Is 2022 the year of the student athlete?
In July 2021, the NCAA changed its policy to allow athletes to be compensated for their name, image and likeness, or NIL. The move is monumental considering the revenue colleges and universities earn on their athletics programs through television rights and brand sponsorships.
In a move that helped bring to the forefront just how potentially lucrative it could be for young athletes to finally get a piece of the action when it comes to marketing themselves, Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry entered a brand relationship with UConn Huskies freshman Azzi Fudd in December to provide the young athlete with opportunities and support on and off of the court.
According to SC30, Curry’s organization for his off-court endeavors, the partnership will help Fudd build, protect and monetize her personal brand, and will allow the young athlete to focus on her education and performance on the court. In turn, she will support and promote SC30’s initiatives and businesses.
Tom Brady made a similar move also in December, partnering with 10 college athletes on his Brady apparel brand, including Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara and Jackson State quarterback Shedeur Sanders.
Michael Strahan’s talent management company Smac Entertainment announced in July 2021 that they are accepting student-athlete marketing commitments from WorkForce Software, Simply Crowns and Madison Healthplex Performance to align with HBCU student-athletes and teamed with Deion Sanders to support student-athletes at Jackson State University.
And more recently, UConn Huskies athlete Paige Bueckers signed a multiyear NIL endorsement deal with Gatorade, and weeks after signed a NIL deal with StockX – a move that the company said is another step in its commitment to female athletes. StockX partnered with Division Street in December, a venture established by Nike co-founder Phil Knight, Nike executives and University of Oregon donors to help Oregon student-athletes with NIL deals, to auction 100 Air Jordan VIII Oregon player exclusive sneakers to benefit University of Oregon student athletes.
Nike announced their first student-athlete in the same month, UCLA women’s soccer team forward Reilyn Turner, who will team with the company to work with Los Angeles-based community partners.
While most receive scholarships to the schools they attend, it has been argued for years that that isn’t enough and that amateur athletes should be compensated, considering how much colleges earn via their athletics programs. Proponents believe that college athletes should receive a cut of the revenue schools bring in for their games since fans fill the arena and millions tune in across the U.S. to watch these athletes play.
For instance, Sportscasting.com reported in March 2021 that 20 college football teams report more than $100 million in revenue. USA Today did a collegiate athletics survey that found the University of Alabama, known for its Crimson Tide football team that unites a state lacking a professional sports franchise, brought in $164 million in total revenue during the 2018-19 season of (though its expenses were $185.3 million). The university ranked seventh, while the number-one-ranked Texas reported $223.9 million in revenue (with expenses of $204.2 million).
The NCAA board of governors said in April 2020 that it supports student-athletes being compensated for third-party endorsements related and separate from athletics, including through social media, personal appearances and their own businesses. States began implementing their own NIL rules prior to the NCAA’s ruling, including California, Colorado, Florida and Nebraska.
Many athletes are cashing in, turning to sports technology company Opendorse, which contracts with athletes to be paid for social media posts and appearances. Athletes set their own prices for deals and state which types of deals they want. The company that was founded by two former Nebraska football players in 2013 entered a partnership with Twitter to allow students to start earning money from their tweets.
Bueckers said her deal with StockX, a company she had purchased from before signing her deal, seeks to align with brands that respect her and her values while also using her platform to support other women in sports.
“I live in the now,” she said. “I hope to collaborate with artists and be an ambassador for women in the sports ecosystem. That’s the direction we’re heading in now.”
Engagement commerce video platform Indi, founded by Greg Giraudi and former Buy.com chief executive officer Neel Grover, also aims to help NIL athletes monetize their name, image and likeness through different avenues like product recommendations, video on demand, live stream shopping and more. President and former athlete Shikha Uberoi Bajpai said she sees the platform as a way to teach micro entrepreneurship to the student-athletes and the students of the schools. She mentioned how agents will focus on the high revenue athletes, but Indi helps the athletes in other sports such as softball, field hockey and swimming.
“This is you building your own store and yourself,” she said. “Things being offered to students are transactional and it doesn’t teach a young adult something and that’s why there’s a lot of meaning in Indi because you’re teaching them how to build a business.”
But Uberoi Bajpai recognizes that there are pitfalls for students. For instance, deals that can be used to recruit athletes are prohibited, and deals shouldn’t interfere with a student’s season.
“Indi is done on an athlete and student’s time and it doesn’t have to be done on campus because it’s supposed to be private time. But all of these rules are subject to change. They can say you can monetize this certain way and tomorrow it could be cancelled. It’s not worth it to me to jeopardize an athlete’s play in that school.”
Now that student athletes can monetize their name, image and likeness like influencers, what does this mean for fashion brands?
“For fashion brands, there is a unique opportunity,” said Matt Davis, vice president at Excel Sports Management. “Whether you work with an influencer or athlete, the brands are going to need to do their due diligence and as they look to align with these athletes, it’ll fall on the influence they have on social media.”
Excel Sports Management represents athletes in basketball, baseball, golf and football, including Tiger Woods, Clayton Kershaw, reigning NBA MVP Nikola Jokic, and Khris Middleton of the 2021 NBA Championship Milwaukee Bucks.
The company signed high school basketball player Mikey Williams to a NIL deal in July 2021 and Indiana University player Trayce Jackson-Davis in October 2021.
“We are actively searching for the right organic opportunities,” Davis said. “Since the announcement, it’s a new space for everybody and brands. It’s not a new space for agents, but from a brand standpoint, this is evolving on a daily basis. It’s been a long time coming and we’re well positioned for this space.”
Davis explained that deals with student-athletes will vary depending on “base compensation or upfront guarantees” and brands can “compensate individual athletes” or “do collaborations,” but some restrictions apply. For instance, some categories are restricted, like sneakers where the schools have deals with brands already.
“The goal is to start building the brand early so it’s already an established relationship,” Davis said.
StockX chief marketing officer Deena Bahri agrees when it comes to its deal with Bueckers. “We love to partner with the up-and-coming brands in the next wave rather than brands that have etched their pinnacle of awareness,” she said. “NIL is interesting because we help athletes on the upswing. Hopefully it will allow rising stars to stay in athletics and capitalize on their likeness. Some jumped early to be able to launch their brand and that could come at the expense as a top college athlete. I just think it’s great that young athletes and young women athletes can take power into their own hands and doing it in a way that’s community minded.”