entirely different.
Despite recent challenges to athletes signing with Barstool due to their association with sports gambling, Dave Portnoy is a trailblazer once again. Within 72 hours of announcing the signing of their first collegiate athlete in a women’s volleyball player from Jacksonville State, Portnoy announced that over 75,000 applications poured in to apply to be a Barstool Athlete. For Barstool, the promise of free Barstool Athlete merchandise and access to Barstool events enables the business to receive influencer marketing at an extremely low price.
With the target demographic of Barstool content consisting of high school students and current and former college athletes, it is a match made in heaven for the business. But, on the other hand, the true winners are the athletes themselves, as everyone from next year’s Heisman Trophy winner to a Division III hockey player has the opportunity to profit off their unique audience and social media presence.
On a fundamental level, the new policy shift by the NCAA allows college athletes to start their own businesses, promote brands they are passionate about, and earn passive income for the full-time job of being an athlete.
Mirroring the traditional influencer market, these athletes will quickly disperse into micro and macro-influencers. For Bryce Young and Dj Uiagalelei, partnerships with massive brands will soon come to fruition as they represent the macro-influencer class of amateur athletes. While businesses like Barstool Sports and local businesses will begin to ink deals with Division I, II, and III athletes in hopes of gaining brand awareness and tapping into specific demographics.
The scope and size of these deals are endless, and the NCAA has finally made a move to equal the playing field. But, ultimately, the possibilities within the parameters of the NCAA’s new stance on Name, Image, and Likeness will be determined as brands and athletes roll out new strategies for individuals to profit off their personal brand.
As a social media marketing and advertising agency, our company is committed to developing partnerships with athletes in hopes of leveraging their earning potential through various channels. From local businesses to global corporations, every business can benefit from a partnership with a vertically aligned athlete due to their niche audiences. In turn, we hope to provide services on behalf of both athletes and corporations in building and maintaining these partnerships as we have facilitated with countless influencers across several industries and verticals.
The options are endless as athletes will be able to partake in shoutouts, giveaways, platform takeovers, affiliate marketing, sponsored content campaigns, and brand ambassadorships in order to leverage their personal brand. In turn, understanding the intricacies of the grey area that overshadows the Name, Image, and Likeness policies will help us play a fundamental role in helping these athletes reach their earning potential.
The range of potential opportunities has already begun to be explored and the waves of these changes have made an impact already. From TikTok stars Haley and Hanna Cavinder of Fresno State Volleyball landing a deal with Boost Mobile to Alabama Crimson Tide Quarterback Bryce Young earning nearly “seven-figures” in the first month according to Coach Nick Saban, the limits are being pushed and will continue to evolve in the months and years to come.