On Wednesday, the NCAA announced that they would ‘modernize’ the organization’s “name-image-likeness” rules by the 2021-2022 academic year. While not an official declaration of the new rules, the NCAA laid out a framework for expanding student-athletes’ opportunities to profit off their own likeness.
In the high-visibility, high-profit sports like football and basketball, a number of student athletes will be able to turn this into financial success. There’s a lot of debate around social media right now about how much student-athletes are actually going to make off this, but one thing is clear: football and basketball players who want to will likely make more than their peers sacking groceries at the local Piggly-Wiggly or folding shirts at Target.
But how will this trickle down to the less-visible sports, like swimming? There are of course a few fringe cases, swimmers like Missy Franklin and Regan Smith and Simone Manuel and Caeleb Dressel who probably could have earned 6-or-7 figure contracts while still collegiate athletes because of their visibility at the Olympic level. The Olympic level continues to be the primary marketing and money-making outlet for top-level swimmers.
But that’s not going to be the norm. These days, there just aren’t that many amateur swimmers making Olympic and World Championship teams anymore – nowhere near as many as in prior generations as careers extend.
Focusing on big contracts from Nike or Goodyear isn’t really the point for swimmers, though, and is a very old-school mentality.
Think Social Media
Around the country, there are thousands of 18-25 year olds who are making a living off social media without being collegiate athletes.
YouTube Channels and Instagram pages amass tens of thousands of followers not because their purveyors are collegiate athletes, but because their purveyors have qualities that many collegiate athletes have: they eat well, and they work out.
A big opportunity for college swimmers in this new world, then, becomes fitness channels.
Anybody who’s on Instagram knows what drives a large portion of that market: muscles, fashion, beauty, workout tips, weight loss tips, and other such industries that naturally lend themselves to what collegiate athletes do.
Previously, college athletes wouldn’t have been able to really maximize these channels because of the NCAA’s N-I-L rules. Now, they will.
The most famous case is former University of Central Florida punter Donald De La Haye, who opted to quit the team rather than alter his channel. In that case, the NCAA said that he could monetize videos, just not videos that pertain to his role with the UCF football team.
Further, the NCAA has ruled many times that athletes could not directly sell ads (they seem to have parsed between “random preroll ads on YouTube” and “promoted posts on social media.” The famous case here is from the University of Tennessee, where Breanna Dodd, the girlfriend of wide receiver Josh Smith, was able to sell ads to Jolly Rancher on her Instagram channel, but her boyfriend wasn’t.
In short, athletes could have done some of this stuff previously, probably, but now they can do all of it with a full-throat, eschewing over-conservative compliance departments that were more concerned with NCAA sanctions than offering their athletes opportunities.
Student-athletes are, almost by definition, fit, and they will appeal to many brands on social media for just those reasons.
Here’s why this is really outstanding:
This movement can be self-perpetuating for athletics programs in smaller sports. By allowing swimmers and other Olympic sports programs to push their own brands, that can be rolled back into pushing the team’s brand, and open up new revenue streams for the teams as well. In a ‘sky is falling’ world where Olympic sports programs are constantly in fear of being cut, this could increase the marketability of those programs and bring them closer to self-funding sustainability.
It can be a feedback loop of sorts, between athletes and teams – which, by the way, we see all the time in professional sports, and is a model that works. The value of the Cleveland Cavaliers skyrocketed upon drafting of basketball’s most valuable active athlete franchise: Lebron James.
Here’s what will become really interesting, if the above hypothesis of a marketing loop proves true: collegiate athletic programs might have to begin bidding scholarships based on athlete marketability, especially in equivalency sports like swimming where partial scholarships are on 0ffer.
Will we get to a world where a swimmer coming out of high school with 100,000 Instagram followers and a suit deal with Speedo be worth more scholarship money than a swimmer coming out of high school with 1,000 Instagram followers, if the former goes 22.6 in the 50 free and the latter goes 22.4?
Those kind of questions will take time to evolve. Football and basketball programs with huge marketing departments and budgets and support staffs will adapt more quickly; swimming, with lots of old-school minds still running the deck will take longer to maximize these potentials.
Change is coming, and it’s going to be fun to watch.