How NIL is Changing the Game for Female Athletes

By Lea Pynn

What is NIL?

For many years, using the principle of amateurism, the NCAA restricted college athletes from receiving compensation for their play. As a result of NCAA v. Alston, a Supreme Court case prompted by a lawsuit from current and former student-athletes in both men’s football and men’s and women’s basketball, the Court found that the NCAA’s restrictions violated antitrust laws.

Following the monumental decision, the NCAA’s interim policy went into effect on July 1st, 2021 allowing college athletes to monetize their name, image, and likeness (NIL). Athletes can now accept endorsements outside of their scholarship deals without losing their eligibility with the NCAA, which includes profiting from brand deals, appearances, social media promotions, and other commercial activities.

Female Athletes and NIL

Historically, female collegiate athletic programs — and female sports programs in general — have been largely underfunded compared to their male counterparts. A law firm’s External Equity Review of the NCAA, found that, for example, female athletes’ broadcasting rights, weight rooms, food quality, access to recreational spaces at the NCAA championship tournaments and COVID protocols were of poorer standards compared to the relative male sports teams at the studied schools. 

Despite the implementation of Title IX, it was found that women face discrimination in about 90% of college sports programs per year. Additionally, female athletes don’t receive the same financial support as their male classmates — missing out on millions in scholarship money each year.

NIL Benefits Beyond The Money

Curious to what prompted the External Equity Review of the NCAA? Oregon women’s basketball star Sedona Prince posted a TikTok video exposing the difference in the quality of weight rooms between the male and female basketball teams at the 2021 NCAA championship tournament.

Since the NIL era, Prince has used her platform to make meaningful partnerships with brands interested in making change while also continuing to further social change in women’s sports. Just within this last year, Prince has partnered with TIAA, a retirement company that strives to close the 30% retirement income disparity between men and women.  

Across social media, NIL has allowed college athletes to benefit by connecting with their audiences through platforms such as Tik Tok and Instagram. For example, LSU college gymnast Olivia Dunne is reaping the benefits of NIL. Dunne’s success in college gymnastics is enough to applaud on its own — but the platform she has created, with 6 million followers on TikTok and 2.1 million followers on Instagram, is something different in itself.

Dunne announced her first NIL brand deal with Vuori in October of 2021 and has also secured long-term deals with American Eagle and PlantFuel. Dunne’s immense platform not only brings significantly more attention to women’s gymnastics, but the daily life of a college student-athlete. The benefits of Dunne’s engagement are threefold: she is enhancing the platform of female athletes, growing the sport of women’s gymnastics, and bridging the gap between athlete and fan.

According to BYU women’s hooper Tegan Graham, “social media allows athletes to control the narrative and to control their narrative…which is super, super important especially for female athletes who don’t get the media coverage they deserve.” Her team recently signed an endorsement deal with Smartystreets, a tech company specializing in online address verification. The owner, Jonathan Oliver, who is a BYU alumnus and has four daughters himself, realized athletes didn’t necessarily have to relate the product to their sport but could simply promote the product on their social media. The company offered up to $6,000 to every BYU female student-athlete who signs with them.

NIL is also helping open doors to the futures of female athletes in college sports. With fewer professional opportunities for women in sports, many women need to seek jobs overseas to continue their careers in athletics, which can lead to various obstacles. Playing overseas may not include a suitable support system for female athletes or limit the possibility of starting a family in the future — not to mention the restricted salary for many professional women athletes makes it difficult to live off of. In fact, many WNBA players compete overseas during the offseason to support themselves.

Even top-paid women’s professional athletes make anywhere from 15%-100% less than top male professional athletes. NIL has allowed female athletes more of a chance to have the means to invest in their futures. Take for example Aquinas volleyball player Chloe Mitchell, the first college athlete to monetize NIL. Viral on Tik Tok for her D.I.Y. home renovations, Mitchell has been leveraging NIL opportunities, including a deal with Smart Cups, a company that created the first cup that has the ingredients of a drink printed inside of it. In an interview, Mitchell stated: “I’ve paid off my student loans. I bought a car, bought a computer, and I’m working and saving to buy a house,” a result of her using her platforms to make investments in her life after college.

Among other female athletes benefiting off of NIL deals is standout UConn basketball player Paige Bueckers, who was the first college athlete to sign a deal with Gatorade, and later inked deals with the shoe brand StockX and Bose.

Life Outside of College Athletics

College is an extremely vital time in a person’s life when they should be able to explore other passions and interests on top of their participation in athletics. NIL offers — not just women — but all athletes an opportunity to succeed in other areas beyond the sports world. Especially for college athletes who experience injuries during their sports seasons, NIL gives them a chance to continue carrying out their passion for their sport while simultaneously making money to afford their education, since many injured college athletes worry about getting their scholarships pulled.

For example, after a recent elbow injury ended her Oregon basketball career, Sedona Prince still has a foothold in other areas, including owning equity in her partnership with Riff Energy+, a carbon neutral coffee company, while she awaits recovery for her professional basketball career. 

In response to Prince’s injury, Oregon coach Kelly Grave says, “She has done so many wonderful things and has been an incredible representative of our program and the university. Her impact on collegiate athletics, especially in the area of gender equity, has been immense and will be felt for generations to come.”

The NIL policy has opened doors for women to not only be able to profit off of their image but further gender equity in a male-dominated business. The female athletes mentioned in this article are just a few of the many who have had the opportunity to benefit from the billion-dollar college athletics enterprise.

Photo by Nicolas Hoizey on Unsplash

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