College football players are dominating NIL brand deals so far–but inroads are forming for others

Football makes up nearly half of NIL compensation, per Opendorse.
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Getty Images/Kevin C. Cox

· 5 min read

Clear eyes, full wallets, can’t lose.

At least, that’s what the data on Name, Image, Likeness (NIL) implies. It’s been about eight months since the NCAA started allowing college athletes to make money on their NIL. And according to recent data from platform Opendorse, football has made up 47.1% of NIL compensation since, raising questions of whether NIL will create gender, racial, and other disparities when it comes to who’s getting paid.

Sam Weber, senior director of brand marketing and communications at Opendorse, told Marketing Brew it’s not necessarily surprising to see that football is taking up so much of NIL revenue given this is America—and we love watching football.

“The level of popularity lends itself to more exposure, to more of those national brand deals that will naturally go to the athletes with the most fame or the most influence. And just the nature of sports is that football is going to be a big part of that,” he said.

Ohio State University, which leads the nation in NIL compensation, reported last month that football was its top-earning men’s sport, bringing in 173 deals worth nearly $2.7 million. Its top-earning women’s sport—gymnastics—brought in 35 deals worth around $32,000.

Carey Hoyt, Ohio State’s senior associate athletics director of sport administration and student-athlete development, told us that NIL is very much “market-driven” right now, causing brands to look for athletes with the most visibility and followings (aka football players). She said this also goes for NIL managers, who she’s seen work mostly with male athletes to find brand deals because they’re more recognizable.

This one’s for the girls

Alicia Jessop, associate professor of sport administration at Pepperdine University, told us it’s more of a chicken-or-the-egg situation when it comes to exposure. “We need to peel back the curtain a little bit more and realize that for the last [50] years, athletics departments have been given an opportunity to market women’s sport at the same rate as [men’s], but the fact of the matter is, they haven’t,” Jessop said.

She’s referring to Title IX, a law that was passed in 1972 requiring equal treatment in terms of participation, scholarships, and basic operational expenses like equipment, housing, and dining. However, Jessop explained that athletic departments have traditionally justified marketing men’s athletics more than women’s because they brought in more revenue (which some have called a “self-fulfilling prophecy”). As a result, she said, women athletes have largely had to market themselves.

One of the ways they do that is by building social media followings, which is paying off for some star athletes who can now cash in on their followings, thanks to NIL. Since the NCAA’s decision, it’s been speculated that LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne and Fresno State basketball players Haley and Hanna Cavinder could be on their way to becoming “NIL-ionnaires” because of brand deals.

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UConn basketball player Paige Bueckers has also made headlines for inking large-scale deals with StockX, Gatorade, and CashApp. According to Jessop, these agreements “[signal] the potential for the publicity gap to be eroded or diminished” between men’s and women’s sports.

Who gets to cash in?

While women’s basketball came in second after football in January’s Opendorse data, with 27.3% of NIL compensation, the AP said that number may be more reflective of large-scale deals (like Bueckers’s). So what about athletes with smaller followings?

Jordan Nixon, basketball player at Texas A&M, wrote this month that “NIL is the new addition to the big house of influencer marketing” and “probably won’t be an even playing field any time soon.” She goes on to say that race and gender both appear to be “two determinants of success in this realm.” Washington Post columnist Candace Buckner has also criticized brands for seemingly seeking out mostly “hot, blonde, and white” college athletes.

But inroads could be forming for athletes who may not have had as many opportunities yet. Degree created an ambassador program across both men’s and women’s college sports and with followings big and small (e.g., volleyball player Logan Eggelston with 27k Instagram followers and soccer player Charlotte Teeter with 1.2k).

CrowdPush, which CTO and co-founder Ben Hubbard describes as a mix of and GoFundMe for athletes, also brought on the entire University of Alabama gymnastics team as brand ambassadors. “It’s very important for us to kind of show that to people—that we want to sponsor entire teams because they work together to win,” he told us.

Hoyt said Ohio State is also working with local businesses to help find partnership opportunities for women. Despite initial setbacks, she said NIL is still good for women athletes, especially those dealing with tuition and other costs of living. “I think the storyline is less about the top 2% that are making six figures and more about the financial impact that name, image, and likeness has had on all of the student athletes.”

Jessop agreed that NIL is good for women’s sports overall. For those who have not seen brands reach out yet, she said, at least it’s allowed them to pursue their own ventures, like starting coaching academies for young players. “That’s the best benefit for individuals who do not have the massive social media followings or maybe don’t even play as visible of a sport: [NIL] presents them the opportunity to catapult their talent into a meaningful business.”

Weber added that there’s also potential for the gap between football and, well, everything else to narrow as March Madness and spring sports take off. “We’re excited to see it. We expect the gap to close,” he said. “How much, I guess, is just yet to be seen.”

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