More than 600 University of Nebraska student-athletes are expected to return to campus for the fall semester. Like their peers, they will train to compete in their respective sports while presumably working toward a degree. They will don their school colors to perpetuate a billion-dollar industry without so much as receiving a living wage in return.
But unlike other student-athletes around the country, each and every Husker — from the senior starting point guard to the redshirt javelin thrower — will have an entire team dedicated to helping them build and maximize their personal brands.
In mid-March, the University of Nebraska and athlete marketing program Opendorse announced the launch of the Ready Now Program, a first-of-its kind partnership that will assist college athletes with individual branding to market themselves as social media influencers.
“We wanted to find a way that benefits all student-athletes,” said Garrett Klassy, the Nebraska senior deputy athletic director who was instrumental in facilitating the arrangement. “This is something that will benefit the young men and women in our programs for the rest of their lives.”
Every student-athlete will be provided a valuation of their brand as well as insights into how to boost engagement and augment their social media following. Content calendars, performance benchmarks and various strategies will be provided to every athlete representing the scarlet and cream.
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“You can’t look at a member of the women’s rifle team and provide them the same plan as somebody on the football team,” said Opendorse CEO and co-founder Blake Lawrence, a former Husker linebacker. “Their calendars and schedules don’t match up. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.”
The official announcement of the Ready Now Program was timely: A day later, the NBA regular season was suspended because of the coronavirus, and within weeks, just about every sport ground to a halt. Roughly a month later, the NCAA’s top governing body announced its support for a proposal that would allow student-athletes for the first time to be compensated for the use of their name, image and likeness (NIL).
“Whether you’re a fan of NIL legislation or not, it’s coming,” Klassy said. “So we wanted to be prepared. I think in college athletics, we have a tendency to see what our peers are doing — and a lot of schools are copying this and that. But this was a no-brainer.”
From strength and conditioning to sports analytics, the Nebraska athletic department has found itself at the vanguard of a number of initiatives. With NIL rights expected to be adopted by the NCAA in January and a program already in place to bolster student-athlete NIL value, the university is again at the forefront.
“It was good for Nebraska to have that runway and interesting to see the other schools who will follow suit,” Lawrence said. “There’s going to be a hands-on approach to maximizing NIL value for each student-athlete. The goal is to see the NIL valuations for all student-athletes on campus increase between now and the day new NIL rules are in place.”
Those who spoke with FiveThirtyEight were adamant that once NIL rights are permitted by the NCAA, influencer marketing via social media will be the primary money-making vehicle of the modern-day student-athlete, one that will dominate at least the initial wave of transactions. While other money-making avenues will open, including sponsorships with local business owners and appearance fees for autograph sessions, social media marketers can provide the widest reach and most immediate fiscal return.
Perhaps that’s why in recent weeks staff members in the Nebraska athletic department have added the social media handles of some student-athletes to his or her official bio page on Huskers.com. That’s a detail that recruits won’t find at Ohio State or Michigan or any other Big Ten program.
Imagine being told as a teenager that an inquiring school estimates that you could garner five figures worth of endorsements — money that could go toward improving living conditions for your family or setting you up for your post-college life. That’s a powerful incentive, one that’s already being used in recruiting pitches, coaches told FiveThirtyEight.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that as of May 5, Nebraska head football coach Scott Frost and his coaching staff had tendered a nation-leading 214 scholarships for the class of 2022, more than the rest of the Big Ten West Division combined.
Nebraska represents a unique backdrop for an NIL experiment to be conducted. It’s a Power Five school in one of 24 states without a professional sports franchise1 and features just three Division I athletic powers within its borders.2
With less in-state competition than others, football is undeniably king, but the most recently successful teams at the University of Nebraska are all found on the women’s side. The volleyball team is among the sport’s perennial powers, and the women’s bowling dynasty brought HBO’s “Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel” to campus in 2018. In fact, women have accounted for all nine of the university’s team national championships since the turn of the century. That success has translated to social media: The Nebraska athlete most-followed on Instagram isn’t a member of the football team; it’s the volleyball team’s outside hitter Lexi Sun.
Former Nebraska basketball coach and current Big Ten analyst Tim Miles said he thinks that under this new framework, schools in states like Nebraska will benefit most. “I think those basketball programs with big-time football programs, it’s going to be more of a fistfight,” he said. “It’s going to be harder to spread around and dominate the market. But I think the guys that are going to have a major advantage are the Creightons of the world, the Wichita States and Marquettes.”
Depending on how legislation shakes out, Miles said he would suggest schools consider hiring a director of development. Miles noted how difficult it will be for compliance teams to stay on top of what’s certain to be a challenge unlike anything experienced before.
Opendorse isn’t the only platform looking to get in on the action.
A month after Nebraska’s announcement, Georgia Tech partnered with J1S, a creative agency that will consult with the football team on branding. Head coach Geoff Collins has publicly supported the concept since taking over for longtime coach Paul Johnson in late 2018. Last season, the team added a dry-erase board to the sideline on which players could write their Instagram handles for public and TV viewing if they accounted for a takeaway. “That’s 2019 for you guys,” TV sideline reporter Katie George said during the season opener.
Some are even trying to develop relationships before a player arrives on campus.
As an undergraduate student at Brown University in the early 2000s, Zachary Segal joined the ultimate frisbee team. “I saw that my rights were different from student-athletes,” he said. “I thought it was bizarre, and that disparity never made sense to me.”
Now a venture capitalist, Segal watched as the Fair Pay to Play Act was signed in California. “It occurred to me that the system could essentially be taken over by a few wealthy individuals or companies acting entirely within the California law,” he said. So he founded StudentPlayer.com, a centralized crowdfunding platform that allows fans to contribute to sponsorships for student-athletes. “The First Company to Link College Athletes With Sponsorships,” declared part of the headline in the Los Angeles Times.
“StudentPlayer.com is going to have a touchpoint with every prospective student-athlete before they even get to school,” Segal said. “We get involved and engage with the fans and athletes before they even pick a school. They’ll come to the site and see what sponsorship opportunities are available at different schools and know that there will be an offer from us to whoever ends up playing at that university.”
Lesser-known student-athletes aren’t staring down the lucrative six-figure potential paydays that the very top household names are, especially if they’re not competing in one of the primary revenue-generating sports. But considering that more than 80 percent of college athletes on full scholarships are left below the poverty line, according to a 2013 study by the National College Players Association, even an additional few hundred bucks per month represents a dramatic shift.
So how much money does a student-athlete stand to generate via social media under this proposed framework? And how much does it vary by sport?
For the sake of this exercise, I focused solely on Instagram and Twitter, using the expertise of Opendorse.
Drawing from a decade’s worth of transactional data between business and professional athletes, specific to each respective sport, Lawrence provided me with his estimates of potential earnings for each Nebraska student-athlete in a given sport, as well as the athletes who stand to bring in the most money immediately. 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. This is the first publicly available examination of potential NIL social-media earnings across all major sports at a single university.
|Athlete||Sport||Total followers||Earnings per post||Annual Earnings|
|Trey McGowens||Basketball (M)||24,217||364||8,014|
|Taylor Kissinger||Basketball (W)||7,156||188||4,317|
|Allie Binder||Track and field||9,393||136||3,671|
|Emma Worley||Tennis (W)||1,992||56||1,124|
|Hannah Davis||Soccer (W)||5,325||47||837|
|Khalil Jackson||Gymnastics (M)||5,089||60||726|
|William Gleason||Tennis (M)||1,483||39||504|
|Will Marshall||Golf (M)||1,722||33||333|
|Sierra Hassel||Gymnastics (W)||8,061||104||313|
|Jessica Haraden||Golf (W)||3,331||13||203|
Football has long been the NCAA’s cash cow. A 2017 report from Business Insider found the average college football team makes more money than the next 35 college sports combined. There’s a reason the Nebraska football team accounts for more than half of the university’s 1.7 million followers across all sports.3
Lawrence calculated the averages in each respective sport based on the current roster and the social media profiles of Nebraska student-athletes. On average, the Nebraska women’s volleyball team leads all sports in potential earnings. Having advanced to eight consecutive Elite Eights, the Huskers boast the nation’s most-followed volleyball account and represent the second most-followed sport at the university, with more than twice as many followers as the men’s basketball team.
That success yields considerable earning power. The average player on John Cook’s roster figures to make a university-high $5,747 annually through social media endorsements. Athletes on the football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball teams also stand to net four figures in a single year, according to Lawrence’s projections. In average annual earnings, those sports are followed by baseball, women’s tennis, wrestling, track and field, men’s gymnastics, women’s gymnastics, men’s tennis, women’s soccer, bowling, men’s golf, softball, swimming and diving, women’s golf and rifle.
I then asked Lawrence to identify the most-followed athlete in each respective sport at the university. At the high end, you’ll find Nebraska starting quarterback Adrian Martinez and Sun. On the low side, you’ll find members of the rifle and tennis teams. And with those large disparities comes considerable differences in potential earnings.
Martinez and Sun stand to generate more than $1,100 per post on Instagram and Twitter. Stretch those valuations out to an annual outlook, and Martinez could generate $153,147 and Sun $39,438. Lawrence noted the sports being compared as the primary reason for the gap in earnings. These projections are based on potential deals cut at the professional level, in which football players generate significantly more promotional opportunities than volleyball players. Not only does Martinez play perhaps the most fruitful sport, but he’s the starting quarterback, perhaps the most high-profile position in any sport. So although last season Sun was an All-American and Martinez ranked ninth in the Big Ten in QBR, the former is likely to see an estimated 32 promotions per year while the latter will garner nearly three times as many.
Under-the-table payments have been ubiquitous in college athletics for decades and have not been even remotely a secret. Proposed NIL rights certainly won’t stop the covert payments from happening and will likely still fall short of appropriately valuing the modern-day college athlete.4
But what’s transpired in recent months is nothing short of a sea change.
The ramifications of NIL rights on the recruiting trail will be manifold, and Lawrence contends that NIL issues will dominate at least the next decade of recruiting — which is the lifeblood of program success.
Recruiting battles were long waged over program pedigree, playing time and professional opportunity. You can now officially add NIL valuations to the list. And in that war, at least initially, the main battleground will be waged on student-athletes’ social media platforms.
Less than two years ago, NCAA president Mark Emmert referred to California’s Fair Pay to Play Act, what many see as the catalyst for much of the movement’s recent momentum, as an “existential threat” to the NCAA’s long-hollow model of amateurism.
“His message that these student-athletes are students first, to me, is quite simple: If you’re a student first, you should be treated like every other student,” Segal said. “The NCAA didn’t want these changes and didn’t initiate them. But here we are.”