The future is female, especially when it comes to Collegiate Athletes cashing in on their NIL.
If you’re a college athlete you’ve probably heard the news that the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) athletes are finally allowed to monetize their name, image, and likeness (NIL). Prior to this, amateurism rules meant that athletes and new recruits couldn’t generate income related to their respective sports or NILs.
But with the shift of the law, the most talked-about athlete was not from the traditionally lucrative sports of football or men’s basketball. Instead, much of the chatter surrounded Olivia Dunne, then a sophomore gymnast at Louisiana State University with an impressive social media following. Dunne’s 1.3 million followers on Instagram and another 4.6 million on Tik Tok, immediately made her the potential top earner among all college athletes. Also in the mix were the Cavinder twins, Haley and Hanna. When the identical duo aren’t playing basketball for Fresno State University, they curate a dance-heavy Tik Tok feed that has earned them 3.8 million followers.
The new legislation means that Dunne and the Cavinders can cash in on their personal brand through sponsorships, endorsements, branded or exclusive content, merchandise, personal appearances, and fan interactions on platforms like Cameo. As soon as the new law passed, the deals started rolling in. Wireless carrier Boost Mobile announced its sponsorship of the star guards on the Bulldogs’ women’s basketball team. The Cavinders also inked a contract with Six Star Pro Nutrition. Both deals are estimated to be in the five figure region. Dunne made her move in September, signing her first brand partnership with activewear company Vuori said to be worth “mid six figures.”
Their male counterparts are also expected to generously profit from NIL. AL.com reported that University of Alabama quarterback Bryce Young had already negotiated close to $1 million in endorsement deals by late July. Sports technology company Opendorse found that since July 1st, 63.8 percent of all NIL compensation has gone to football, followed by men’s basketball at 14.3 percent. But the company also noted that 33 percent of total NIL compensation is earned from social media related activities like creating and posting content. This is where female athletes are poised to lead the future of NIL sponsorships.
Studies show that female athletes receive only 4% of sports media coverage. The lack of airtime means less sponsorship, fans, and revenue. But social media is one area where female athletes are taking the lead, as women have proven to be dominant in influencer marketing. The era of NIL presents an opportunity to gain exposure outside of robust television rights deals through brand development. Five of the top eight college athletes on Instagram are female athletes in sports, ranging from gymnastics to basketball. Media coach and brand expert Caroline Frazier explains that their social media savvy is what potential partners are banking on.
“Female athletes have bigger followings, they have higher engagement rates, and they’re just more active on social media,” she says. “And that’s what brands are really looking for. If we engage with a student-athlete, what’s going to be our return as a brand? And the females so far from what we’ve seen and what we know about social media, they’re able to give those brands those deliverables and those engagement rates that they’re looking for.”
Michelle Meyer is the founder of the NIL Network, a platform that provides educational resources to help athletes, coaches, and administrators navigate the NIL process. She points to the authenticity of the partnerships fostered by the women college athletes in the past few months as one of their advantages.
“The men, especially football players, and revenue generating sports, have come out with more deals and compensation,” Meyer says. “But I really like the approach that these top female athletes are taking to find the partnerships that make sense for their personal brands.”
During an interview to announce her deal with Vuori, Dunne told Forbes that she had been trying to find a brand “I would want to introduce to my audience because they trust me.” University of North Carolina lacrosse standout attacker Jamie Ortega is the first female athlete to partner with lacrosse equipment company Epoch Lacrosse. The senior could possibly become the NCAA’s all-time leading goal scorer.
“She’s actually going in and designing her own clothing line within there,” adds Meyer. “And sustainability is really important to her so she’s incorporating facets of sustainability into the line that she’s creating, which I think is really cool.”
However, Meyer warns, not every athlete is going to be pursued by major brands with offers for lucrative sponsorships. Especially for athletes in more obscure, non-revenue generating sports outside of the elite Power Five conferences. But there are ways to get creative and get paid.
“Those athletes should identify the brands that they’re interested in,” she explains. “Let’s say it’s a national brand like Patagonia, for example. Can you look at Patagonia and find a more local or regional brand that is similar to that and has maybe the same core values as Patagonia or whatever that might look like? Then approach those smaller brands to see if they’re looking for any kind of ambassadors or brand partnerships.”
A common thread woven through the stories of both the more high profile and lesser known female athletes is the unlikelihood of a professional career post-college. Frazier is a former volleyball player at the University of South Carolina whose only chance at going pro would mean a move overseas. The prospect made her start thinking about her future a lot sooner than her male classmates in basketball and football. She believes the prospect of creating a foundation for the financial future has the women positioned to succeed in the NIL space.
“We’ve [female athletes] just thought differently our entire lives,” she says. “And so now that they’re going to get paid for it, there’s a real opportunity for females to benefit the most from this.”
An athlete who has already reaped the rewards is Chloe Mitchell, a volleyball player at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan who is considered to be first National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) athlete to profit off her name, image and likeness. Mitchell’s DIY videos to beat quarantine boredom during her senior year of high school netted her a following of over 41,000 on Instagram and a whopping 2.5 million on Tik Tok. In a fortuitous turn of events, the NAIA got ahead of the NCAA and changed their NIL rules in time for her first collegiate season in Fall 2020. Mitchell now has a portfolio that includes Third Love, Walmart, Ford, Pearson Plus, Bubbly, Target Puffs, Delta Putt, and Bloodline Putter. She is one of over two million influencers and athletes who use Linktree’s platform to streamline their social media accounts.
“I use Linktree to compile all of my links in a secure and organized place to allow for easy accessibility to my followers,” says Mitchell. “Moreover, I love it because I am able to customize it according to the brand deals which I am currently promoting.”
Together with her father she also co-founded PlayBooked, a company that helps athletes source social media sponsorship. For her, NIL has been a game changer.
“NIL allowances have impacted my life massively,” Mitchell says. “It has allowed me to be financially independent of my parents, purchase my own car, computer, pay off my loans, and I am hoping to get into real estate investment in the near future. Moreover, I have learned a lot about taxes, opening up a business account, and managing my money.”
Want to hear more from Chloe Mitchell? We interviewed her in Game Face – our latest podcast helping student athletes build their brand.