It’s been nearly two weeks since the fateful day when college athletics turned the page to a new chapter: the NIL era. On June 30th, an interim rule change adopted by the NCAA allowed all student-athletes to capitalize on their name, image, and likeness beginning July 1st. Some players, like Auburn QB Bo Nix and University of Miami QB D’Eriq King, signed deals with local companies like Milo’s Sweet Tea and Murphy Auto Group, respectively. Others, like Clemson WR Justyn Ross and Villanova Guard Collin Gillespie, paired up with The Player’s Trunk to sell customized merchandise. There’s been no shortage of creative ways for student-athletes to monetize their assets and build their own personal brand. So, given this new freedom, who has or will become the true winners of the NIL era of college athletics?
The answer may surprise you. It’s no secret that the highest revenue-generating sports – Football and Men’s Basketball -- cashed in easily and will continue to prosper under new NIL rules. However, the true winners who will undoubtedly benefit the most are the women college athletes, and here is why.
Flashback to March Madness 2021 and the catastrophe that was the conspicuous discrepancies between the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. While gender inequity in sport is not a new problem by any means, the evidence from the women’s tournament spoke volumes and shook the NCAA to its core. Outrage on social media sparked a movement to push the governing body of college athletics to start treating all athletes with the respect they deserve. And while this nightmare unraveled, the two-headed monster reeled its other head and #NotNCAAProperty was seen on millions of screens across the country. While Stanford and Baylor made history on the court, the history of the NCAA was already being rewritten.
Fast forward now to June 30th, 2021, and the storm of new sponsorships and endorsements that came as the clock struck midnight. Perhaps the first women college athletes to make headlines were Fresno State Women’s Basketball players Haley and Hanna Cavinder who signed endorsements with Boost Mobile and Six Star Pro Nutrition. The twins, who have over 3 million followers on TikTok, are estimated to make hundreds of thousands of dollars per year based on their NIL and social media following (Robert Kuwada, The Fresno Bee). Nebraska Volleyball player Lexi Sun came out with her own clothing line based on her name. Jacksonville State University volleyball player Adelaide Halverson became the first “Barstool Athlete” to sign, followed by thousands of other athletes from all kinds of sports.
What do these examples shed light on? Another aspect of the tremendous growth that is already underway for women’s sports. TV ratings for women’s sports are up significantly, most recently demonstrated by the record-setting Women’s College World Series where average viewership for the three final games eclipsed 1.84 million, an increase of 15% over 2019. The ratings for the Women’s Gymnastics on ABC skyrocketed to 808,000 viewers, up 510% over 2019 (Cliff Brunt, ABC News). Outside of the college landscape, almost every male professional league struggled to retain their audience while the WNBA and National Women’s Soccer League saw an increase in viewers (Ben Strauss & Molly Hensley-Clancy, Washington Post). The positive trend for women’s sports is showing no signs of slowing down either, as infrastructure for women’s sports visibility continues to progress.
The women student-athletes of today are in the most advantageous position as there ever has been. Not only are women's sports visibility and engagement trending upwards, but female college athletes have been given the tools to become powerful influencers for brands willing to accept the changing of the guard. Brands can now position themselves to “get in on the ground floor before college athletes head to the big leagues” (Kimeko Mccoy & Seb Joseph, Digiday). Or, at worse, collaborate with the student-athletes who will not turn pro but are currently resonating with the Gen Z audience on the top social media platforms. It’s a far more cost-effective strategy to reach a valuable target market through NIL than signing with professionals. Additionally, technology is constantly improving and offering new avenues for creativity. How much could an NFT of Sedona Prince’s video of the weight room at the women’s March Madness facility be worth 30, 40 years from now? Who will be the first female athlete to be paid in cryptocurrency?
It still remains to be seen what specific kinds of endorsements student-athletes can pursue with the NCAA tightening up their rules and regulations in the future. But for the time being, the greatest potential for college athletes to grow their brand and cash in lies within women’s college athletes.