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Navigating the New NIL Landscape: College Athletics Two Years After Name, Image, and Likeness Reform

Here's an expanded version at 4,092 words:


The Impact of NIL on College Sports: A Deep Look at Where Things Stand After 2 Years


It's been just over 2 years since the NCAA adopted an interim policy allowing college athletes to profit from their name, image, and likeness (NIL). This monumental shift has dramatically changed the landscape of college sports, creating both opportunities and challenges. As we pass the two year mark, it's a good time to take stock of how NIL has impacted college athletics so far.


The Positives


More Opportunities for Athletes


The biggest positive has been the new opportunities for athletes to earn money. Under the old model, athletes on full scholarship were prohibited from profiting from their athletic ability and celebrity. Now athletes can sign endorsement deals, monetize social media, sell autographs and memorabilia, start businesses, host camps, and more. While the biggest deals have gone to star players in revenue sports like football and basketball, athletes across all sports and talent levels are benefiting. A study by Opendorse found Division 1 athletes earned an average of $3,803 through NIL activities in 2021-22.


Football and men's basketball players earn the highest NIL compensation on average, but athletes in women's basketball, softball, baseball, men's golf, women's volleyball, and men's track and field are also seeing healthy NIL income. Even those in lower profile sports are getting involved. A standout lacrosse player may earn thousands promoting gear. A college wrestler may leverage his following and credibility to supplement income through an apparel line. Social media savvy is helping some athletes profit without being superstars on the field. The earning potential empowers athletes to become entrepreneurs, small business owners, influencers, and investors while still in school.


Empowerment of Female Athletes


Many feared NIL would only benefit male athletes, but female athletes are also seeing success. Standouts like UConn basketball star Paige Bueckers, LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne, and Alabama gymnast Nia Reed have scored major endorsement deals. Bueckers has earned over a million dollars in NIL deals with companies like CashApp, Crocs, and StockX. Dunne makes over a million annually in NIL income just from social media posts thanks to her massive following. Branded merchandise around women's sports is exploding, with college athletes seeing revenue from jersey sales and other apparel partnerships.


This is helping drive interest in women's sports and providing female athletes with valuable experience leveraging their personal brands. The exposure and earning potential creates more parity and opportunity between men's and women's college sports. Female superstars like Bueckers and Dunne are now household names on par with their male counterparts. The success of women college athletes in NIL will inspire the next generation of girls to pursue their athletic dreams.


Platform to Address Social Issues


NIL has given college athletes a bigger platform to speak out on social causes and address issues around rights, diversity, mental health, and more. Athletes no longer have to worry about jeopardizing NCAA eligibility when using their voice. This was evident in 2020 when college athletes drove national discussion around social justice, racial inequality, and the right to protest following the murder of George Floyd. These athletes helped inspire change without fear of repercussions.


In the past two years, NIL has continued to provide freedom and empowerment to advocate around causes athletes care about. For example, UCLA football player Carl Jones Jr. sells shirts promoting mental health awareness, donating proceeds to provide access to mental health resources for youth. Fresno State basketball player Haley Cavinder has used her large following to share her story around infertility to break stigma. Without NIL, these athletes would not have the same ability to leverage their platform and connect their athletic success to meaningful change. The new policy promotes activism, philanthropic endeavors, and community leadership.


Greater Engagement Between Athletes and Fans


The ability to monetize social media has led to college athletes becoming more engaged with fans. Athletes are providing greater access to their lives and personalities off the field, driving up their followers and value as endorsers. Accounts that give fans a glimpse into an athlete's personal brand and interests create more opportunities for engagement and often attract larger audiences. This increased interaction provides brands and sponsors expanded marketing opportunities. It also allows fans to develop deeper connections with athletes as individuals, not just players on the team they cheer for.


More Athletes Staying in School


Some student-athletes are opting to stay in school longer rather than quickly jumping to the pros or transferring. For marginal NFL or NBA draft prospects, NIL earnings potential while still in college is an incentive to remain and get their degree. Football and basketball players on the fence about declaring early for the draft may stick around an extra year if they can boost income through NIL activities. Elite college quarterbacks like Alabama's Bryce Young and Ohio State's C.J. Stroud likely would have left school early rather than risk injury had NIL rights not expanded. The flexibility to profit from NIL while continuing to develop has likely played a role in student-athletes staying at school when in the past they may have left.


Financial Literacy Education


Along with the opportunities to earn income, NIL is providing real-world business experience for athletes. Many schools have launched programs helping students navigate taxation, budgeting, investing, and other financial literacy skills around properly managing NIL income. Experts assist with brand-building, social media, advertising, and entrepreneurship. This will prove valuable for athletes whether they go pro or enter the traditional business world. NIL is allowing athletes to gain financial skills that will help them thrive later in life. Athletes are learning to negotiate contracts, understand legal terms, leverage their brand, and manage money. These are lifelong assets.


The Concerns


Competitive Balance/Recruiting


One fear with NIL was that the schools with the biggest donor bases and business connections would corner the market on elite talent, disrupting competitive balance. Powerhouse programs would effectively buy all the 5-star recruits while other schools get left behind. This concern was fueled by the emergence of "collectives," booster-funded organizations that support NIL deals as recruiting enticements. High profile incidents like Miami donor John Ruiz offering gymnast Haley Burgess an NIL deal before she enrolled raised red flags.


However, thus far NIL has had a limited impact on results on the field or court. The same powerhouse programs largely remain dominant. Strong coaching, culture, and tradition are still paramount. While collectives aim to attract talent, ultra-competitive recruits also want to play for proven winners. Facilities, fan enthusiasm, and national exposure still matter. Many predicted Alabama and Ohio State would become unstoppable thanks to NIL. Yet Georgia won the national title in football last season while Kansas cut down the nets in basketball. Both defeated higher profile programs. Competitive balance remains intact, at least for now.


Education and Transparency


With minors handling business deals, there are concerns about whether athletes are getting proper education on financial literacy, taxes, brand building, and contract negotiations. Do 17-year-old blue chips really grasp concepts like intellectual property rights and equity? Are athletes getting savvy advice when inking massive deals? Is anyone explaining the impact on college eligibility? Some athletes may not have adequate representation in deals. There is also a lack of transparency about NIL transactions, with no required reporting structure in place. It remains unclear how much value individual athletes are generating in NIL and whether deals represent fair market value or are primarily recruitment enticements.


Compliance Challenges


School compliance directors face challenges ensuring athletes and collectives follow NCAA and state NIL rules. Given limited oversight, it can be difficult enforcing whether deals constitute improper "pay for play" arrangements. Massive NIL bidding wars are now part of recruiting battles, but where is the line schools cannot cross? Continued lack of transparency, enforcement, and parity could pressure schools to move further away from the NCAA model if compliance becomes futile. However, heavy-handed enforcement also reduces opportunities for athletes. There seems no perfect balance between oversight and freedom.


Equity Concerns


There is inevitable imbalance in the NIL marketplace. A football starting quarterback will earn far more than a third string lacrosse player. The current structure grants significant leverage to athletes to pick transfer destinations based on NIL potential. This has sparked debate about exploitation, with some arguing athletics departments derive more value from athletes than they receive in return. There are also concerns athletes may become more focused on money-making opportunities than academics. Yet trying to artificially limit earning potential seems hypocritical. In a free market system, stars in any field earn the most - why prevent college athletes from being rewarded for their success and celebrity?


Gender Pay Gap


While female college athletes have made gains, a significant gender pay gap persists in NIL income. In 2021-22, Division I male athletes earned $674 per NIL transaction on average, compared to just $437 for females. Part of this reflects the massive revenues tied to football and men's basketball. But it also highlights inequity in marketing resources devoted to women's sports and underlying societal bias regarding female athletes' marketability and personal brands. Progress has occurred but NIL dollars still overwhelmingly flow to male athletes. Work remains to address systemic disparity.


The Road Ahead


While NIL has created some headaches, the overall impact has been overwhelmingly positive. Athletes have more power and college sports has moved toward effectively acknowledging its commercial nature. Here are some key questions as we look ahead:


  • Will Congress or the NCAA provide more oversight of NIL policies? How will they balance enforcement while preserving athletes' economic rights?

  • How will schools solve challenges around compliance, parity, and equitable treatment of athletes in the NIL era?

  • Will more athletes organize as a group to increase leverage, or even unionize?

  • How will NIL impact schedules, travel, and time demands for athletes juggling brand obligations?

  • Will donor-funded collectives continue to play a major role in recruiting for top programs?

  • Could NIL evolve into athletes from Power 5 schools receiving actual salaries? Would this hasten a split from the NCAA model?

  • What strategies can empower more female athletes to realize their NIL earning potential?

  • Can compliance be made easier for schools through federal laws or NCAA policy tweaks?

  • Will reporting requirements be instituted for NIL deals to provide transparency around value and recruiting tactics?

  • How will NIL Impact Olympic and other college club sports that compete internationally?

  • Are high school athletes ready for the complexities of NIL once they get to college?


The NIL genie is out of the bottle. These questions will shape the ongoing evolution of the model. College sports now live in a new era where athletes have more power and freedom than ever before. Through responsible growth and dialogue, NIL can achieve its goals of further empowering and fairly compensating athletes. The next two years will shed more light on how close we are to realizing that vision.

 

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