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NIL Impact: High School Sports

by michelle

Almost immediately following the NCAA’s blanket interim policy for collegiate athletes to monetize their NIL, Dr. Karisa L. Niehoff, the executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, released their position.

Dr. Niehoff wrote in an email to high schools across the country:

“While it is not our position to debate the merits of current college athletes earning money from their NIL, it should be understood that these changes do not affect current high school student-athletes. Current high school student-athletes CANNOT earn money as a result of their connection to their high school team. High school sports are much different than college sports. High school sports are about the team – not an individual’s own personal pursuit of excellence. The primary reason that an overwhelming majority of high school students play sports is to have fun and spend significant and meaningful time with their peers. The focus is not on self but rather the team. 

Although this would not impact a current student’s NCAA eligibility, the athlete would be ineligible through his or her own state high school association. And we would suggest that high school students participating in out-of-school programs must not be allowed to benefit from NIL. We noted in a previous column that if students who participate in out-of-school programs were allowed to profit from their NIL that it would completely disrupt the high school environment when these students come into the high school locker room. These two worlds cannot co-exist as the high school environment will be compromised.”

Dr. Niehoff’s arguments against NIL are reminiscent of the NCAA of 10 years ago: “Sanctity of sport”, “Focus is on the team”, “Locker room disruption”. One major difference between high schools and the NCAA is that, aside from perhaps some HS football programs in Texas, high schools aren’t making big money off of their stars in the same way that institutions and college coaches are. 

For most high schools, however, the pro-NIL argument is the same: Every other high school student, with their parent’s permission, has the right to make money off of their personal brand. Why should athletes, just due to their title of “athlete”, be different?

Regardless, junior athletes can now retain their NCAA eligibility if they choose to monetize their NIL. However, they would not be able to play high school sports. The repercussions of this change in the NCAA bylaws, much like in the college space, are unclear. 

Here are my predictions for how high school sports may go in the next few years, looking from the lens of not adapting NIL policies and what may happen if they do:

Predictions: High Schools Don’t Adapt NIL Policies

Participation Decrease: High schools have been battling clubs over the past decade for athletes. The top athletes, in all sports but football, have started foregoing their high school teams in favor of just playing club. They cite that playing club offers more opportunities to be recruited, better coaching, and better competition. Will the lack of NIL adaptation cause more athletes to forego their high school eligibility? My guess is yes. However, we are only talking about the top 1% of high school athletes… Or are we? The number of high school athletes who could, and would, partake in NIL opportunities is unclear. 

Opens New Doors: Club is cost-prohibitive for a lot of families. Junior athletes monetizing their NIL might afford them new opportunities to compete for a top club WITHOUT putting a financial burden on their families. An athlete that might have been financially constrained to a small local club may now have an opportunity to play for a larger club, compete in more national tournaments, and have the opportunity to get seen by more college coaches. This is a huge win in my book.

Increased Opportunities for Other Students: With a potential exodus of top athletes, more high school students would get the opportunity to compete on their high school teams. As Dr. Niehoff states, “the primary reason that an overwhelming majority of high school students play sports is to have fun and spend significant and meaningful time with their peers.” As a winner of 11 varsity letters in high school (and yes, I’m still upset that I didn’t get to try out for varsity basketball my freshman year due to volleyball playoffs!), I can attest that my high school athletics experience was amazing. However, some of my peers were cut every year and some never saw any playing time. If top athletes decide to not compete on their high school teams,  it opens more spots for kids not as athletically talented. They will get the opportunity to get coached in their sport, develop time management skills, understand team culture, and learn to value exercise.

High School Football Remains Exempt: With no club options in football, those one million athletes will continue to not be able to monetize their NIL while in high school. How many come from low-income families and could use NIL opportunities to be able to purchase better safety equipment, SAT prep courses, and other important things that they currently can’t afford? Or even to be able to help their families with an additional stream of revenue? Less than 10% of high school football players go on to compete in college. If an athlete has a strong personal brand and no intentions of playing in college, are they now weighing their options between making money and playing for their high school team? While this may have always been a question for some junior athletes, seeing their peers in other sports taking advantage of NIL opportunities could create more awareness. Might we start to see a decrease in high school football participation from the 90% that don’t get recruited? 

High Schools Adapt NIL Policies

Athletes Build Brand of Their High School

From my experience working with high school athletes while at USA Volleyball, their social followings on Instagram were impressive. If high schools embraced NIL, could we have the potential for the “Cavinder Effect” (where their institution saw a significant uptick in search queries on July 1)? I strongly believe that due to the Cavinder Twins’ NIL opportunities, there will be a huge increase in Fresno State Women’s Basketball viewership this upcoming season that their program and school will profit from. Could high school athletes, on a smaller scale, positively impact their school’s brand and fanbase?

Recruiting Incentives Galore

Although the NCAA has made it abundantly clear that NIL opportunities for recruiting incentives are not permissible, how would this be regulated? For better or worse, most endorsements are done remotely through social media; meaning where an athlete lives is likely irrelevant. What would stop boosters from tracking top athletes all over the country and offering each of them endorsement deals? Even without making an athlete promise to attend a specific institution, relationships are being formed and with no “fair market value”, the sky’s the limit. 

So, what’s the problem?

The problem in my eyes is how young does this go? Prospects in revenue-generating sports are tracked as early as elementary school. How are parents going to navigate this mayhem for their pre-teen? Will it be more chaotic than managing the careers of child celebrities? The need for education and guidance for all stakeholders would be massive. 

Final Thoughts:

Unlike college sports, there aren’t as many clear injustices occurring at the high school level. However, the niche sport argument remains: It’s not right that just because a kid plays a sport, they have to give up their NIL rights. This era of social media, like it or not, is only growing. The influencer market (aka how most college athletes will monetize their NIL) is projected to be a $15 billion industry this year. That’s up significantly from “only” an $8 billion industry in 2019.

So, are high school associations likely to change their NIL policies? I would say not anytime soon. 

Similar to the NCAA, they don’t have many, if any, incentives to do it themselves. 

Unlike the NCAA, I don’t think that states will pressure the high school associations by passing their own NIL bills. There just isn’t the same magnitude of issues with the amateurism model at the high school level. Even if a few states did, high schools don’t have the same recruiting pressure so I can’t imagine we’d see the same domino effect of states passing NIL bills as we did over the past six months.

Nonetheless, I’m very interested in tracking top athletes in sports outside of football to see if the trend of foregoing high school participation for club continues to grow. And I don’t think that will be the end of the world. 

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