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Understanding the Landscape & Setting Expectations

We’ve all seen the headlines.

  • “Junior in high school signs $8m NIL deal with Tennessee collective”
  • “Angel Reese NIL valuation soars to $1.3m after March Madness run”

Not to be the bearer of bad news, but the national headlines surrounding NIL are far from the reality.

There are around 500,000 NCAA athletes who now are permitted to use their name, image, and likeness for commercial (accepting compensation in exchange for being featured in ads or endorsing products) and/or promotional (marketing their own engagements, brand, or business) purposes.

In the first year, it’s projected that 1,000-2,000 athletes made over $50,000. That’s 0.2-0.4% of all NCAA athletes.

Current Landscape

Before we dive in, let’s remember July 1 of this year will mark JUST TWO YEARS since the NCAA amended their bylaws and permitted college athletes to monetize their NIL. The chaotic rollout, patchwork of laws, rules and policies, along with an overall lack of preparation from the majority of athletes, admins and businesses has led to a smaller market than most projected.

However, with high school athletes now incorporating NIL strategy into their college prep and businesses/brands becoming more confident with NIL campaigns as part of their marketing efforts, the industry (and athlete opportunities!) should continue to grow steadily for the next 5+ years.

What 99.6% of College Athletes Should Expect

NIL is Work.
For most, participating in NIL is not a handout but rather a part-time job. It requires dozens, if not hundreds, of hours of research, strategic planning and outreach to be successful.

So why bother?
Because college athletes are both full-time students and full-time athletes, they aren’t able to work “normal” part-time jobs as their peers can. Not only are they incredibly busy, but their schedules are always changing, making it all but impossible to have a weekly work schedule that requires them to be somewhere for a certain number of set hours.

NIL Requires Initiative
During these first few years before local businesses understand NIL, there likely won’t be brands DM’ing the average college athlete offering them lucrative partnership opportunities. Thus far, the most successful non high-profile athletes have taken the initiative in creating NIL deals for themselves. They’ve reached out to marketing managers, explained what NIL is, and have pitched them a campaign idea that they think is likely to give the business a great ROI. They’ve discussed campaign goals and KPIs, negotiated compensation and tracked their campaign analytics. These entrepreneurial athletes are essentially running their own micro-businesses (and developing new business skills at the same time!).

Why bother?
Besides the long-term benefit of professional development, there is a big opportunity RIGHT NOW for the non high-profile yet proactive college athlete: Most businesses have now at least heard of NIL but 99% still haven’t participated. Many just need a small incentive (like an athlete reaching out) to commit to their first NIL partnership. There are currently an endless number of opportunities that may not be available to the average athlete in a few years when businesses have an exact strategy with how they engage in the NIL market.

NIL Is Not Life Changing Money

According to Opendorse, a tech platform that athletes disclose their opportunities to their university through, the average compensation for a D1 athlete is $4,262 per NIL deal. That seems pretty good, right? However, there are a couple of nuances to pay attention to:

How the Data is Collected
In an effort to keep the disclosure process as quick and simple as possible, the aggregate data doesn’t tell an accurate story. For example, let’s say an athlete signs a year-long contract for $6,000 ($500/month) that includes biweekly deliverables throughout the year. The athlete could choose to disclose in the following ways:

  • Option A: One disclosure for $6k
  • Option B: 12 disclosures for $500 each
  • Option C: Disclosure after every deliverable (~$250 each).

In this case, Option A appears that the athlete is being compensated $6,000 for one NIL deal! Great! However, in Option B, the average compensation is $500 “per deal” and Option C is $250.

Furthermore, Option A is the most likely choice for time-strapped college athletes as it only requires one input.

Mean vs Median
On top of the data collection issues, reporting the “average” doesn’t offer a complete picture either. While the average compensation is more than $4k, the MEDIAN has been reported around $60 per deal. The anomalies of NIL, aka the 0.4%, are distorting the average in a very significant way.

Why bother?
Aside from the immediate monetary gains, engaging in the NIL space has plenty of long-term benefits. Athletes can develop their business skills, add to their resume and build their professional network. Although we’re still in the early years of NIL, there have been a number of college athletes who have seen their brand partnerships turn into their first full time job after they graduate. That is cool.

NIL for Volleyballers

According to Opendorse, women’s volleyball ranks fourth overall for total NIL compensation (behind FB, MBB, WBB) and third overall for total NIL activities (behind FB, MBB). Women’s volleyball athletes are definitely finding NIL success, but in saying that (and given my biases as a former college volleyball athlete and coach), their success has mostly come from putting time into researching the market, strategically creating and building their communities and being proactive in creating opportunities for themselves.

For inspiration, please check out my three favorite volleyballers navigating the NIL space in vastly different ways:

  • Chloe Mitchell: NAIA athlete that built her following on TikTok doing DIY projects.
  • Danielle Hart: Phenomenal artist that sells her art nationwide.
  • Sarah Morbitzer: Found her NIL niche running camps/clinics in the Columbus area.

About the Author: Michelle Meyer is a former NCAA athlete and D1 volleyball coach who founded NIL Network in 2020 as a hub of resources to help athletes, coaches, and administrators navigate this new era of collegiate athletics. She became the fifth NIL Administrator hired in the country when she accepted the position at San Diego State University in November 2021