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The Teenage Millionaires Rocking The Sports World

College athletes are making more than some professionals from their name, image and likeness, and opening up a loophole for the most successful programs to cement their dominance.

The Teenage Millionaires Rocking The Sports World

“I’m Not a Businessman; I’m a Business, Man!”

​A social-media post like that would have been odd coming from an amateur athlete like Caleb Williams just a few years ago. It might even have sparked an investigation. But the University of Southern California quarterback, last year’s Heisman Trophy winner, won’t have to wait until April’s National Football League draft to be a millionaire. He already is, thanks to commercial endorsements for companies like Keurig Dr Pepper, United Airlines and Wendy’s.

​And Williams easily could get out-earned by his one-time backup, Malachi Nelson, who completed just one pass at USC before announcing his intention to transfer this month. While still a high school junior, Nelson drove to algebra class in his $90,000 Mercedes and told Sports Illustrated in 2022 that he expected to earn nearly $1 million before even suiting up at USC.

With as much revenue as Major League Baseball and England’s Premier League combined, college sports already had multimillion-dollar bidding wars for coaches and eight of the world’s 10 largest stadiums. That largess didn’t extend to its unpaid players until recently, though, notwithstanding open secrets like the gold Trans-Am star running back Eric Dickerson insisted for decades that he got from his grandmother.

“Now it’s above board—sort of,” says Michelle Meyer, a former college athlete and head of consulting group NIL Network.

​That is thanks to a June 2021 Supreme Court decision about athletes’ right to profit from their name, image and likeness, or NIL. Williams’s “businessman” post was made days later. Now a looming class-action suit and a proposed rule change could unleash billions for players on top of the millions available today.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association for decades resisted paying players, but NIL ironically could turn college sports into an even bigger moneymaker by retaining stars. Take Monday’s Rose Bowl game between Alabama and Michigan that will decide who gets to play for the national championship. Shortly after Michigan’s New Year’s Eve upset loss in last season’s semifinal, Michigan supporters launched the One More Year Fund to keep elite running back Blake Corum in college despite being eligible for the NFL. The fund and others like it didn’t disclose how much was spent, but whatever the sum, it worked. Corum has played a big role in Michigan’s current undefeated season.

When people talk about NIL, they really mean two markets. There are commercial endorsements—Corum also has made money from the likes of Subway and Bose, for example. Then there is cash they get from boosters who want to help their team win commensurate with athletic ability, not marketing clout.

Players still can’t legally receive salaries, but they can be compensated by an outside group for making appearances or signing autographs. Alabama’s Nick Saban, with more national championships than any football coach, initially lashed out at this aspect of NIL, saying that conference rival Texas A&M “bought every player on their team.” He has since both apologized and reversed course.

NCAA guidance now allows schools to endorse NIL collectives that funnel money to athletes and “say the quiet part out loud,” according to Dan Lust, a sports attorney at Moritt Hock & Hamroff.

Saban’s is the first face you see on the website of Bama’s “official” NIL entity, Yea Alabama, which has explicit cash donation tiers. A “starter” level is $216 annually, which gets you a decal and an invitation to a player autograph session. The $3,000 “Hall of Fame” includes autographs, meetings with athletes and other benefits.

Some entities, like the Texas One Fund at The University of Texas, say that donations are tax deductible. Others, like Ohio State’s The 1870 Society, are explicitly for-profit entities. Colleges can’t direct the funds, but donors are under no illusion, says Lust.

“They know it’s going to the players—directly to the star power of the school.”

Some coaches have lamented not jumping on the NIL bandwagon quickly enough.

“Everybody in the country is in this arms race” said University of Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham to The Salt Lake Tribune in October after all 85 scholarship players were given free leases and insurance for $45,000 pickups by Utah’s Crimson Collective.

About half of college football fans root for just 16 teams, and Utah isn’t among them. Yet even Crimson Collective aims to raise $6 million for its football program next fiscal year, according to Erin Trenbeath-Murray of its steering committee.

Stars can get much more than a leased pickup—especially now that transferring between schools has become so common. Nebraska coach Matt Rhule let slip that snagging a good quarterback that way costs “$1 million, $1.5, $2 million” and that there are “$6 million or $7 million quarterbacks out there.

“Some schools are going to have difficulty keeping up with the Joneses,” says Bill Jula, co-founder of NIL marketing agency Postgame.

A less-known aspect of NIL is how it benefits those who will never go pro. Postgame built an app ahead of the Supreme Court decision that provides a way for college athletes to indicate interest in getting paid. Tens of thousands of student athletes have used Postgame to bid on NIL opportunities. Occasionally those who get a few hundred dollars for a social-media post see their content go viral.

There’s a lottery ticket in there for brands when working with college athletes. You can’t budget for that,” concluded Bill Jula.

Take one of the top NIL earners, Louisiana State University gymnast Livvy Dunne, who can earn $30,000 per post to her 7.8 million followers on TikTok and five million on Instagram.

The best-paid athlete, according to estimates by college-sports data provider On3, is 19-year-old USC freshman basketball player Bronny James. While not the best high school prospect, @bronny has a whopping 13 million social-media followers. And his is no rags-to-riches story, with his celebrity linked to his father, hoops superstar and billionaire LeBron James.

The same goes for number two on On3’s list, Shedeur Sanders. Son of “Coach Prime” and Hall of Fame star Deion Sanders. His dad’s marketing prowess is directing a flood of talent to the Colorado football program he leads, and the elder Sanders is even teaching a class about NIL.

Though not at the top of the heap, Colorado and Utah belong to a “Power Five” conference and are among the haves of college football. Flashy marketing and devoted fans could move them up in the world. The have-nots could lose ground based on a proposed rule change and a lawsuit.

NCAA President Charlie Baker would allow top programs to pay athletes directly for their name, image and likeness, but not others, creating a sort of super league. Separately, a class-action lawsuit certified in November could distribute hundreds of millions of dollars from broadcast rights directly to college athletes. TV and radio coverage is heavily skewed toward already prosperous programs.

NIL has been polarizing for college sports fans. Once the dust settles, the teams holding the trophies should look familiar.

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