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How NIL deals have ‘completely changed the college experience’ for women’s athletics

UPDATED: Wed., June 22, 2022

Young fans held a sign for UConn star guard Paige Bueckers during the NCAA women’s basketball championship game in April.  (Carlos Gonzalez/Tribune News Service)
Young fans held a sign for UConn star guard Paige Bueckers during the NCAA women’s basketball championship game in April. (Carlos Gonzalez/Tribune News Service)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Kelley Lynch’s freshman year feels like a lifetime ago.

In the fall of 2019, Lynch – who earned National High School Player of the Year honors as a senior at East Coweta High in Newnan, Georgia, – arrived in Seattle as perhaps the nation’s most prized prep softball prospect. Unsurprisingly, companies attempted to capitalize on her significant social media following.

But NCAA laws prohibited such partnerships.

“It’s not even that anyone was offering money, but people would say, ‘Hey, can we send you this product to post on your (Instagram) story?’ ” the soon-to-be senior pitcher and first baseman said last week. “I’d say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, but I can’t do that.’

“Just looking now, I’ve been fortunate to work with Outback (Steakhouse) and even Coca-Cola, and it’s just so surreal. It’s really cool for all college athletes, but especially females to know how profitable we are now with social media, in this day and age. Just to know people see value in us is really, really cool.”

It wasn’t always this way. Title IX – a federal law that ensures equal opportunities for men and women in “any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance,” athletics included – was passed 50 years ago Thursday. Last July, the NCAA suspended amateurism rules related to name, image and likeness nationwide – allowing college athletes to profit from sponsored social media posts or ads, personal streaming channels, training lessons and camps, speaking engagements, merchandising, autograph sales, endorsement deals and more.

For Lynch and others like her, the NIL Era has made an immediate impact.

For others, however, it arrived too late.

“It’s tough,” said NCAA all-time leading scorer Kelsey Plum, who carried UW to a Final Four and was selected with the first pick of the 2017 WNBA draft, in an interview with the Times last summer. “There were definitely times, especially the last couple years of my career, where we’d be selling out arenas on the road, nationally televised games, people wearing my number in the stands on shirts, but they can’t put my name on it.

“I really just tried to take it as, it’s a stage in your life. Now I’ve moved on to be a professional and I can make money off of what I do. But Seattle rent is not cheap. I was paying like $900 a month for a room, and I’m trying to pay for Wi-Fi. I’m trying to pay for gas in my car. There were some days where I’d look in my bank account and say, ‘Dang.’ I do think I would have for sure – whether that’s locally or nationally – made some good money. But here we are.”

A year of data supports that assessment. According to NIL platform leader Opendorse, 15.7% of total NIL compensation from July 1 through May 31 was paid to women’s basketball players – ranking behind only football (49.9%) and men’s basketball (17%). Even so, women’s hoops has accounted for just 4.5% of total NIL deals – meaning the sport’s top stars have disproportionately profited.

In March, Axios and Opendorse reported that each social media post from UConn standout Paige Bueckers was worth a whopping $62,900, followed by Louisville’s Hailey Van Lith ($44,200). Of men’s and women’s Sweet 16 entrants, the next three highest earners – Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren ($10,400) and Drew Timme ($8,400) and Duke’s Paolo Banchero ($9,000) – could scarcely compete.

Bueckers, of course, has become perhaps the NIL Era’s biggest star – inking deals with Gatorade, Cash App, StockX and Crocs. But the average compensation per Division I athlete is a more modest $3,711, according to Opendorse.

Which, for a college athlete, still pays dividends.

Especially when you don’t have time for a job.

“We have players who could be on a 20% (scholarship) or a 70% (scholarship). So everyone has their own story,” Lynch said. “If you’re not getting help from your family or anything financial like that, it can be really hard. Even if people just need to put food on the table for themselves, if they can’t do that because of their busy schedules, it really has completely changed the college experience.

“For me, I know with NIL I can go shopping now. I don’t have to worry about stuff like that. It has been a real game-changer for me, and I’ve seen that for a lot of other athletes as well on different levels.”

In a presentation to the University of Washington Board of Regents last month, athletic director Jen Cohen reported that at least one athlete from every UW sport – men’s and women’s – has benefited from NIL in some capacity.

“We looked at the landscape and thought (women’s basketball) was really the sweet spot for NIL,” said former UW baseball player Chad Hartvigson, who co-founded Vintage Brand, a company that creates personal merchandising brands for college athletes. “We thought, ‘Man, these athletes have strong followings.’ A lot of this is about social reach. It’s not about who’s the best player on the team. It’s about who can really market themselves and build their brand and show their dynamic personality.”

In that vein, posting content on social media has accounted for 67.6% of all NIL activities and 34.2% of all compensation – the most in both categories, according to Opendorse.

Of course, when it comes to NIL, football remains the biggest possible fish. Because of that, men’s Division I athletes have earned 73.5% of total NIL compensation since July 1, with women claiming 26.5%.

On the 50-year anniversary of Title IX, more work is required. Women’s athletics, on all levels, can continue to grow.

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