NIL A “Game Changer” For Female Athletes
By Aimee Crawford and Jacqueline LeBlanc
The new NCAA interim policy of name, image, and likeness (NIL) has opened the door for collegiate athletes to make a profit off of any social media posts, autograph signings, and endorsements.
On June 30, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors approved an interim policy that allows collegiate athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness (NIL). Those rule changes, as well as state laws that went into effect July 1, have opened the door for athletes to earn money for social media posts, autograph signings and endorsements.
Almost immediately, NIL ushered in a new era in college sports by allowing money from marketers and sponsors to go directly to the players. Heisman candidates and future NBA lottery picks aren’t the only ones cashing in. A recent study from Temple University’s School of Sport, Tourism and Hospitality Management found that the potential earning power was greater for female college athletes than for their male counterparts.
“Athletes outside of football and men’s basketball can still cultivate valuable brands,” said Dr. Thilo Kunkel, the author of the Temple study. “In fact, some female athletes are more valuable than even, say, Trevor Lawrence from a social media perspective.”
Female athletes often have significant followings on social media that far exceed the coverage they get from traditional media outlets. Pre-NIL, however, NCAA rules restricted athletes in sports such as softball, volleyball and gymnastics at the peak of their earning power. Because their professional opportunities are limited, many female athletes are most marketable during their college years — but they weren’t allowed to capitalize or monetize themselves within that window.
“NIL could be a game changer for women athletes because now they won’t have to have to go through the gatekeepers who have traditionally only benefited male athletes,” said Nicole LaVoi, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. “Maybe we’ll find out that female athletes are more popular than male athletes.”
According to some analysts, we already have. During the 2021 NCAA basketball tournament, Opendorse, a digital marketing platform that facilitates endorsement deals between athletes and brands, released a list of the top 20 most-followed college basketball players on Instagram. Eight of the top 10 were women. Paige Bueckers, a point guard for the University of Connecticut, has 905,000 followers on Instagram, and 336,000 on TikTok, making her one of the most followed athletes in college sports.
“NIL will allow female athletes to capitalize on their popularity and visibility, to monetize that and reach audiences in ways that will benefit them,” LaVoi said. “But I think it will also benefit women’s sports as a whole.”
The decision creates an opportunity for marketers, said Kimberly Whitler, a professor of marketing at the University of Virginia.
“I think a lot of brands will be looking for female athletes,” Whitler said, who is writing a book about how college athletes can leverage their brands. “Companies may say, ‘I want to invest in a female, someone who is healthy, who represents the same values our brand does. Oh, and who also has a powerful Twitter following.’”
Interest in women’s college sports was already skyrocketing before the advent of NIL.
According to Sports Media Watch, the 2021 Women’s NCAA Basketball National Championship game between Stanford and Arizona attracted more than 4 million viewers. USA Today reported that this year’s Women’s College World Series was the most-viewed ever, averaging over 1.8 million viewers. The women’s gymnastics final averaged 808,000 viewers, a 510% increase over 2019.
Even when traditional media outlets haven’t provided them a platform like a championship on network TV, women across college sports have become experts at marketing themselves. Haley and Hanna Cavinder, guards for Fresno State women’s basketball team, create viral social media content that earned them 3.5 million TikTok followers. The twins parlayed that audience into a deal with Boost Mobile on July 1.
Kunkel said that female athletes with smaller social media followings can benefit from NIL too. His study showed that players with 10,000 followers on various platforms could still earn about $5,000 per year. In addition to monetizing social media accounts, athletes can now be paid for appearing in advertising, for autograph signings and for personal appearances.
“We’ve seen creativity in the type of experiences that female athletes are providing,” Kunkel said. “Some are selling nutritional advice or doing game film reviews. A golfer will review your swing.”
NIL has not solved all the inequities in college sports, however.
Kiki Milloy is a junior softball player at Tennessee and the daughter of Lawyer Milloy, a former NFL safety. She said that Tennessee held a general meeting with student athletes after NIL was passed, but there’s been a deficit in education between men’s and women’s sports. The football and men’s basketball teams had multiple meetings about NIL before the softball team had one.
“That’s where the gap is — in making sure all our athletes have the same amount of education and knowledge about it,” Milloy said.
Milloy said that NIL could provide increased visibility for individual female athletes, which would lead to a greater overall awareness of women’s sports as a whole. Since there aren’t many viable professional playing opportunities for women in softball, she wants to make sure that she benefits from NIL in a way that helps women’s sports grow.
“Softball doesn’t have the professional aspect of the game yet like baseball, football or the WNBA do, but it’s growing,” Milloy said. “I want to empower young female athletes to not only play sports, but be future leaders of companies, especially young Black women.”
As Bueckers accepted the award for best college athlete during the ESPY Awards on July 11, she used her speech to advocate for more coverage of Black women in sports.
“With the light that I have, as a white woman who leads a Black-led sport, I wanna [shine] a light on Black women,” Bueckers said. “They don’t get the media coverage that they deserve. They’ve given so much to the sport, community and society as a whole. In the WNBA last season, 80% of the postseason awards winners were Black, but they got half the amount of coverage as white athletes. So I think it’s time for change.”
Bueckers’ message was pointed and powerful. And a call to action to the media, sponsors — and women themselves.
“Female athletes shouldn’t listen to those who say they don’t have the value that their male counterparts have,” Kunkel said. “Are they going to level the field through NIL? No. But is it going to be helpful? Yes, absolutely.”
This article was originally posted on Sports Business Journal.
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