For its first half-century of existence, the NCAA outlawed student-athletes from receiving so much as a scholarship in compensation. All these years later, the nonprofit organization pays its 460,000-plus student-athletes in good ol’ fashioned opportunity, despite having evolved into an industry that charges networks nearly $1 billion annually merely for March Madness TV rights.
Of course, the rulebook hasn’t stopped athletes from finding camouflaged avenues of compensation, with allegations against Zion Williamson being the splashiest, most recent example. The New Orleans Pelicans star was named earlier this month in a $100 million lawsuit brought forth by his former marketing representative and her company, Prime Sports. Among other requests, the lawsuit asks the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA draft to admit that his family received economic benefits and gifts to secure his commitment to Duke University.
Williamson was undeniably one of the most marketable college athletes in recent memory. And despite generating not insignificant amounts of money for his university, conference and sport, by rule Williamson was allowed nothing more than the value of his scholarship and the opportunities afforded to him as a student-athlete.
Increasingly, however, it appears that changes are on the way.
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The NCAA has long prohibited its athletes from profiting off their name, image and likeness (NIL) — three pillars of personal branding. But a California law signed last year gives those NIL rights to student-athletes, and more than 30 other states have since filed similar legislation. So in late April, the NCAA’s top governing body announced its support for a proposal that would allow athletes to be compensated for the use of their name, image and likeness.1
Social and digital media played a significant role in these proposed changes, according to the NCAA Board of Governors’ meeting report from April 17. “The rise of social media and other digital distribution and monetization platforms has dramatically increased the opportunities for college students to make commercial use of their NIL.”
But what will this actually mean — and how will athletes actually be paid?
By some estimates, influencer marketing is a $5 billion to $10 billion industry and is likely the greatest monetization tool at the disposal of the contemporary athlete. Some companies may make one-off deals with players to post about the brand on social media, or they may cut student-athletes a check to promote a product over time. But AJ Maestas, CEO of Navigate Research, believes a popular route will follow a multi-channel network model, in which athletes would hire intermediary companies that would partner with brands for endorsements and product placement along with selling ads on the athletes’ social media channels. Many popular influencers rely on these agreements to monetize their social networks.
To get a clearer picture of the range of money certain athletes may stand to earn under this framework, I reached out to Blake Lawrence, the CEO of Opendorse, a social publishing platform that works with more than 10,000 professional athletes.
Lawrence’s appraisals are based on a decade’s worth of transactional data between businesses and professional athletes, specific to each respective sport. Taking into account an athlete’s current audience size, engagement rate and seven other proprietary data points, Lawrence and his team at Opendorse distilled their estimates of an athlete’s post value on Instagram and Twitter — and a potential range of earnings.
For balance, I requested data for two high-profile student-athletes in nine different college sports. Though that data is incomplete, it is informative in looking at the earning disparities.
Lawrence’s findings show that at the highest levels, some of these athletes — who are teenagers in some cases — are in line for huge paydays.
There’s money to be made for college athletes
Selected student-athletes by potential annual earnings under rules allowing profiting from name, image and likeness branding
|Athlete, school||Sport||Total Followers||Post Value||Potential Earnings|
|Paige Bueckers, UConn*||WBB||502,512||$20,962||$670,783|
|Trevor Lawrence, Clemson||CFB||578,027||11,371||454,855|
|Justin Fields, Ohio St.||CFB||525,058||12,721||407,087|
|Haley Cruse, Oregon||SOF||290,150||4,210||117,891|
|Anthony Edwards, Georgia||MBB||192,763||3,865||92,749|
|Obi Toppin, Dayton||MBB||70,102||1,589||50,832|
|Spencer Lee, Iowa||WRE||122,422||1,645||26,316|
|Dana Rettke, Wisconsin||VOL||25,475||438||12,251|
|Austin Martin, Vanderbilt||CBB||32,264||519||10,372|
|Rhyne Howard, Kentucky||WBB||12,439||268||6,441|
|Kendyl Lindaman, Florida||SOF||9,719||164||3,282|
|Yossiana Pressley, Baylor||VOL||9,550||158||3,165|
|Patrick Glory, Princeton||WRE||12,560||211||2,533|
|Spencer Torkelson, ASU||CBB||8,501||155||2,478|
|Catarina Macario, Stanford||WSOC||11,341||117||2,332|
|David Egbo, Akron||MSOC||1,923||41||495|
|Giovanni MontesDeOca, UNC||MSOC||1,200||30||355|
|Mikayla Colohan, BYU||WSOC||2,629||22||267|
Paige Bueckers hasn’t arrived on campus yet to compete for the UConn women’s basketball team, but she has the highest ceiling of the athletes Lawrence assessed for me. With more than 475,000 followers on Instagram and more than 25,000 followers on Twitter, Bueckers could be in line for annual earnings north of $670,000, Lawrence estimated. Each of her Instagram posts alone is valued at $20,710.
On the other end of the spectrum is BYU soccer player Mikayla Colohan, a rising senior who last season led an unbeaten Cougars team into the NCAA Tournament, where it fell in the quarterfinals. With far fewer followers, Colohan’s potential annual earnings are estimated at just $267.
Among the 18 athletes I requested data for, two of the top four biggest potential earners are women. Oregon softball player Haley Cruse has danced her way into the hearts of an army of followers2 16 times that of Georgia’s Anthony Edwards, a favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NBA draft. Considering that female athletes are afforded vastly fewer opportunities to continue their playing careers after graduating, women might stand to gain more under these new proposals than their male counterparts.
“There’s no question that on a proportionate basis, this means more to them,” Maestas told me. “In a lot of cases, college athletics is the top of the pyramid in their world. So this is huge. It massively changes the equation for them.”
Before Lawrence started Opendorse, he was a linebacker at the University of Nebraska. He doesn’t recall feeling strongly about compensation back when he was raiding the backfield.
“But I was limited in the moment,” he said. “Everyone can always say they want more, but in my experience, it wasn’t like I didn’t have enough.
“Now, there are also some kids that take some of that scholarship check and send it home to their family and parents — and that’s a challenging spot. But the amount the majority of student-athletes are going to have the opportunity to make may not be headline worthy, right? A few hundred bucks a month in revenue from YouTube monetization or Twitch streaming or selling T-shirts — that type of money. But that 20-to-30 percent increase in a student-athlete’s income, that’s a significant difference.”
Compliance will continue to be a headache for the NCAA, many contend. “Most universities are understaffed already,” Maestas said. “It’s just the nature of amateur athletics and being a part of a non-for-profit state school.”
Garrett Klassy, the senior deputy athletic director at Nebraska, said his compliance office is staffed to meet demand and is caught up on the proposed measures. “There’s still a lot of moving parts and things could change,” he said. “But it’s something we’ve definitely kept an eye on.”
The change to student profits is sure to be felt on the recruiting trail. Recruiting has already changed considerably over the years, from boxes of scholarship offers to social-media announcements to documentary-esque commitment videos. Now inject cash into the equation.
“It will have a big impact,” Maestas said. “It will definitely amplify the haves and have-nots. But there’s already a black market for that right now, and it’s already happening. I do worry about how it impacts parity.”
While it seems unlikely that elite prospects would shun Power Five opportunities in favor of more money at a lower-level conference, money is undeniably going to be a motivating factor in the school selection process.
“Showcasing the value of going to schools XYZ, or one university over another, showing that current school’s earning power, that’s going to be huge,” Lawrence said. “Every school now has to answer the question from recruits: How much money can I make off my name, image and likeness if I go to your school versus another school?”