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March Madness is an NCAA gold mine. This year, players can finally cash in too

For the first time in the history of the March Madness tournament, NCAA athletes will be able to profit off their names, images and likenesses. Above, Reggie Chaney of the Houston Cougars and Flo Thamba of the Baylor Bears compete for the opening tipoff during the 2021 tournament.
Jamie Squire
Getty Images
For the first time in the history of the March Madness tournament, NCAA athletes will be able to profit off their names, images and likenesses. Above, Reggie Chaney of the Houston Cougars and Flo Thamba of the Baylor Bears compete for the opening tipoff during the 2021 tournament.

Television rights for the men's March Madness college basketball tournament earned the NCAA a whopping $850 million last year. The players who competed? They made nothing.

This year, it's a new ballgame. It's not that the NCAA will be paying athletes when round one of the men's tournament kicks off Thursday — the association already funnels roughly two-thirds of profits back to colleges and universities. Instead, for the first time in the history of March Madness, players can sign endorsement deals that allow them to capitalize off their popularity.

It's a change set in motion by a Supreme Court decision last summer that effectively upended years of resistance by the NCAA, which had blocked student-athletes from getting paid for the use of their names, images and likenesses. Less than a year later, a burgeoning multimillion-dollar industry has developed, transforming players from across the NCAA universe into a corps of influencers who earn money to endorse everything from the local restaurant in their college town to major national brands like Gatorade and Nike.

The new landscape has been predictably lucrative for stars in the two most popular college sports — football and men's basketball. But in many cases, women have out-earned the men as brands look to make inroads with a target audience that is both younger and female.

Brands are expected to spend close to $600 million on name, image and likeness (NIL) deals by the time the first anniversary of the NCAA's policy change arrives in July, according to a recent white paper by the site Front Office Sports and Opendorse, a consulting firm that tracks the potential brand value of athletes across the NIL universe. Eventually, that spending is expected to swell into the billions, ushering in a new era of financial opportunity for the nearly half-million student-athletes competing in NCAA sports — the majority of whom are not on athletic scholarship.

"It has completely changed college sport," says Thilo Kunkel, director of the Sport Industry Research Center at Temple University. "It has provided opportunities for student-athletes to really make some money along the way, and it's also sparked a lot of awareness around student-athletes [about] what it means to build your personal brand and what it means to monetize that personal brand."

Followers count as much as sports fans

In just the early months of the NIL era, University of Michigan guard Adrien Nuñez has been able to leverage his popularity into sponsorship deals with big brands such as Amazon, Coach and Spotify. Nuñez typically doesn't see much playing time for the Wolverines, but advertisers have noticed his more than 3 million followers on TikTok.

Most of his videos he films with his girlfriend, Carson Roney, herself a former student-athlete at Shawnee State University in Ohio who has more than 3.5 million followers of her own. In one recent video for Amazon Prime, the couple shows off how to use the company's Try Before You Buy service to come up with a new outfit for date night.

Nuñez says the extra work hasn't done much to interfere with practices or games — he says he probably spends about seven to 10 hours per week making videos. Without getting into specifics, Nuñez says the difference in his ability to earn money as a student-athlete has been "huge."

"I feel like a lot of people's concern going into this was how is it going to affect the locker room? And it really hasn't had any effect," Nuñez says. "I feel like everything else is the same, it's just now we're able to make a little money on the side when we're not on the court."

Players can make serious money

For athletes like Nuñez, the earning potential can be significant. Some players can make enough to offset a major chunk of their tuition, while the NCAA's biggest stars can bring in extra money to pay college expenses not covered by scholarships — and then some.

"There are athletes that have made more than a million dollars through name, image and likeness in just the first eight months," says Opendorse CEO Blake Lawrence. "And then you have athletes that are track and field athletes that are making tens of thousands of dollars. You've got volleyball players making hundreds of thousands of dollars."

To be sure, not every player will strike it rich. The average amount earned by student-athletes in Division 1 schools was $561 through the end of February, according to Opendorse data. And there are limits on what students can endorse. Most states, for example, restrict them from promoting things like alcohol or sports wagering. Students can also run up against policies restricting them from deals with companies that might directly compete with one of their school's own sponsors.

But in large part, the new rules represent a dramatic reshaping of past NCAA policy that prohibited student-athletes from being compensated for their performance. With the cost of tuition continuing to climb nationwide, athletes who once could have lost scholarships or forfeited their college playing careers by profiting off their names, images and likenesses now have a new way to help finance their education.

Men dominate ratings, but brands want female athletes

With more than a million followers across Instagram and TikTok, UConn Huskies star Paige Bueckers tops ESPN's list of college basketball's most marketable players.
Elsa / Getty Images
Getty Images
With more than a million followers across Instagram and TikTok, UConn Huskies star Paige Bueckers tops ESPN's list of college basketball's most marketable players.

The bulk of the spending to date — roughly 50% — has gone toward football players, but early signs suggest women's basketball has emerged as a favorite among brands.

As of the end of February, women's basketball accounted for close to 20% of all endorsement dollars, the second most of all college sports, according to Opendorse. And when it comes to social media, women's basketball posts on TikTok are earning $2,805 on average per post — more than football and men's basketball.

Take the case of University of Connecticut star Paige Bueckers. In August, ESPN placed Bueckers at the top of its list of college basketball's most marketable players. With more than 1.3 million fans across Instagram and TikTok combined, Bueckers' earning potential is estimated at $1 million per year. In November, she became the first NCAA student-athlete to sign an endorsement deal with Gatorade. She has also signed a deal with the StockX footwear and sports apparel platform.

"Female audiences are what the brands want, mostly, and there's a lot more opportunities in beauty, fashion, lifestyle content on the whole," says Barbara Jones, the founder and CEO of Outshine Talent, a talent management agency that counts Michigan's Adrien Nuñez among its roster of clients.

There's now a new front in the race for top talent

For colleges and universities, the fast-changing landscape has meant a new front in the competition to recruit top talent. Across the country, schools are launching programs billed as pathways to help student-athletes maximize the value of their personal brand. The University of Arkansas, for example, has a program designed "to enable Razorback student-athletes to fully capitalize on name, image and likeness." The University of Nebraska has a program it says will "position all Husker student-athletes for success in NIL."

"It's the recruiting battle of the next decade," Lawrence says.

Others have looked for ways to facilitate opportunities for their students. In recent months, for example, a number of big-name institutions have joined forces with a company called Brandr that organizes group licensing opportunities that athletes can voluntarily sign onto. Ryan Moss, vice president for licensing at Brandr, says the company has already signed agreements with more than 35 colleges and universities — including sports powerhouses such as Alabama, Ohio State and North Carolina.

"There is a desire from consumers for this product," says Moss. "The college fan is as strong as a fan than I could put up against any professional fan."

Some want to see more oversight

The boom in name, image and likeness deals has not been free from controversy. In at least a handful of cases, schools have started to draw scrutiny from the NCAA for potential violations of recruiting and so-called pay-for-play rules. Last month, the organization announced it was launching a review of how name, image and likeness policies were affecting student-athletes, including decisions around "school choice." The NCAA said it would be looking into the role school boosters were playing in the NIL space, adding that "the involvement of schools in arranging for deals also was a concern."

The review has brought new attention to what some experts see as the unsettled state of the rules of the road around NIL — one characterized by a patchwork of competing state laws and university standards. To date, at least 35 states have passed laws, introduced legislation or issued executive orders around name, image and likeness for student-athletes, prompting calls from the NCAA, among others, for some sort of federal guidelines.

One concern is the potential for bad actors to take advantage of students who may not fully understand what they're signing away in exchange for the use of their name, image and likeness.

"I've worried about that my whole career in working with influencer talent," says Jones. "It's happened since the days of musicians selling their publishing [rights] for a Cadillac, you know?"

For now, though, the calls for stronger oversight have done little to slow the spread of name, image and likeness deals for college athletes, and even some in high school. In October, basketball wunderkind Mikey Williams became one of the youngest players ever to sign a sneaker deal with a major footwear company — Puma. He was just 17 at the time of the signing, and he had more than 5 million followers combined on Instagram, TikTok and Twitter. Williams won't be eligible for the NBA draft until 2024, but by then he might already be a millionaire.

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