We’re approaching the four-month mark since the NCAA officially approved name, image, and likeness rights for student-athletes and, somehow, the apocalypse has not come, the collegiate model has not collapsed, and Dabo Swinney is still coaching (to some extent, at least). As athletes, schools, sponsors and lawmakers continue to work out the kinks in the system, we take a look at what the birth of the NIL ruling has brought about so far.
One only has to look at Instagram to see that the NIL regulations are already paying off for big-name athletes from big-name schools — even those that haven’t been living up to the preseason expectations that their sponsors seem to have imagined.
Oklahoma QB Spencer Rattler, whose claim to fame this season was getting benched for a true freshman backup, partnered with Norman-bsed Fowler Automotive for his “automotive needs this season,” as well as a supplement business called PlantFuel, in deals that Sports Illustrated estimated add up to around $200K. DJ Uiagalelei, who has remained at Clemson’s helm as they dropped out of the Top 25 for the first time in nearly a decade, appeared in Dr. Pepper’s famous “Fansville” ad campaign this season, becoming the first NCAA athlete to appear in TV ads. Miami’s D’Eriq King, whose season ended prematurely following a shoulder injury, signed a $20K deal with a Tampa-based moving service.
And those are just the quarterbacks.
Sponsors are taking a gamble with athletes who they choose to represent their brand in any sport, but the risks and precarity of college football stardom are becoming increasingly clear, as it seems that some of these companies may have jumped the gun in the initial rush to sign expected Heisman candidates. The student-athletes’ social media followings remain fairly steady despite the ups and downs of playing time, so the target audience is still reached for a lot of these companies — but the question is, with what perception attached to it?
And in the case of local companies’ sponsorships like Rattler’s, the perception of the athlete from hometown fans can be everything. Since the deals are largely guaranteed with no playing-time clause, the companies are stuck with student-athletes who didn’t exactly meet expectations this season.
Outside of Dr. Pepper, whose sponsorship of Uiagalelei could be considered a flop, none of the major College Football Playoff sponsors — which include Cheez-It, Gatorade, Chick-Fil-A, and Allstate, among other — have thrown their hat in the NIL endorsement ring. Yet.
“The big brands are looking at Dr Pepper’s deal with Uiagalelei and saying, ‘I’m not sure [current college players] are worth the risk,” Larry Mann, the executive vice president of sports marketing firm rEvolution, told Sportico earlier this month. “When the face of your creative and your consumer messaging is a guy who really isn’t relevant, it takes away from the national campaign’s impact.”
Will the disappointments of this season have an effect on future preseason sponsorships, either in monetary value or in frequency? It’s too early to tell, of course (I know: that’s the boring answer), and what will probably pan out after a few years of back-and-forth stinginess and over-enthusiastic gambling with college football sponsorships is some middle ground that will favor athletes with large social media followings and see an increase in larger team-wide deals for Top 25 squads that are less precarious than potential Top 25 stars.
And there have been a few of those team-wide deals put into place already. The Utah-based health food company Built Brands announced that they would cover the tuition of every walk-on athlete on the BYU Cougars’ football team, and Georgia Tech football signed on with TiVo for media room updates and new swag.
Admittedly, this is a football-heavy piece, but in August, Front Office Sports reported that 79 percent of NIL deals so far have gone to football players. Part of it could be the timing of the legislation, but in reality, college football dominates NCAA athletics, and this investment is a reflection of that fact.
Outside of football, college athletes who moonlight as TikTok stars have also been bringing in the endorsements. Twins Haley and Hanna Cavinder — basketball players at Fresno State, partnered with Boost Mobile — and LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne — who has over 5 million followers on TikTok and Instagram — were early projections to become the highest-paid college athlete through NIL earnings when the new laws were announced. There’s also the question of how exactly female college athletes are being used in sponsorships — or more specifically, how their bodies are being used. For now, the NIL rules retain a quickly-evolving and often-confusing status among collegiate athletic programs throughout the United States.
With no federal ruling or guidelines in place as of yet, the “how” and “when” questions vary state-by-state, and even school-by-school, in the 22 states that have not yet passed NIL legislation. Even the NCAA’s current policy is an interim one. Without overarching legislation, the scales have tipped in the favor of certain student-athletes, which has the potential to skew recruiting pretty heavily over the next few years.
The National College Players’ Association, an organization that was instrumental in the push for NIL laws, now has an online ranking system in which they give states a grade between 0 and 100 for how restrictive or open each state’s NIL laws are. For instance, the NCPA system docks points if a state places a cap on student-athletes’ NIL earnings, if a state doesn’t guarantee benefits from the use of a player’s NIL in a video game or marketing material, or if the law allows a college to act as an agent in NIL deals. These are only three examples of the 21 benchmarks that NCPA ranks states on, and the variations in law are not going over smoothly — in September, student-athletes from the ACC sent a letter to Congress outlining the effects of the lack of NIL equity throughout the ten states with ACC schools, four of which have no NIL rights at all.
With the NCAA guidelines as loose as they are, one of the only things that they did encourage was that potential NIL earnings “not be used as a recruiting inducement.” Well, whether or not Nick Saban will straight-up tell a five-star prospect that he can make nearly seven figures in endorsements, as Alabama QB Bryce Young reportedly did this fall alone, there are plenty of resources out there that high school athletes can use to determine whether they’ll be able to make some money while they play.
With this imbalance in states with big-name schools — the NCPA gives Alabama’s NIL laws a 43 percent ranking compared to Oklahoma’s 52 percent and Ohio’s 76 percent rankings, respectively — blanket federal legislation is showing itself to be an urgent necessity if the NCAA truly hopes to keep the purity of the “collegiate model” alive in any form. Obviously that should be the goal — and in that final form, money-making power should remain in the hands of the students, while more equitably assuring it across geography, sport, race, and gender.