College athletes have been able to profit off of their name, image and likeness (NIL) for a year now, yet public NIL data remains limited and fragmented.
A few sources do provide data that can be analyzed to get a broad sense of the market now, and where it is headed. Digital NIL marketplaces Opendorse and INFLCR publish statistics of deals disclosed on their platforms. Bill Carter, an NIL consultant and founder of Student Athlete Insights, sent Sportico results from a survey he administered to 1,000 college athletes. Combined, the data show several clear trends.
1. The NIL marketplace has grown significantly in one year.
The average value of a transaction disclosed on INFLCR was $1,040 back in July 2021, and that number has only dipped below $2,000 in one of the six months in 2022. “It’s been really encouraging to see the average transaction value grow,” INFLCR founder and CEO Jim Cavale said. “It shows that brands are becoming more sophisticated in how to work with student athletes… and at the same time, students are doing a better job understanding their value.”
Opendorse’s data paints a similar picture. The average compensation for a Division I athlete using Opendorse was $1,036 after six months of NIL, and it’s now $3,711 after 12 months. Opendorse senior director of brand marketing Sam Weber says the company projects compensation to continue rising in year two.
“It is reasonable to expect those numbers to go up in a significant way,” Weber said. “A lot of that is due to the market maturing, due to NIL collectives entering the space, brands and sponsors knowing what they can and cannot do for the first time.”
Interestingly, while average compensation has increased, according to INFLCR, the median has not. INFLCR reported a median transaction value of just $53 in its year-end report, down slightly from $63 last fall. This means the increase in money has been funneled to those at the higher end of the totem pole. That trend is related to the rise of collectives, which are groups of fans and alumni who pool funds independently of the schools to support student athletes by creating NIL opportunities for them.
According to Opendorse co-founder and CEO Blake Lawrence, 92% of Power Five schools and 35% of Group of Five schools have at least one collective. “The presence of a collective in a market increases the compensation for student athletes on that campus by five to 10x,” Lawrence said.
2. Football players have earned by far the most money.
Collectives have boosted the NIL earnings of a sport that was already at the top of the pack. According to Opendorse, nearly half (49.9%) of all NIL compensation for athletes over the past 12 months went to football players. Carter’s survey pegs that number even higher, at 55%.
“Football is where a tremendous amount of donor support is going; 75% of all NIL collective compensation goes to football players, and then 11% goes to men’s basketball,” Lawrence said. “A lot of NIL compensation just mirrors the revenue sources for the athletic department for which the student athletes play.”
Although athletes playing the country’s most popular sport for the richest programs are benefiting most from NIL, collectives are also compensating athletes who may not be swimming in brand deals. “Most of the student athletes being supported by these collectives are not household names at all. They’re simply in a market where there’s a highly passionate supporter base,” Lawrence said. “That’s something we didn’t see coming a year ago, that there’d be student athletes with low level of national recognition or even local marketability who are being compensated at a degree that outpaces some professional athletes in their sport.”
Even beyond collectives, says Neal Ternes, an assistant professor of sports management at Arkansas State, the allocation of athletic department resources gives revenue-sport athletes a head start when it comes to profiting off of their NIL. “One of the major challenges that we face right now with NIL is that a lot of athletes have a disproportionate amount of institutional support in promoting their image,” Ternes said.
Notably, football has skewed NIL pay in favor of male athletes. More than half of Opendorse’s transactions were made by female athletes if you exclude football players, but include them and 63% of deals went to men.
Even though football and men’s basketball are the drivers of revenue for most college athletic departments, athletes of both genders in other sports have received opportunities. At schools that use the Opendorse Premium product and have a collective in the market, 76% of all college athletes have received at least one NIL deal. “The data shows the passion and interest of a lot of these other sports communities,” Carter said.
3. Social media is the most common type of NIL deal.
Sixty-one percent of INFLCR transactions, 68% of Opendorse deals and 70% of deals reported as part of Carter’s survey were in the category of posting content on various social media platforms. Why? “[Social media] is the easiest and most time efficient way for any college athlete to make money with their NIL,” Cavale said.
College athletes already have to juggle daily classes, practices, study sessions and workouts. They don’t have a ton of time to dedicate to their money-making pursuits. “Most of the brands looking to partner with athletes are learning that, while they are as influential as other online creators and influencers, student athletes have a full slate,“ Lawrence said.
While the efficiency of paid social media posts is appealing, the labor of producing an advertisement for a company still falls on the athlete’s shoulders, forcing them to figure out how to become influencers on the fly. “We’re seeing a lot of pressure being put on these athletes to perform or act as agents of all these companies in order to earn financial compensation,” Ternes said. “This is all happening while athletes are still not being paid by athletic departments.”
Many women college athletes—including Haley and Hannah Cavinder, Sedona Prince and Paige Bueckers—have amassed huge followings on social media, but that comes with potential downsides. “These opportunities are particularly taxing on women. The research has shown that women in these spaces tend to receive a lot more unwanted attention and in some cases violent or hostile reactions than males,” Ternes said. “We’re asking a lot of these athletes to do this.”
Perhaps athletes will move away from social media as they become more sophisticated in monetizing their NIL in a variety of ways. “[Brands] see social media as this low hanging fruit… but when a brand does a deal with a professional athlete or a student athlete, the goal really is to feature the partnership between the two entities with as many channels as possible, [including] participation at live events,” Carter said. “This hyper focus on social media has taken our eyes off the bigger goal, which is really great athlete brand marketing.”