Student-athletes make millions with NIL deals
The University of Utah’s football team isn’t just running drills anymore—they’re dipping Oreos in cups of mustard, hanging out with Chewbacca and interviewing each other about their favorite Disney Channel movies.
The growing TikTok channel for the team is part of a national trend; while before, college sports may have had team videographers focused on making hype reels of incredible plays and big moments, social media has opened up a whole new world for viewers. Watching athletes goof around behind the scenes has become a huge trend, and some universities are leaning into it by incorporating social media into athletes’ routine work.
Since June 2021, college athletes have been able to earn profits from endorsement deals and brands that use their names and images in promotional materials. The National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) had long banned this option for student-athletes on the basis that it would interfere with their academics. But after years of campaigning by student-athletes and a Supreme Court decision, the organization changed the rule.
In Utah, athletics administrators were quick to take advantage of this opportunity for their students. Brigham Young University responded to the news by brokering a deal with protein bar company Built Brands and the 123 members of their football team. Players with scholarships through BYU received $1,000 for the right to use their name, image and likeness. The team’s 36 walk-on players received one year’s worth of tuition as a payment, which they could use as they pleased.
The idea of student-athletes getting paid has been described as “once-radical” by the Wall Street Journal, but the movement to change the NCAA rules has been growing for years. A 2003 article by the sports researcher Christoper Parent called the organization’s attempts to maintain amateurism in college sports “hypocritical” and “phony.”
This line of thinking has only been distilled since then. The academic journal Sports, Ethics and Philosophy published research in 2018 arguing the former ban didn’t actually harm students; a 2020 study published in Human Kinetics found that the rules disproportionately restricted Black players from receiving funds; and university researchers have argued that restrictions on pay could be amplifying racial inequities.
Another part of the reasoning to end the rule had been that college athletics brought massive ad revenue—the NCAA reportedly earned $18.9 billion in 2021, according to data aggregator Research.com—but the players never saw any of that money.
For many involved in this decades-long debate, the idea of allowing students to earn income for their name, image and likeness seemed a perfect solution. Paying students a direct salary for their labor on sports teams could open up complicated problems about rates of pay per athlete and per sport while also touching on a web of laws governing universities and financial compensation. Instead, legislators across the U.S. and at the federal level have embraced a simple tactic: allow students to sell themselves as a brand.
"As the environments around social media and endorsement deals for student-athletes change, students are gaining more power to build their own audiences and take control of their personal brands, creating better financial and athletic futures."
Research gathered by marketing firm Captiv8 shows that student-athletes have the best-performing accounts on social media, with 12 times more engagement than traditional influencers. For example, Olivia Dunne, a gymnast at Louisiana State University–Baton Rouge, earned millions in endorsement deals during her junior year.
These earnings would never have been possible before, and they are bringing a shift in media power among student-athletes that has several implications. For one, as influencers like Dunne have proved, women garner far bigger audiences than they were ever afforded through traditional media outlets. This is a major benefit to women in athletics that was even noted in North Carolina’s executive order attempting to govern the kinds of payment students could receive.
Black influencers, however, still earn 35 percent less than their white counterparts in social media deals, according to research by PR firm MSL US and education platform The Influencer League. To the Guardian in 2021, former University of Tennessee and NBA player CJ Watson said, despite the change, “it’s still a slave mentality.” An anonymous NCAA player also told the paper college athletics was still made up of “plantation dynamics.” The student said, “Until we get paid for our work, it’s still going to be a bunch of white guys getting paid on the back of Black folk like me.”
In the 2021 announcement, the NCAA said it was only an interim rule change, citing the need for legislation passed by the federal government to permanently permit and perfect the change. “NIL has the capacity to do a whole lot of good, and it also has the capacity to do a whole lot of disruption,” former NCAA President Mark Emmert told the marketing analytics firm Morning Consult in January.
“We will continue to work with Congress to develop a solution that will provide clarity on a national level,” Emmert said at the time. “The current environment—both legal and legislative—prevents us from providing a more permanent solution and the level of detail student-athletes deserve.”
In the meantime, changes depend on each state’s laws pertaining to licensing name, image and likeness. Utah, unlike many other states, did not pass legislation around the issue. The only rules governing student athletes’ ability to earn money in the Beehive state are the NCAA rules. Other states like Texas and Tennessee, for example, have adopted rules attempting to prevent conflicts of interest or interruptions to teams’ regular activities.
Others, like Pennsylvania, have restricted the types of products student-athletes can be paid to endorse, banning promotions of alcohol, drugs, pornography and gambling. North Carolina took this rule further by giving universities veto power over a student’s contract if the product being promoted is “antithetical to the values of the institution.”
Amidst it all, major sports brands like Adidas have launched networks devoted to helping student-athletes navigate their opportunities, and commentators have laid out action plans for brands looking to cash in on student-athletes.
A review by Business Insider on the first phase of endorsement deals found that many student-athletes were working with local businesses like restaurants to earn small amounts of money—sometimes even just gift cards. They also found that while the bulk of student-athletes may not qualify as major influencers, they are still targets for marketing agencies that want to tap into niche audiences.
As the environments around social media and endorsement deals for student-athletes change, students are gaining more power to build their own audiences and take control of their personal brands, creating better financial and athletic futures.