How College Athletes Are Playing the Advertising Game

In 2021, after years of intense lobbying pressure, the NCAA changed its rules on how college athletes can profit from their name, image, and likeness (NIL). For the first time, student-athletes were given the “right of publicity”—the ability to receive financial compensation for their personal brand. 

In the two-plus years since the policy went into effect, student-athletes have become student-athlete-influencers, leveraging their fame on and off the basketball court, football field, or balance beam. Combined with the boom of TikTok, NIL has made some college athletes into millionaires. USC basketball player Bronny James—son of NBA legend LeBron—has made the most from NIL deals, with a valuation of nearly $6 million. Shedeur Sanders, the Colorado quarterback who’s the son of a Hall of Fame football star, comes in at $4.5 million. And Livvy Dunne, the LSU gymnast with a whopping 12 million social media followers, has a valuation of $3.2 million, with individual brand deals raking in more than half a million dollars.

Social media has shifted to prioritize authentic content, which has changed the definition of a “celebrity” in turn. It’s not just actors, singers, and professional athletes anymore; household brands like Nike, Gatorade, and Coca-Cola are seeing the way that fans connect with college athletes on a more personal level via social media—and they’re seeing how that influence lends itself to a high ROI. We’ve already observed how NIL has opened up new promotional channels for brands, a trend that appears primed to increase. In particular, NIL has the potential to give brands a direct line to younger audiences, more so than traditional marketing. A teenager might watch TV ads as they’re flipping through the channels, but they’re extremely likely to see TikTok ads and partnerships on a daily basis. As more brands, including startups that are trying to find their customer niche, see the potential of NIL deals, more athletes can reap the financial benefit of their talent.

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