When the folks who aren’t fans of changes in name, image and likeness rules in the NCAA — changes that would allow student-athletes to market themselves and profit off their names, images and likenesses — offer their counterpoints, they often talk about unfairness. They say that the bulk of the endorsement dollars would flow to the top players in the highest-profile sports, that the starting quarterback at Notre Dame would have an unfair advantage over a volleyball player at Kent State.
Duke Athletic Director Kevin White offered just that question in his recent statement on NIL legislation.
“Will resources from equipment, apparel, and shoe companies be redirected to a relatively few individuals rather than being shared equally among the lesser known, but no less valuable, Olympic sports?” White asked.
Well, according to one group’s study, there would be a couple of members of the West Virginia University gymnastics team that wouldn’t have any problems at all.
AthleticDirectorU is a website with a mission to enlighten and educate college athletic leadership. It came up with a simple formula to figure out just how valuable college athletes could be. It took an athlete’s Instagram following — Instagram is a big outlet for social media influencers and their ability to gain endorsements — and multiplied it by .80. The website figured that pro athletes get about 80 cents per follower in endorsements.
Of the top 25 most valuable athletes by this measure, two of the top 12 were recently graduated WVU gymnasts. Erica Fontaine was No. 5. Her 448,000 Instagram followers were, according to AthleticDirectorU’s formula, worth about $342,000 (that’s more than former Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm and current Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, by the way). Teammate Chloe Cluchey was at No. 12, and her 232,000 Instagram followers were worth about $148,000.
Scan the list and you see that money-sport athletes are standing shoulder to shoulder with Olympic-sport athletes. The list includes baseball players, track and field athletes, volleyball players, softball players, women’s basketball players, gymnasts and women’s tennis players. There are 14 women on the list to 11 men.
Marketability isn’t chained to big-time athletes playing high-profile sports. Athletes can become popular in plenty of ways. Maybe they look good in a photo. Maybe they can show followers how to cook a great steak. Maybe they’re great at magic tricks. Maybe they can do a note-perfect Matthew McConaughey impersonation.
Businesses aren’t worried so much about how someone is popular. They just see those six-figure social media followings and they want to see if that popular athlete could hold their energy drink or wear their sunglasses in one of their photos.
College athletes can make themselves marketable outside of the team for which they play. Or maybe it’s the popularity of the roster they’re on that makes them popular to everyone else. Either way, now those athletes have an opportunity to benefit from that.
That’s why WVU football coach Neal Brown made personal branding a big part of the 5th Quarter program he designed for his team. It’s why WVU has partnered with brand marketing expert Jeremy Darlow. They want their athletes to be ahead of the curve in this arena.
So when the anti-NIL folks start saying that the sky will fall because some college athletes will be able to make some money off their own images, and they use the disparity between the spotlight sports and the Olympic sports as their evidence, don’t listen.
Just take them on a tour of Instagram.