5 min read


College Athletes Are Cashing in On the Creator Economy

With the recent passing of NIL law, college athletes have found themselves navigating a new world of brand endorsements and deals—and social media has made the transition easy.

College athletes are now getting paid through the new NIL laws.

Former college track star Kieshonna Brooks running in a race.

Rapper and business mogul Master P is no stranger to million dollar deals, but this time it’s his son, Tennessee State basketball player Hercy Miller, who is cashing in. Miller recently signed a massive $2 million dollar deal to become the brand ambassador for technology company Web Apps America, making him one of the highest paid athletes in college basketball. With more than 130,000 Instagram followers and counting, Miller is a blueprint for college athletes looking to build their personal brand.

For decades, American college sports have generated billions of dollars from TV networks, brand sponsorships, media advertisements, and generous alumni donations—but none of these earnings actually went to the superstars filling the stands.

A 2019 report from Connecticut Democrat U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, titled “Madness, Inc.,” found that prior to the pandemic, college sports programs grossed $14 billion in revenue, with $1.2 billion going to coaches’ salaries and only $936 million to student aid. When it comes to compensation, college athletes have been sitting on the sidelines for a long time.

That was, until July 1, 2021 when the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) announced it was updating its name, image, and likeness (NIL) rule to allow NCAA college athletes to monetize their talents.

Prior to this ruling, the NCAA banned student athletes from receiving money outside of their scholarship and student loans. This monumental new legislation gives student athletes full autonomy of their personal brand, meaning they can market themselves to sponsors and seek brand endorsements as a way to make money.

College athlete Hercy Miller is getting paid for his talents.

HBCU athlete and Master P’s son, Hercy Miller, signs $2 million deal with Web Apps.

The NIL is creating equity for young athletes and their families, opening doors for players in every sport—regardless of status or gender—to leverage their marketability and create a more sustainable lifestyle. According to an article published by NBC News, the average college athlete is estimated to bring in about $10,000-$30,000 a year collectively through social media and brand sponsorships.

With 98% of college students using social media on a daily basis, college athletes are tapping into their skills to garner attention from potential financial opportunities.

Derek Crawford, a 22-year-old at Cal-State Bakersfield, is one such example. The track star uses Instagram Stories to share his daily routine, giving his audience insight into the life of an athlete. His Instagram posts are a mix of products he aligns with and the types of companies he aspires to work with, in an effort to draw attention from these brands for sponsorship. “My social media has changed by shifting my focus from just finding cool pictures to post to focusing on the business aspect and networking,” Crawford shares over email.

As a result of careful curation, iConnect2Colleges contacted Crawford shortly after the passing of the new NIL law. The subscription-based sports recruiting site wanted him to share an Instagram post with the news of his partnership and information about what the company does, and the young athlete jumped at the opportunity.

“Receiving that first contract was a great feeling, regardless of the amount signed for,” Crawford says. “It gave the feeling of being a professional athlete signing an endorsement deal and just one step closer to the next level.”

College athlete Derek Crawford shares his deal with iConnect2Colleges on social media.

College athlete Derek Crawford shares his deal with iConnect2Colleges.

From Instagram to YouTube, there are plenty of social platforms to choose from, and each provides a unique service for athletes and the audiences they are trying to reach. Former University of Mississippi track star and influencer Kieshonna Brooks says she learned how to tailor her posts distinctly for each individual platform.

“Marketing myself across my social media is somewhat different for each platform,” Brooks says. “I try to keep a mature and professional, yet carefree personality on my Instagram.” Over on TikTok, Brooks creates funny videos for her 100,000 followers and highlights brands she hopes to work with. In one workout video, Brooks thanks ReAthlete for the massage gun she uses to start her warm-up, a brand she is targeting for sponsorship.

Former college athlete Kieshonna Brooks targets brands she wants to work with on social media.

Former college athlete Kieshonna Brooks targets brands she wants to work with, such as ReAthlete, in a workout video.

Young athletes are turning to tools like Linktree to streamline their social media profiles and personal brand. According to Linktree data, more than 2 million influencers and athletes are platform users as of September 2021. With features to support monetization, audience growth, and brand building, Linktree is a digital marketer’s dream.

Devin Buckner, a USC-Upstate Baseball Player, uses Linktree to share specialized discount links for products. Buckner’s Instagram, which focuses on his personal life and sports, caught the attention of companies like ThumbPro Baseball and Stinger Sports Gear, who offered to sponsor the young athlete.

“Linktree makes it easier for my audience to gain quick access to my discount links,” says Buckner. “It also benefits me that Linktree allows you to post multiple links so if a potential customer comes to my profile to find a certain discount, they are then exposed to my other discounts.”

To date, 24 states have implemented NIL laws—13 of which went into effect in July 2021—while the NCAA adopted an interim policy to allow students in states that have not yet passed NIL laws to engage in these activities without violating any NCAA rules.

Finally, student athletes have the chance to reclaim their identity and monetize their talents, and social media is the perfect place for them to do it. As virtual connectivity and technology continues evolving, it will be college athletes that brands rely on to organically communicate their messaging with core audiences online, and athletes are ready to be recognized for their talents.

Looking to the future, with deals increasingly opening up to college athletes, it’s likely they will soon be able to stock their cupboards with something other than ramen noodles. Considering all the hard work they put into their sports and education, not to mention the exposure they give their schools, getting paid for their skills is long overdue.


About the author: Gustavo Oliver is a marketing consultant and freelance writer living in Los Angeles.  

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