Has Ryan Nelson (Col ’24) got a deal for you.
It’s an online coupon, good for 15 percent off the sports apparel brand We Love the Hate, a California-based company that Nelson, an offensive lineman on the UVA football team, promotes on social media.
Nelson wears the gear—whose name refers to the motivation athletes draw from those who doubt or criticize them—shares it with his teammates and generally tries to spread the word as a “brand ambassador.”
“It’s a cool deal,” he says. “I get clothing. I post for them. I get a cut of whatever I sell. It’s kind of nice.”
Welcome to the new world of name, image and likeness (NIL) deals. As of July 1, college athletes can monetize their personal brands through product endorsements, social media posts, appearances, sales of licensed merchandise such as school jerseys bearing their names, autograph sessions, clinics, and more.
It’s a rapidly evolving marketplace projected to be a $1 billion-a-year industry. Congress has passed no federal legislation, leaving regulation to individual states or, in states where no laws have been passed, to individual schools. The NCAA’s rather laissez-faire guidelines simply state that schools cannot directly facilitate NIL deals, but they otherwise leave much “up to interpretation,” according to an Aug. 26 article in Sports Illustrated.
Indeed, as the article’s headline states: “The first thing to understand about NIL is that nobody fully understands NIL.”
Allowing student-athletes to tap into the profits from their name, image and likeness has been in the works for years, as the NCAA’s amateurism rules have faced legal challenges. A federal antitrust suit filed in 2009 by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon challenged the NCAA’s rights to use athletes’ likenesses without compensation in video games. In 2014, a federal judge ruled that the NCAA could not restrict schools from paying athletes up to $5,000 for use of their names, images and likenesses. That part of the ruling was overturned on appeal, but the issue lingered, with lawmakers joining the chorus calling for reform.
In 2019, the NCAA formed a working group to consider the issue. That same year, California became the first state to pass legislation permitting college athletes to hire agents and be paid for endorsements.
On July 1, after 115 years, one of the NCAA’s principal tenets of amateurism was set aside.
Knowing that this change was coming was one thing. Implementing it has been another. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam included NIL language in the budget bill passed in August, but it gives schools some latitude to set their own guidelines.
“We’re going a little bit slower than some, trying to be really thoughtful, trying to include a lot of really smart people,” says Ted White, UVA’s deputy athletics director for strategic advancement. “We’re trying to help student-athletes benefit from short-term opportunities without sacrificing their long-term goals.”
Through September, UVA athletes had made 140 NIL deals, White says. The vast majority (88 percent) have been social media promotions, but they also include everything from public appearances to podcast interviews to DIY videos hawking student dining plans and chicken sandwiches.
UVA did not provide a list of who is making what. But on the high end of earners, certainly, is volleyball player Alana Walker (Educ ’26), a graduate transfer from Northwestern University with a modeling background who has more than 400,000 social media followers between Instagram and TikTok. Walker says her in-season earnings could range from $50,000 to $70,000 and puts her potential yearly NIL take at $300,000.
Such earnings are an exception, both at UVA and elsewhere. Many deals would barely cover the cost of a large takeout pizza.
Blake Lawrence, CEO of Opendorse, a marketing firm for athletes, told Forbes that the average compensation for deals through Aug. 31 was $458. Large deals inflate that figure, however. The median deal through the first 30 days of NIL was for just $25, Jim Cavale, CEO of marketing firm INFLCR, a leading NIL marketplace platform, told Sports Illustrated.
That’s a far cry from the “ungodly numbers” earned by University of Alabama quarterback Bryce Young through NIL deals. Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban used that descriptor while speaking to a convention of high school coaches, a prime audience with access to potential recruits. He put Young’s NIL earnings at “almost” seven figures.
Ohio State quarterback Quinn Ewers signed a deal worth $1.4 million over three years.
Such deals can be great recruiting tools. So can team-wide deals, such as one at the University of Miami, where a local gym owner offered each Hurricanes player $500 to endorse his business.
To keep up, coaches and administrators need to send a message that athletes can do business at their schools, too.
UVA officials say the University has focused its efforts on providing best-in-class education and support, to empower athletes to make informed decisions and avoid pitfalls.
The athletics department has enlisted the help of Darden professor Kim Whitler, a marketing and brand strategy expert who is preparing an NIL how-to manual for student-athletes.
“The book is a journey of helping them discover what are their goals, what do they want their brand to be, and how can they best activate it to achieve their goals?” Whitler says. “If 100 students use the book, there should be 100 different solutions.”
Without education, NIL can be a tough space for students to navigate. Firms are rushing to enter the marketplace, and not all are competent. Many focus on tactics rather than brand-building. Students must realize, as companies do, that their brands are their most important asset, and avoid doing anything to harm them, Whitler says.
Students must also decide whether chasing deals is the best use of their limited time, or if it’s better focused elsewhere—on school or, in some cases, pursuing a lucrative professional career.
“In talking with some of our students, they are getting approached with opportunities, and oftentimes it’s unclear what the student-athlete is getting out of it,” Whitler says. “These are mature, difficult decisions we’re asking students to make.”
The endorsement possibilities for athletes are not limitless. For example, were football legend Bill “Bullet Bill” Dudley (Educ ’42) around today, he could not monetize that nickname. UVA’s policy prohibits endorsing guns or ammunition, as well as casino gambling, sports betting, alcohol, adult entertainment, cannabis products, dangerous or controlled substances, performance-enhancing drugs, tobacco products, and electronic cigarettes.
Chicken sandwiches are fair game. Baseball player Chris Newell (Col ’23) signed a deal with Bojangles through an Atlanta marketing agency. He and his roommate, Liam Deegan (Educ ’23), conceived and filmed a 30-second spot that begins with Newell attempting to bench-press 405 pounds.
Newell can’t do it—until he takes a bite of Bojangles’ chicken sandwich. As Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” strikes up in the background, Newell tosses the weight around like a feather pillow.
“I love this chicken!” he says.
The ad, which took 15 minutes to film, won’t win any Clio awards. But as of Oct. 1, it has been viewed roughly 6,700 times on Instagram—and possibly moved some chicken.
“I’ve had people come up and ask me about it, whether I really endorse the sandwich,” Newell says.
He does. As for the money, Newell says it’s enough to help with books.
A video ad by basketball star Kihei Clark (Col ’22) has a similar homemade vibe. Clark endorses the Elevate plan, a restaurant-based alternative to meal plans offered through UVA.
“If you haven’t switched from dining halls to Elevate, you need to get signed up ASAP,” Clark says in the ad, in which he orders lunch on his phone and then picks it up. Clark’s ad had been viewed 13,400 times as of Oct. 1.
Group licensing opportunities are another NIL space UVA is exploring, White says. That could involve custom jersey sales, for example, with the athlete, UVA and the manufacturer all getting a cut.
With her huge social media following, which spiked after a post from her first collegiate media day went viral, Walker was ranked No. 10 on sports business journalist Darren Rovell’s list of the top 20 athletes expected to cash in on NIL.
Eight of the athletes on the list were women. Indeed, one of the early takeaways from NIL is that although most of the early money has gone to football players, female athletes with big social media followings, such as Louisiana State University gymnast Olivia Dunne and Fresno State basketball players Hanna and Haley Cavinder, are also signing big deals. Dunne has signed with a clothing brand. The Cavinders signed with Boost Mobile and were featured on a billboard in Times Square.
Walker began hearing from companies July 1, she says. She handles the inquiries herself and has her family’s lawyer review contracts. Her father is former NBA player Antoine Walker.
“It kind of feels like a full-time job, actually,” she says. “With me being in season, I’m trying to not overwhelm myself and only do things that are worth my time. I’ve been saying no to a lot of things and waiting on a lot of things.”
Walker has endorsed sportswear brands Bo+Tee and Champion. During a weekend off from volleyball, she made a paid appearance at Lollapalooza, a music festival in her native Chicago.
She has other deals in the works but is waiting until volleyball season is over to pursue them, she says. She plans to save her NIL earnings, and move back to Chicago to model and work as a social media influencer full time. She also plans to start a nonprofit benefiting inner-city girls through sports.
Walker says she knows she’s more fortunate than most. Still, she says, NIL is “long overdue” for all athletes, even those without large platforms like hers.
“Any money is good money,” she says.
Nelson agrees. As an offensive lineman, hardly one of football’s glamour positions, he didn’t expect to land an NIL deal. He came across We Love the Hate a couple of years ago on Instagram and bought wrist bands to give to his fellow linemen as a bonding mechanism.
Like him, the company’s founders are college students from California. They developed a relationship, and Nelson signed up as a brand ambassador.
“I don’t have family here. I don’t have help here,” Nelson says. “For the most part my family makes me take care of everything financially with my (cost of attendance) stipend. So an NIL for a guy like me could help with extra living expenses.
“It doesn’t really matter if it’s big or small; it’s still something we never had.”