Is NIL Really Threatening Olympic Sports Like Swimming?

by Riley Overend 20

May 11th, 2022 College, Opinion, Pac-12

At last week’s annual Pac-12 spring meetings, Arizona athletic director Dave Heeke sounded the alarm about the recent name, image, and likeness (NIL) boom, warning about the existential threat it poses to non-revenue sports such as swimming. 

“It would really erode our overall Olympic programs or we’d have to be completely restructured,” Heeke told the Arizona Daily Star during the meetings. “If that train really goes down, if you really take NILs and everything to the extreme, there is not room for all these other programs beyond football and basketball. There just isn’t.”

But is NIL really to blame? Heeke conflates the issue with the athletes-as-employees movement that represents a more serious threat to the NCAA’s delicate balance. 

Yes, nearly 300 athletic programs were dropped in 2020, and the number of men’s swimming and diving programs have declined from 149 to 131 since 2001. But those cuts came before the new NIL rules took effect last June. The pressure to focus resources on football and men’s basketball has been building for years, only recently accelerated by a pandemic that reduced athletic revenues as well as university revenues. After steadily declining for a decade, college enrollment has decreased by more than 6% since the fall of 2019 – the largest two-year drop in at least the past 50 years. 

What’s more, the newfound publicity rights of college athletes should have no impact on athletic departments’ budgets. They earn money from sponsorships instead of free-market salaries paid by the school. It’s true that the emergence of booster collectives offering huge deals may be more akin to a pay-for-play system. But for those worried that an unchecked NIL marketplace might suck away booster funds otherwise intended for Olympic sports, the NCAA announced new guidelines on Monday that suggest an incoming crackdown on boosters. 

Plus, swimming programs aren’t exactly money pits, either. A 2015 study conducted by the MAC and MVC showed co-ed swimming programs produced a net “profit” of $869,396 when revenue from tuition and fees is included, according to Greg Earhart, executive director of the College Swimming and Diving Coaches Association of America.

“A small scholarship investment can net you a large roster,” Earhart said. “A single swimming scholarship could bring in between 3-6 swimmers, and you can field teams that are competitive with your peers relatively quickly.”

Administrators like Heeke seem to be ignoring the positive impacts of NIL on the Olympic development system. College athletes who make a name for themselves at the Olympics no longer must choose between attending college and financially capitalizing on their success. That’s especially beneficial for swimmers, who lack a well-funded professional league waiting for them at the end of their collegiate careers. In the latest industry insights released by Opendorse, women’s swimming and diving ranks sixth among top sports for NIL compensation while men’s swimming and diving ranks eighth. 

Heeke said the quiet part out loud while critiquing the fact that college athletes are cashing in on the same opportunities that their coaches have been taking advantage of for decades. 

“Providing someone six figures to be the spokesperson to open a new retail store is not appropriate,” Heeke said. “It’s not commensurate with the duties performed.”

The risk of non-revenue sports being cut by colleges is a result of investment choices made by administrators — not athletes finally gaining publicity rights. The rhetoric of Heeke and other administrators is more likely meant to gain bargaining leverage as they try to convince Congress to enact regulations. 

However, if college athletes are eventually deemed employees and unionize in search of free-market salaries, then budgets could really be in trouble. Presumably, this is what Heeke is referring to when talking about taking “NILs and everything to the extreme,” despite that legal battle being unrelated to publicity rights.

In that case, Congress could limit spending on football or require schools to fund certain sports. An alternative to government regulation of the NCAA would be relying on the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) to fund non-revenue sports instead of educational institutions, mirroring how the rest of the world operates. 

There’s no questioning the effectiveness of the U.S.’s current feeder system. At last summer’s Tokyo Olympics, the Pac-12 alone was represented by a bigger delegation (321 athletes) than all but 11 entire countries. In order to survive a future where college athletes are considered employees, though, the current system likely needs reform. Just don’t pretend NIL is at fault – if anything, it’s filling gaps in a flawed system.

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SuperSwimmer 2000
1 year ago

Meh. Don’t panic. Everything will be fine.

Mike C
1 year ago

Of course it is not. This is a boogie man argument made against fairly paying college athletes (i.e., entertainers) what they are worth. If the paid the college players, there wouldn’t be any money left over for Olympic sports. Their true fear is that the college kids will unionize and get 50% of the gross revenue in salary, just like the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MBL players get. Then the college admins and coaches budgets/salaries get cut in half.

Reply to  Mike C
1 year ago

According to this article (, the majority of schools even at the D1 level lose money on athletics, and the ones that make money mostly do so on football. Let’s be clear, colleges don’t make money off of swimming, so it’s hard to figure out what it would even mean to “fairly pay” a college athlete unless they are a football player at one of the schools making money.

It’s nice to say that we should pay college athletes, but what about theoretical physics majors? or cheerleaders? or members of the band? what about any other student who is part of a group that has to work extremely hard to develop specialized… Read more »

Mike C
Reply to  Pineapple
1 year ago

I mean paying basketball and football…losing money does not mean not generating revenue. March madness generates over $1B..
64 teams, 15 players per team, 1000 players, 50% is $500k per player…hmmm…

Last edited 1 year ago by Mike C
Reply to  Mike C
1 year ago

First of all, yes – losing money doesn’t mean that there’s no revenue. It means that there are costs that are higher than the revenues. I don’t really get the point you’re trying to prove by stating that fact.

Second, you’ve completely arbitrarily pulled this 50% of revenue thing out of thin air. You are completely disregarding the cost of running these things. If I start a small business and it generates $1 million of revenue each year and it costs $700k to pay for materials, utilities, software, infrastructure, that leaves $300k of profit. But what if I can’t run the business by myself? What if I need a secretary to handle administrative duties? is there a magical rule that… Read more »

1 year ago

Plus, swimming programs aren’t exactly money pits, either. A 2015 study conducted by the MAC and MVC showed co-ed swimming programs produced a net “profit” of $869,396 when revenue from tuition and fees is included, according to Greg Earhart, executive director of the College Swimming and Diving Coaches Association of America.
“A small scholarship investment can net you a large roster,” Earhart said. “A single swimming scholarship could bring in between 3-6 swimmers, and you can field teams that are competitive with your peers relatively quickly.”

Yet schools like Eastern Michigan chose to cut their men’s program despite data such as this and data from their own accounting department. At the time of cutting their program… Read more »

Reply to  Meeeee
1 year ago

I still reject this “tuition” calculation at schools that are otherwise filling their student bodies.

Tuition from non-scholarship swimmers is the same as tuition from non-swimmer students.

If you accept the tuition = profits argument, then being profitable isn’t enough. Then it becomes a cost/benefit analysis, an opportunity cost. Could the $500k being spent on the swim team be used in a way that drives more profit for the university, via tuition or other projects?

Reply to  Braden Keith
1 year ago

Are we factoring in schools that have had declining enrollment in the past decade?

This would be D2 D3, maybe some mid major D1 schools.

For those schools it might be attracting someone to enroll at their school and that slot would not be filled.

Reply to  Xman
1 year ago

That’s why I said “that otherwise fill their student bodies.”

I think for NAIA schools it’s a great strategy.

Looks like Eastern Michigan is having an enrollment decline, so maybe there is some validity to that.

1 year ago

I don’t disagree that NIL could negatively impact non-revenue sports including swimming. The scenario that could play out is that schools currently playing in the big pool, pun intended, decide that it’s either not sustainable or fruitless to try and compete with others that have deeper booster pockets. They either have a limited NIL program impacting the number of elite or higher level athletes they can sign, or potentially choose to move to D2. I don’t see a situation where this doesn’t negatively impact the money that flows to the big two revenue sports . Why? Will fans/boosters and more importantly TV, support a D1, we’ll call it farm system, at the same level? In my opinion probably not. From… Read more »

1 year ago

In the words of Willie Sutton: Follow the money. The gap will widen between the Power 5 “Have” schools that have solid and even spectacular revenue streams from football and basketball and those that don’t.

The big complaint from Pac-12 fans is that it hypes itself as the “conference of champions” and has a ton of trophies and Olympic medals from minor or Olympic sports, the revenue sports of football and basketball have been not as productive partly because of the intent for former Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott who felt “parity” was a priority rather than championships.

“Tennis Larry” Scott was ousted by Pac-12 Presidents and new Commissioner George Kliavkoff gets it: “We need to be more competitive… Read more »

1 year ago

Will athletes be able to wear endorsements on swim caps while representing USA in international meets?

swim fan
Reply to  Doconc
1 year ago

Why would that change? Many of the US swimmers are already out of school and have endorsement deals.

1 year ago

This is also about where donors put their money. Instead of giving to an athletic department for larger fundraising purposes, more of that money is going to go directly to individual student-athletes (most in football and basketball), to create lucrative NIL deals that will attract them to or keep them at an institution. That redirection of funds could definitely negatively impact Olympic sports.

Sink or Swim
Reply to  Riley Overend
1 year ago

Not trying to be argumentative, but what exactly is “legitimate sponsorships/endorsements”? What does that require?

I might be confusing topics here somewhat, but it seems like this is a system that basically eliminates athletes that don’t want to do endorsements. If two swimmers are equally talented, the one with the personality type to be ok with doing endorsements seems likely to be able to succeed, whereas another with a less extroverted personality might fail.

Some kind of national-level United States swimming funding that is based on swimming performance/talent potential instead of endorsement performance would seem to be more preferable for keeping all the best talent, no?
Ok, sure, maybe if you love doing endorsements and social media you can… Read more »

Last edited 1 year ago by Sink or Swim
the olden days
1 year ago

Is the 2015 study mentioned available to read? I’d be interested if it takes facility expenses into account.

Well researched article. Thank you!

About Riley Overend

Riley is an associate editor interested in the stories taking place outside of the pool just as much as the drama between the lane lines. A 2019 graduate of Boston College, he arrived at SwimSwam in April of 2022 after three years as a sports reporter and sports editor at newspapers …

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