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Money-making student athletes changing the future of college sports

Updated: Dec 1, 2023

by Abbey Curtis

CHARLESTON, S.C. - Earlier this fall, 85 University of Utah football players arrived at practice unaware that they would each be receiving a lease for a Dodge Ram truck.

This effort was made possible by the Utah Crimson Collective, an organization of the university’s alumni and major donors, who organized a deal to cover the leases of every player on scholarship with the Utes.

And this is all possible thanks to a 2021 Supreme Court ruling allowing student-athletes to make money on their Name, Image, Likeness.

Known as NIL, this advancement in the commercialization of college athletes opened the doors for a multitude of business deals.

“Many student-athletes are too busy to get an internship or work a job,” says ICON agent Craig Smith. “NIL gives athletes the opportunity to gain real-world work experience.”

Under this ruling, any student athlete is eligible to receive NIL compensation, regardless of their sport or skill level.

Many college (or even some standout high school) athletes sign with an NIL agency that helps connect them with brands they like or use and will promote through social media in exchange for compensation.

“It’s a lot of pitching and trying to sell your player to a brand,” says Tyler Jones, CEO of Bold South Sports, a Charleston-based NIL agency.

Each player has the opportunity to create a personal brand based on their interests in the hopes of connecting with a company they want to be associated with.

“A lot of the work for me is having to be creative on social media for brands to want to partner with me as a kind of influencer for them,” says College of Charleston volleyball player Emma Appleman.

The NCAA deferred to states for individual laws on NIL, which allowed schools like Utah to get ahead of the curve.

“A lot of people call it the Wild West and it is in a lot of ways,” says Jones. “You can’t tell a recruit that you will give them a million dollars if they come to your school, but a lot of people get around that by saying how much their star players are making off NIL.”

As NIL is still in its early stages, the future is uncertain how it will affect college athletics, but most agree college sports is becoming even more of a business.

“I think college institutions and their collectives are going to take over NIL,” says Smith. “Some schools even have staff specifically for managing NIL deals.”

Collectives are organizations usually funded by alumni and big donors of a university that direct their funds toward NIL deals for the top athletes at their respective schools.

For example, Louisiana State University hired a staff of five within its athletic department who work solely with athletes and their NIL opportunities.

LSU is also home to two of the top earners in NIL money, both female athletes.

Livvy Dunne, a gymnast for the Tigers, is the third-highest earner in NIL deals, with a valuation of $3.2 million while Angel Reese of the 2023 women’s basketball national champion team ranks eighth with a $1.7 million valuation.

The Bayou Traditions is LSU’s collective that helps direct money toward the university’s star athletes through NIL.

“Collectives are the future of NIL. They make it a lot easier to get money to the players, but it’s very unregulated,” says Jones. “I think Congress will also put more regulations on collectives because it’s such a gray area.”

While it seems like everyone can make money in this current state of unregulated NIL opportunities, international student-athletes are currently not eligible for compensation through NIL because of their student visa status.

The most common way for athletes on a student visa to earn money is through employment by the school.

“I think long term, the likelihood is pretty high that at some point that players will become employees of the school,” says Jones.

In this case, international students would have more of an opportunity to be able to cash in on NIL opportunities.

As NIL continues to grow and the NCAA creates more regulation, more athletes from every school will be given equal opportunities to earn money for themselves.

“I think it has put smaller programs in a position to be more successful,” says Jones.

Many sense changes coming from the NCAA in regards to the future of NIL and the agency of college athletics.

“Congress is likely to pass a bill this year to federalize it so each state has the same rules,” says Jones. “I expect it to get more regulated but in a way that makes it better for the players.”

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