The NIL Arms Race: An Ever-Changing Landscape
Photography by Amanda Burkart
When the clock struck midnight on July 1st, 2021, a court ruling allowed college athletes to begin signing NIL deals and profiting off of their name, image, and likeness (NIL). Colleges and universities in America have always had a complicated relationship with sports and money—especially in the Ivy League, where “academics over sports” is an unwritten slogan. Since the NCAA regulation has changed, the NIL movement has taken college athletics by storm: deals worth millions are being signed by athletes all over the country. Paige Bueckers (UConn’s women’s basketball point guard) became Gatorade's first NCAA partner and Bronny James (Lebron James’ son), who just recently signed an NIL deal with Nike, are just some of the many examples of huge multi-million dollar NIL campaigns being launched.
Student athletes ranging from Division 3, to Division 1, to academic-focused, and to athletic-focused schools are getting involved with NIL. Here at Cornell, our very own quarterback Jameson Wang signed an NIL deal with Degree and joined its #breakinglimits campaign. Degree is focusing on purpose-driven narratives involving athletes competing in para-swimming and wheelchair basketball or those fighting against prejudice in sports. This campaign proves that athletes whose personal narratives best fit a brand’s message can provide the same benefit as high-profile “superstar” athletes without the same brand fit.
So, what’s the appeal? The reality is that NIL rights will expand the market of desired brand ambassadors by thousands, unlocking powerful opportunities for brands in general. Brands will be required to not only source talent and find “athlete-product-fit,” but also track performance metrics and navigate the complexities of the ever-evolving legal landscape associated with NIL.
The court ruling has already made a strong financial impact on college athletes and sports, and the current statistics appear to indicate a growing market that adheres to current trends. In terms of NIL deals, football, commonly known as “America’s Sport,” and women’s basketball have led the way and have made up over 74% of the total spending by brands. Additionally, women’s sports currently make up approximately 30% of such brand spending. It is a powerful investment by businesses into athletes in women’s sports, which have been historically known to receive less attention and pay than athletes in men’s sports. National brands account for 65.7% of spending, with an anticipated first-year of spending set at $380.6 million, and local brands hold 35.3% of spending with an anticipated first-year expenditure of $198.8 million.
When it comes to branding NIL, companies are getting creative. We see media companies, e-commerce, and sports nutrition round out the top five industries engaging in NIL campaigns. Other unique approaches come from companies like Panini and Candy Digital, both of which represent one of the most active verticals in the space. Panini works with its NIL athletes to maximize their individual autographed memorabilia through public signings while Candy Digital also got in on the mix by helping bring NFT-related deals to athletes.
No matter how creative companies become to vie for athletes’ deals, they still must adhere to NCAA regulations. Unsurprisingly, the rules that govern NIL are one of the most complicated aspects of this monumental change for college athletes. To date, 28 states have enacted legislation or have an executive order pertaining to NIL, 19 of which are currently in effect. There are two things to keep in mind when considering state-by-state regulations:
Individuals and schools in states with NIL laws are subject to those laws;
Individuals and schools in states with no NIL laws are subject to conference and school policies.
Despite these rules and advancements, many questions remain unanswered. Will university athletic departments be able to prohibit deals, and if so, how much power do they have? What would a salary cap, if instated, look like for athletes under NIL deals? And we’ve seen individual deals signed, but what about group licensing deals?
Looking ahead, we can confirm several key takeaways. While athletes are not traditional influencers with backgrounds in content marketing, they can reach large and diverse audiences. Additionally, campaigns focused on athlete narratives are more impactful than engaging “misaligned” athletes with “superstar” statuses. Even multi-athlete and teamwide deals can deliver just as much value as an individual athlete. We see that brands are receiving significant positive press by supporting college athletes, especially female athletes, via NIL deals, and we can hope that this is a sign of encouragement for the positive repercussions that NIL deals will bring to the social and cultural landscape of sports as a whole.
In the end, opportunities are limited only by the creativity of the brands and the athletes themselves. With such a significant following, both companies and athletes have the platform to not just promote merchandise and their name, but also to bring awareness to bigger societal issues. Any athlete can create a meaningful and impactful campaign, regardless of sport and level.