A new era of college sports gets underway this week, and female athletes could be the biggest winners.
Starting July 1, in six states including Florida, college athletes will be allowed to accept sponsorships and cash in on their name, image and likeness. Similar laws in a dozen other states go into effect next month, overruling the NCAA’s longstanding restrictions and setting into motion a mad rush for endorsement deals and social media influencer campaigns.
While most of the narrative has centered around potentially lucrative deals for star football and men’s basketball players, it may be female athletes who stand to gain the most from the relaxed rules, relative to the popularity of their sports.
Although their names are not as known as Trevor Lawrence or Zion Williamson, and their sports do not get nearly as much T.V. coverage, there are many female college athletes whose social media fame make them extremely marketable.
In some cases, they may have more earning potential than their male counterparts because when it comes to branding, the number of fans engaged with an athlete on social media can be more vital than their stats or T.V. exposure of their sport.
Fresno State’s basketball-playing twins Haley and Hanna Cavinder have 3.3 million followers on TikTok and over 500,000 combined followers on Instagram. According to Opendorse, an online sports marketing site, the twins could earn hundreds of thousands of dollars in social media endorsements.
Louisiana State University gymnast Olivia Dunne has 3.9 million TikTok followers and 1.1 million followers on Instagram. Paige Bueckers, the University of Connecticut basketball star, has 829,000. Sabrina Ionescu had over 600,000 followers while playing basketball at the University of Oregon last season.
The UCLA women’s gymnastics team has a massive social media following, led by Nia Dennis with 592,000 Instagram followers. Dennis’ “Black Excellence” tumbling routines, known for their popular music and dance steps, have gone viral, with one of them drawing 11 million You Tube views.
Even athletes with smaller fan bases will be able to make some money and help increase exposure for their sports.
Four female athletes from Florida colleges will be offered endorsement deals at midnight July 1 by Milner Technologies, an Atlanta-based tech company with operations all over Florida.
University of Miami volleyball player Taylor Burrell, University of Florida gymnast Trinity Thomas, Florida State University soccer player Jaelin Howell and University of Central Florida hurdler Rayniah Jones, who just competed in the U.S. Olympic trials, were selected to receive offers from Milner. Jones is a graduate of Southridge High School.
The initial commitment is to divide $10,000 among the four athletes, and if the partnership goes well, they will commit more, said Tom McMahon, president and general manager of Milner’s Florida operations and chair of the Weston Family Center YMCA.
“My daughter was a gymnast and cheerleader, my nieces played sports, so I have a soft spot for women’s athletics; and it was upsetting to see the disparities in the differences in facilities for the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments,” McMahon said. “I thought it would be nice to do something to help promote these athletes, and from a business angle I’d be hiring good role models to engage with our clients and their families and also to partner with us and the local YMCAs to do clinics for kids.”
McMahon said as a regional company, Milner does not have the marketing budget of a company like Xerox or IBM but creating customer experiences with the help of these four athletes is invaluable.
Milner will initiate the deals on July 1 through IconSource, a digital marketplace that brings athletes, brands and agents together.
“We’re built by athletes to protect athletes at the professional level and now with the new NIL opportunities for college student athletes,” said Drew Butler, a former college and NFL punter who is executive vice president at IconSource. “Our goal is to facilitate endorsement deals in a very streamlined and efficient manner.
“When brands are building out endorsement opportunities, using our AI technology, trying to figure out the demographics of their social media reach, we can scrape demographics, geographic location of the athletes’ followers, gender and ethnicity of their followers, income levels. Brands will start to understand, `Hey, if I choose X, Y or Z to be the spokesperson for this campaign, here is who I am going to reach. Here is who follows that person.”
Athletes create profiles which include their bios, hometowns, a list of hobbies, photos, and social media accounts. Companies can then search for athlete ambassadors and influencers who best match their brand. College athletes’ bios are locked until July 1, but McMahon chose the four athletes based on their on-field success and community service.
Burrell and Howell both said they still have a lot to figure out about the NIL rules and regulations and are unsure how it will all play out. But they are hopeful that it will provide financial benefits for all athletes, and especially women.
“So much about NIL is still unknown, but if used the right way, I think it can be a very positive thing for women’s sports because it will be a catalyst for us to use our names and images to promote our sports,” Howell said. “We don’t know yet how much money will be involved, but by getting our names out there, it can help get women’s sports the attention they deserve.”
Burrell, a native of Boca Raton, agreed.
“I know it’s been a controversial topic, but I think it’s a good thing that student-athletes will be able to profit from our names and images,” she said. “We put in all this work to promote the brand of our school, and this way we can use our market value to get our names out there and raise awareness of our sport.”
Burrell said college athletes she knows are excited about the idea.
“A lot of athletes have huge Instagram and TikTok followings, and they should be allowed to promote products if a company wants to hire them,” she said.
In order to help athletes navigate these unchartered economic waters and build their brands, an app called INFLCR (pronounced “Influencer”) was developed to create personalized branding content for athletes to post on their social media channel. Like IconSource, most employees at INFLCR are former athletes.
In addition to Florida, the other states whose NIL laws go into effect July 1 are Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, New Mexico and Texas.
Many questions about NIL legislation still exist, including how the deals are brokered and what involvement the schools will have.
After fighting the idea of compensating athletes for their name, image and likeness, NCAA officials are expected to adopt a more permissive temporary model in an attempt to avoid legal challenges and keep a relatively level playing field between schools in states with NIL laws and those in states which have not adopted such laws. Otherwise, schools in NIL-friendly states would gain a significant recruiting edge.
According to the Associated Press, “a solution being discussed involves the NCAA waiving its rules banning athletes from being paid for use of their name, image and likeness while still keeping bylaws that make pay-for-play and recruiting inducements impermissible.”
Schools in states with an NIL law would be allowed to follow that law without penalty, and schools in states without laws would be able to institute their own NIL policy.
The NCAA Division I Council is scheduled to meet Monday to discuss the issue. A final decision could be made by the Board of Directors on Wednesday, the day before NIL legilation goes into effect in six states.
“Only time will tell how this all plays out,” Howell said. “Everyone is talking about it, but nobody really knows what to expect. We will know a lot more after July 1.”