The rule allowing college athletes to make money from their name, image and likeness has reshaped the landscape of the game, especially for women.
College athletes now have the right to earn sponsorship money and more power over their own brands. It reshapes the economics of college sports and beyond and provides new opportunities for the growth of women’s sports.
July 1 marks one year since the National Collegiate Athletic Association, better known as the NCAA, allowed college athletes to earn money through their name, image and likeness, a trio often known collectively as Nil’s name.
He radically reshaped the landscape for college athletes. For many years college athletes got scholarships, but that was it. NCAA rules prohibited scholarship athletes from making money without jeopardizing their eligibility and scholarship.
But now that’s changing, as the NCAA has changed its guidelines and athletes are free to sign sponsorship deals with companies, offer lessons or camps in their sports, or raise money for charitable causes.
It took years of legal battles and legislation to get to this point.
One of the most pivotal cases involved Ed O’Bannon, a former UCLA basketball player. O’Bannon sued when he discovered that, years after he left, the university was still making money using his image and likeness in a video game without paying him for it.
Michael McCann, a professor at the University of New Hampshire and a legal writer for the publication Sportico, is an expert in sports law, and he co-wrote a book with O’Bannon on legal wrestling.
“He and his teammates — most of whom never made money after college in sports — their identities were sold in those games, and he challenged him and he won,” McCann said.
As the legal pressure came, states also joined in the fight, pressuring the NCAA by enacting their own laws. California passed the first NIL law in 2019.
By the time Hayley Hodson graduated from high school in 2015, she had become the nation’s top volleyball rookie and was already playing for the United States women’s national team. She performed on a scholarship to Stanford University but had to retire after multiple concussions. This left her with a first-hand look at the limitations of the old system, and it led her to push California to implement its NIL law.
“Athletes need more agency, they need representation, they need economic opportunity, because what we’re looking at right now is not that,” Hodson said. “I found myself testifying on a subject that had been close to my heart for a long time and I had never even really considered that legislation could play a role.”
After California, 28 other states have followed suit by passing their own laws governing NIL. Fifteen of them entered into force on July 1, 2021.
Prior to that date, the Supreme Court issued a decision rejecting the NCAA’s argument in a similar case challenging restrictions on academic benefits like computers or internships. Instead of continuing to fight, the NCAA quickly took a different approach, issuing loose guidelines allowing athletes to have NIL rights.
“It happened a lot quicker than they wanted it to, and because of that, their committees also failed to issue clear guidance and language,” said Nancy Lough, of the program management of the sports from the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. “So it’s been a bit of a wild, wild west. You know, I think sports administrators are really struggling.”
As athletes and universities try to navigate a new set of rules, it may leave some unsure as to what is allowed and not allowed.
“I think the line is blurry sometimes, and I think sometimes there’s a very thin line between what’s allowed and what’s not, depending on how it’s packaged, how it’s positioned” said Dr. Ketra Armstrong, director of the Center for Race and Ethnicity in Sport at the University of Michigan. “So that becomes a problem for a lot of athletic departments. If you have a booster that’s willing to give a student athlete a $150,000 vehicle, that seems a bit unfortunate in some ways because of where the money is coming from. .”
But even as the NCAA launches investigations into schools for potential abuse of the new NIL rules, there has been an effect that has surprised industry experts.
Although athletic departments and the media have often invested the vast majority of their money and attention in men’s soccer and basketball, female athletes are earning a larger share of NIL contracts than expected.
Data from the NIL platform and the Opendorse marketplace revealed that, until May this year, women’s basketball was the second most popular sport for athlete sponsorship, behind college football.
Even today, four of the six highest earning sports are women’s sports.
“College football is an outlier,” said Blake Lawrence, co-founder and CEO of Opendorse. “If you remove college football from the dataset, female athletic student athletes earn more than male athletic student athletes. I think that’s an interesting trend to follow, as do female athletic student athletes. most of it is the maximum earning potential for student-athletes on the female side.”
Athletes can now take control of their brand faster. If you’re at the top of your game or have a large following, you can really make some money.
The Wall Street Journal reported that University of Connecticut basketball star and 2021 National Player of the Year Paige Bueckers is on track to earn more than $1 million in NIL contracts a year. .
And LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne is also set to earn a similar amount, thanks to her success in gymnastics and her reach to more than 5 million followers on TikTok and an additional 1.8 million followers on Instagram.
Even if an athlete isn’t on track to go pro or go viral, NIL offers can make a real difference.
Opendorse estimates that on average, depending on whether they play at the highest level or in lower divisions, athletes can bring in at least a few hundred to a few thousand dollars a year through activities such as social media posts, autograph signings and public appearances.
At the same time, many have warned that NIL alone will not resolve all of the remaining gender gaps in college sports. Even though this month marks 50 years since Title IX required colleges to provide at least as many athletic opportunities for women as for men, there is still work to be done.
“We still see instances where there are disparities in facilities, there are overall disparities in support, but we also see that, especially at the leadership level,” Dr. Armstrong said. “We know women are still underpaid, so female coaches are still underpaid compared to their male counterparts, so we still see pay inequities and things of that nature.”
But there is hope that having athletes working to market themselves could help spark interest in women’s sports simply by increasing their visibility to potential new fans.
“They can see an athlete doing something and they turn around and go try it themselves,” Lough said. “They can actually see clips where the athletes are showing them how…. All of that seeing her being her thing is so incredibly important. Little kids, a lot of young people wouldn’t have even thought of taking part in a certain sport until then. . They see someone doing it and they’re like, ‘Maybe I should try this.'”