Beach Volleyball & NIL Opportunities
Why NIL is Positioning Collegiate Beach Athletes for Success and May Drive Growth for the Sport
A Note From the NIL Network Founder
Prior to founding NIL Network, my entire professional background was in beach volleyball. I coached at University of Hawaii, worked for USA Beach Volleyball running the national Olympic development training program, and co-founded a beach volleyball consultancy that specialized in assisting organizations with the continued development of the sport. Since converting from a beach volleyball nerd to a NIL nerd, I’ve realized more and more that my fascination with NIL stems from my experiences with beach volleyball and its athletes. And the more I thought about it, the more I’m confident that NIL is a massive opportunity not only for collegiate beach volleyball athletes with pro aspirations, but also has a potential to elevate the entire sport.
Professional beach volleyball is not yet a sustainable career in the United States. And yes, it does hurt me to say that. The athletes are not paid salaries and outside of the podium contenders, our pros have to work 2-3 side hustles to afford to chase their dreams. They are coaching private lessons, training high school teams, and/or working a part time job. On the sponsorship and partnership side, these athletes are generally fending for themselves and learning as they go; Overwhelmingly, this leads to beach pros accepting brand partnerships that are way below market value (think limited product and an ambassador code).
When the NCAA changed their bylaws on July 1, 2021, collegiate athletes gained the right to monetize their Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) without risking their eligibility. This change has the potential to impact almost half a million young adults. However, I think that NIL may be particularly advantageous to collegiate beach volleyball athletes who aspire to go pro. Here’s why:
Athlete Education Opportunities
NIL reform affords beach volleyball athletes the opportunity to navigate sponsorships before they even start pursuing their professional careers. They get access to resources to develop their personal brand, begin to understand the partnership landscape, and can begin developing relationships four years earlier.
Personal Brand Assistance
Before the rise of social media, developing your personal brand was difficult. Outside of Olympians, it was almost impossible for a beach volleyball professional to showcase their off-the-court persona and grow their fanbase. Now with endless opportunities on social media, professional beach athletes that aren’t Olympians have a huge opportunity to strategize on their personal brand, optimize their NIL, and set themselves up for meaningful brand partnerships.
The problem? For the average athlete, it takes years and years to organically grow an engaging following.
With NIL, collegiate beach volleyball athletes are seeing the impact of a strong personal brand in real time as teammates with developed brands get partnership offers, sometimes regardless of their on-court performance or “rank” on the team.
In addition, most athletes are now supplied with resources and tools to grow their own. The majority of institutions with beach volleyball programs have partnerships with either Opendorse or INFLCR, which provide access to media day and action photos for them to share across their social media platforms. Additionally, both companies offer brand building education specifically built with college athletes in mind. If the athletes are lucky, they might attend a school that has a full-time NIL delegate whose top priority is to support athletes in their NIL endeavors.
In most collegiate sports, an athlete’s NIL earning potential is at its highest while they’re in college. Beach volleyball athletes can now utilize that time to grow their fanbase and optimize their personal brand to go with them when they graduate and pursue the professional ranks.
Understanding the Sponsorship Landscape
Prior to NIL, professional beach volleyball athletes had to wait until they finished their NCAA eligibility to begin understanding how sponsorships and brand partnerships work. As mentioned above, most used a trial-and-error process and leaned on more senior beach pros for guidance. This leads to some terrible brand deals or worse, beach pros signing into representation contracts that they can’t get out of without an expensive legal battle.
Now, collegiate athletes can get a head start on navigating partnerships with the protection and support from their school. While most institutions can’t directly facilitate or negotiate deals on behalf of athletes, there should be someone in the athletic department that is responsible for NIL that they can go to for educational support.
As the NIL coordinator at San Diego State, the most common question I get is, “how do I know if this is a good deal?” While I can’t specifically tell them to accept or decline an offer, I can guide them to resources (such as a rate calculator) and educate them on things to consider before signing. While I’m not an expert on sponsorships, nor am I an influencer, an attorney, or an agent – being immersed in this space over the past few years has grown my knowledge significantly and when I don’t have an answer, I have a wonderful network of people who do.
With each partnership they secure, collegiate beach volleyball athletes will get an increased understanding of what elements to look for in a contract, how much brands may pay for various deliverables, and what type of activations they enjoy doing. As they get more comfortable with the process, these athletes will gain confidence to negotiate deals and in turn, access more lucrative and meaningful opportunities.
When these athletes begin pursuing their professional careers, they will already have this skill set in place, allowing them to focus more attention on securing a partner, building a budget, hiring trainers, booking travel, understanding the complex points systems, and every other entrepreneurial element that professional beach volleyball requires of its athletes.
NIL Network Founder Note: Is there a professional sport that’s more autonomous and entrepreneurial than beach volleyball? I know I’m biased but I’d love to hear from you! Email me with the sport and your thoughts: email@example.com.
Begin Developing Relationships
Finally, collegiate beach volleyball athletes now have the ability to develop relationships with brands and representatives four years earlier. They can partner with multiple brands and grow with them over their collegiate careers. Even though most institutions don’t permit athletes to sign into contracts that extend beyond their NCAA eligibility (a protective measure to keep athletes from signing predatory contracts), an athlete has an opportunity to demonstrate their value while in college, and then re-sign a more advantageous contract once they graduate.
These partnerships can be especially meaningful for local businesses who get to showcase their continued support of their “hometown hero”. For an example of this, look no further than Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth who recently partnered with the Louisiana Office of Tourism. For Nuss, a native of New Orleans, this is about as meaningful as a sponsorship gets.
Imagine if they had NIL rights at LSU when they were dominated the NCAA competition, overcoming doubters, and creating excitement about the sport of beach volleyball for THE ENTIRE STATE OF LOUISIANA. While I don’t know the details of their partnership and I have no doubts that it’ll continue to grow, I’m fairly confident that these two young women would have even more support from the tourism board at this time if that partnership started during their collegiate career.
Another great example is Hailey Harward, one of the first collegiate beach volleyball athletes to monetize her NIL last summer. Hailey has a great partnership with Aquahydrate, her favorite water company and one that she definitely-ish can pick out from a blind taste test. After winning back-to-back national championships with USC, Hailey is finally graduating with her undergraduate degree, TWO master’s degrees, and after competing in 8.5 SEASONS of collegiate volleyball. I would speculate that the Aquahydrate partnership isn’t going anywhere and they will continue to support her in her professional pursuits.
Developing these relationships while in college provides a bit of security that most students don’t have when they graduate. Heck, even if a college athlete doesn’t pursue their sport professionally after graduation, the network that they’ve built through NIL opportunities can potentially open up doors for career opportunities.
Growth Opportunities for the Sport
Professional beach volleyball struggles with a serious issue: Connecting with fans and building lifelong followers. Yes, we all love watching Olympic beach volleyball. Every four years, beach volleyball is one of the most watched Olympic sports. However, continuing that momentum back on US soil has proven difficult time and time again.
Why? Sustainable Fansmanship Without a Franchise Model is DIFFICULT
Think of your favorite sports team. What connects you to them? It’s probably a team that you grew up watching. Maybe they were local. Maybe it’s where you went to college. Maybe you’re a fourth generation diehard Cheesehead who had no choice as a child but to brave the cold at Lambeau field every. Damn. Year.
For the majority of casual sports fans, their connection to a franchise is independent of the actual athletes competing on the team at any given time. Of course these fans have their favorite athletes and are rooting for their success, but their fansmanship generally begins when an athlete signs with their favorite pro team.
The ability to heavily lean on the established brand of the franchises is an understated perk of team sports from a growth and sustainability perspective. Most professional sport franchises have been around for decades. Franchises rarely change in name or location. If you’re born a Cheesehead, your child thirty years later will likely also be a Cheesehead. Athletes from team sports reap the benefits of their team’s brand.
The Olympics demonstrates the power of the franchise model: For the casual fan of beach volleyball, every four years, Team USA is their “franchise”. It doesn’t necessarily matter who the athletes are; they connect with Team USA. As evident from the google search trends, beach volleyball gets a massive spike in interest every Summer Olympics.
Furthermore, Beach Volleyball Professionals are Hyper-Localized on the Beaches of Los Angeles.
It makes sense: They can practice year round. The USA Beach Volleyball facility is located there. Athletes can access the highest level of training competition and even have opportunities to “level-up” to new partners. While other hubs are developing around the country (I see you, Florida), the general consensus is that the elite live and train in Hermosa or Manhattan Beach. If you have aspirations of being elite, the easiest road is by living and training in Hermosa or Manhattan Beach.
What’s the problem? For individual sport athletes that don’t have the franchise model, a main source of sustainable fansmanship is the ability for fans to find another connection: maybe they live in the same town, play at the same tennis club, or eat at the same restaurants. As someone who lived in Hermosa Beach for two years, the beach volleyball fansmanship is HIGH in that small community. A walk down the strand in the morning gives you a front seat to Olympians training. Stop into Brothers Burritos around 11AM on any given day and you’ll inevitably be surrounded by nobody shorter than 6’5. Head to 16th street on an off weekend and see your favorite pros playing fours and having a few beers. It’s a dream world if you’re a beach volleyball fan. However, outside of the bubble, this level of access and connection to beach volleyball athletes barely exists.
Without a franchise model and with the hyper-localization of athletes, fans have to be created and nurtured in a unique way: Professional beach volleyball athletes, whether they like it or not, have a grassroots responsibility to grow the sport through their personal brand.
For a real time example of this, look at the outstanding growth numbers for collegiate gymnastics this year: Due to NIL rules, this is the first time in history that Olympic gymnasts were able to accept endorsement deals without losing their NCAA eligibility. Aside from getting to watch gold medalists compete at the collegiate level, gymnasts in general do a fantastic job building their personal brands. The massive followings that these young women have accumulated on social media have translated to 11% growth in viewership in one year, peaking with 1.1 million viewers.
THE OPPORTUNITY: With NIL opportunities, college beach volleyball athletes can capitalize on the brand power of their institution to grow their personal brand sooner. By utilizing campus resources they can learn how to optimize their brand strategy and grow their followings across multiple social media channels. Once they graduate and pursue professional beach volleyball, they will already have an established platform and thousands of followers who are interested in THEIR STORY. These fans will most likely continue to engage with their content, want to watch as their professional career develops, which will get more eyes on the tv and butts in the seats at the domestic tour events.
Furthermore, collegiate beach volleyball athletes growing their platform on the strength of their institution’s brand means a lot of their followers will have the franchise mentality. They are following these athletes because they are fans of the school and/or the program. We are already starting to see the outcome of this: LSU fans are continuing to support Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth, streaming their matches or even attending live.
With beach volleyball still being a relatively new collegiate sport (NCAA sponsored as of 2015) and NIL being less than a year old, the impact these athletes may have on the growth of the sport is exciting. I’m confident that beach volleyball will be a sustainable professional sport for more than just the top players, and hopefully sooner than we beach volleyball nerds currently anticipate.