As I’m coming up on a year of working in an NCAA NIL administrative role while also managing NIL Network for the past two years, I see a lot of different perspectives in this nascent industry. I’m constantly meeting with athletes across all sports, NCAA NIL admins around the country, local businesses, national brands, startups in every sub-industry of NIL, and all of the fans and parents you could imagine.
What frustrates myself and other NCAA NIL admins is how different the reality is for most of our athletes compared to the national headlines and the selective data that is presented in the “industry reports”.
Yes, I can see the inflated narrative being a reality for the small percentage of high-profile athletes that fill stadiums and appear on national television every Saturday.
Yes, of course this data makes sense for the athletes that have created an incredible personal brand and were “insta famous” and/or “tiktok stars” before NIL went into effect.
But no, not every athlete is averaging $1500 per NIL engagement. And no, athletes should not feel inept or “less than” if they aren’t getting opportunities of that size. And please, I’m begging small businesses to not take those numbers seriously and feel priced out of this market if they don’t have that kind of budget.
Additionally, I would be very surprised if any university has anywhere close to 50% of their athletes engaging in NIL opportunities. And I would imagine that percentage drops significantly when you look at NIL deals that are actually meaningful brand partnerships as opposed to mass activations.
And that’s ok. This industry is still many years from maturation.
However, the misleading narrative is doing exactly the opposite of its intentions: While it may benefit the top tier, it is disenfranchising and alienating a huge percentage of college athletes. Additionally, it is causing misconceptions, frustrations, and an overall disconnect amongst athletes, coaches, administrators, NIL companies, and brands.
If this doesn’t change (and let’s be real, I know I’m asking A LOT given the college sports industry, in general, has quite a bit of smoke and mirrors), it could not only hinder industry growth, but actually lower the overall market potential.
As an example of how this is playing out, most college athletes exploring NIL quickly learn that it’s not as easy of money as the headlines make it seem. When they realize that the education provided by their school doesn’t provide a fast track to easy NIL monetization either, they become discouraged and eventually, indifferent.
Meanwhile, administrators are seeing their underutilized investments and assuming their athletes “just aren’t that interested in NIL”. In turn, admins are wary of putting additional NIL resources in front of their athletes, limiting the exposure for new and innovative NIL businesses. NIL companies then resort to DM’ing individual athletes with their sales pitch, which is not only super inefficient, but is also not a great way to start a trusting business relationship. This leads to less athletes utilizing services, less opportunities, less money being made, and eventually may lead to less participation and developments in the industry all around.
Let’s explore deeper what’s going on, what we can do differently, and the “silver linings”.
N.I.L is W.O.R.K
The experience for almost every college athlete is quite different from the national headlines and the industry narrative – NIL is not a hand-out; and it’s not that easy.
Rather, NIL for the majority of collegiate athletes is that loathed word: WORK*. I’m very transparent with my athletes about the stages of NIL and what to consider in each one:
- Before: Building Your Brand • Developing Your NIL Strategy • Evaluating Service Providers • Sourcing Opportunities
- During: Evaluating Offers • Negotiating Terms • Deciphering Contracts • Adhering to Policies/Laws
- After: Financial Literacy • Taxes • Expanding Your Portfolio • Long-Term Goal Setting
Taking the above on while already having two full time jobs would be a daunting task for anyone, let alone 18-22 year olds who are also navigating adulthood for the first time.
“But what about social media endorsements! Those seem so easy!”
While data from the first year of NIL shows that the most utilized route to NIL monetization is through social media endorsements, it seems that nobody takes into account the years of dedication that goes into developing your niche and growing an engaged community. If a college athlete isn’t “high profile” and has never intentionally tried to grow their brand, chances are that they aren’t in an easy position to be a social media influencer.
The opportunities available outside of social media – such as running camps or speaking engagements – involve dozens of hours to plan, promote, execute, and wrap-up the event. It’s not impossible, but it isn’t effortless either.
*However, the beauty of NIL is that, for the most part, it is work WHEN THEY CAN WORK. College athletes can’t hold part time jobs or consistent hours because of their ever-evolving training and competition schedules. NIL affords them the opportunity to work when they can, for how long they have, and when they want to.
THE SILVING LINING: IT WILL GET EASIER ALL AROUND
NIL Awareness For Businesses Will Continue To Grow
In time, the bulk of NIL opportunities for the majority of college athletes will be at the local level. At the moment, if local businesses and brands have even heard of NIL, getting them from awareness to actually closing their first NIL deal is a long and arduous process. For athletes seeking meaningful partnerships with local businesses that they frequent, educating them on the what/why/how/when of NIL is very time consuming.
However, as these businesses learn, experiment, and understand what works, they will develop processes and resources to simplify NIL activations. A few years from now, college athletes will no longer have the additional burden of educating potential partners.
NIL Startups Will Become More Savvy
With the development of this exciting new industry has come hundreds of startups with the intent to help college athletes monetize their NIL. In the first year alone, we saw business models shifting drastically as the market evolved. As these companies continue to mature, their updated service offerings, products, and technology will further simplify the NIL process for athletes and expand the market.
Future NCAA Athletes Will Be More Prepared
For many current collegiate athletes, they were not well positioned to immediately take advantage of NIL opportunities. However, high school prospects are excited about NIL AND are preparing now for when they get to college. They’re intentionally developing their personal brands, growing their social community, and strategizing on how they want to monetize their NIL when the time comes.
Reflecting on my own experiences, I imagine that the growth of NIL may follow a similar trajectory to collegiate beach volleyball. When I began coaching at University of Hawaii in 2012, beach volleyball was only a year old as a college sport. For every year that I was there (and still happening according to many coaches), every recruiting class was exponentially more impressive than the previous. Relating this back to NIL, the class of 2023 will be more prepared than the class of 2022. The class of 2024 will be more than prepared than 2023. And so on.
Not All NCAA Athletes Are Engaging in NIL… And That’s Perfectly Fine.
Remember, “NIL” is actually just restoring rights to college athletes that every other US citizen already had. Not every athlete wants to be a social media influencer. Not every athlete needs additional income. Not every athlete can invest time and energy into learning all the rules and requirements of NIL. Not every athlete wants to be an entrepreneur. Or a digital collectible. Or a listing on an NIL marketplace. And that’s perfectly fine.
My strategy as an NCAA NIL admin has been to structure all NIL specific education as optional but to make sure that I’m providing as much support as possible for those who are interested. If I can empower those athletes that are excited about NIL and they then have some success, my theory is that interest may grow organically throughout their team. While this approach will likely result in less immediate and rapid growth, I think it will prove to be more sustainable over the long run. When athletes (or humans in general) are intrinsically motivated to participate, as they are with an optional activity, they are more likely to continue.
An additional benefit with this approach is that it has permitted me to cultivate authentic relationships with athletes that have little or no interest in NIL. They come to visit me because they want to talk about life, their future, complain about practice, discuss a class project, etc. I’m more than happy to be a “safe space” where they can relax and be themselves.
THE SILVER LINING: IT’S GROWING
I’ve said it already but I’ll say it again: NIL will continue to grow in interest and participation over the next few years. It takes time.
Using NCAA beach volleyball as an example again, it has now been a collegiate sport for a decade. But all coaches are STILL reporting that their recruiting classes continue to be significantly more advanced than their previous ones.
I am confident that we are barely scratching the surface of what NIL interest looks like five years from now.
Interested Athletes Want Support, Not Structured Education
As noted before, I don’t think that requiring NIL education is the best strategy. College athletes already have most of their day-to-day life strictly regimented. They move from weights to class to practice to tutor sessions to team meetings to bed. Requiring hours of their limited free time to teach them about a supposedly optional opportunity has alienated a lot of college athletes.
However, athletes have also reported that “on-demand” education, such as pre-recorded videos covering the various topics of NIL, isn’t what they’re looking for either.
“BUT WE KNOW THEY NEED EDUCATION!” shouts frustrated administrators and education platforms. And I agree. But every high-level “NIL Topic” is actually just a life skill that’s valuable to all college athletes.
I think that if a university is truly implementing required education with the primary goal of benefiting their current athletes, as opposed to just a shiny recruiting tool, the letters “NIL” shouldn’t even appear in the programming. It should be taught from a professional development standpoint and be applicable to everyone, regardless of their interest in NIL. If a department has a student-athlete development program, most of the topics may already be covered!
This strategy provides value for all athletes, doesn’t disenfranchise the non-NILers, but also allows the athletes that are engaging in NIL to have real life scenarios to immediately apply their learnings to.
So, What Do They Want?!
My time as an NCAA NIL admin has made it clear why structured NIL education is not working for many: At this time, college athletes are having incredibly varied and unique experiences with NIL. They have different goals, skill sets, and issues they want help with. Some are inundated with opportunities and need support on how to manage them. Others want assistance with getting started. Some want to start businesses. Others want to do the least amount of work for the most compensation. While I’m not sure if it will be like this forever, it’s easy to see why the “one size fits all” education isn’t currently resonating with college athletes.
What has resonated, you ask?
As I alluded to (and knowing this isn’t realistic for some departments or scaleable for NIL platforms), having a trusted mentor to advise them on their unique situations is top of the list. They want to come in, sit down, build a plan, go out and execute, come back, check in, collaborate on ideas, try some new things, and on and on and on.
Outside of individualized advising, I recently found success in providing tools and step-by-step “how to’s”. Last week, I hosted a “Build Your Own NIL Kit” workshop. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of registrations and overall interest. Each athlete got an NIL Kit Template and we spent 30 minutes filling it out and talking about best practices. I got great feedback from the athletes that they found the workshop incredibly useful and it made them feel more confident and empowered in their outreach. Furthermore, they requested additional workshops!
THE SILVING LINING: IT HAS A PLACE
In my opinion, the greatest opportunity for success with structured NIL education, whether “on-demand” or otherwise, is in the junior market. Recruits are excited about their potential future opportunities, have more time available, and are motivated to learn about NIL and prepare their strategy before stepping foot on campus.
Additionally, similar to the “arms race” of NIL resources provided by universities to attract recruits, top clubs are always looking for the next “edge” they can utilize to entice the elite players in their area. Ten years ago, it was in-house recruiting coordinators. Five years ago, it was Hudl. NIL education is an obvious choice for a new “edge” they can provide.
Finally, recruits learning the principles of NIL while still in high school can only help them to avoid the missteps that current college athletes are making. It will make their NIL experience more seamless once they get to college and in turn, less time-consuming (much to their coach’s delight!).