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Student-athletes and colleges proceed with caution as new NIL rules unlock athletes’ earning potential

Cole Mueller running back in football
Dennis Banks
Cole Mueller said he's had a few small endorsement deals, but he's not sure student-athletes at mid-major schools like Illinois State University will make much money off Name, Image and Likeness rules.

College athletes are now able to make money in ways they never could before. The rules allowing athletes to capitalize off their name, image and likeness have raised big bucks for a select few athletes. But the rules also have raised lots of questions for athletes and schools.

University of Alabama quarterback Bryce Young was one of the first to cash in on the new Name, Image and Likeness rules for college athletes. Young secured nearly $1 million in endorsements before he played a single game in college.

For every Bryce Young there are thousands of Cole Muellers. Mueller is a sophomore running back at Illinois State.

Cole Mueller
Illinois State athletics
Cole Mueller

Mueller made a name for himself when he had a breakout season as a redshirt freshman at ISU last fall. Mueller has dabbled in NIL. He's had an endorsement deal for a car parts company, making money by displaying the parts at car shows. Mueller also posted an Instagram story to promote a sports marketing firm.

Mueller said these deals gives him golfing money or enough for a new video game, but it's nowhere near what the big college stars make. He's not sure it's even worth all the hassle and the extra taxes. “If somebody in the FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) could get something like the Power Five (conference) schools, that would be really good for FCS, but I don’t see that happening,” Mueller said.

Mueller isn't the only athlete at ISU who has explored NIL deals, but his experience seems fairly typical. Mike Williams is ISU's assistant athletic director for communications. He helps student-athletes understand NIL rules and learn how to build their own brand.

Williams said endorsements were slow to come this year because of a late start. The Missouri Valley Conference announced a deal with INFLCR, a software program for student-athletes, coaches and administrators to understand and use NIL.

Williams said by then, many student-athletes already were competing or practicing in their sport and didn't have much time.

“It wasn’t the most ideal timing in the world, but my staff went crazy downloading as many pictures and videos and whatever content that we had onto the platform, so our student athletes can go get it,” he explained.

Williams said about 60 Redbird student-athletes have NIL deals, most of them are through social media. But they also can include radio or television ads, in-store appearances and billboards. The average endorsement is about $50.

Williams and his staff can provide information to businesses who might want to have an athlete's name on their product, but the university can't market the athletes to clients — the athletes have to do that themselves.

Williams said the pandemic also likely limited endorsements because athletes weren't able to get out as much. Plus, he said many businesses are cautious about this new frontier.

“I think (for) some of them, this is all still new, that they don’t really know what they can and can’t do, what is permissible and not permissible,” Williams said.

ISU athletics has scheduled what it's calling a community collaboration event on May 16 to inform the public about NIL guidelines and explain how potential sponsors can get involved.

Nationally, over half of the revenue from NIL deals has gone to football players, but beyond that, there is some gender parity. Four of the top six NIL sports are women's. Williams conceded athletic administrators weren’t sure that was going to happen. “They were worried about it being only football and basketball players and that’s not the case at all,” he said.

Other NIL benefits

Williams said student-athletes who want endorsements need to put themselves out there, be personable and be marketable. He said having a social media following helps. But not every NIL deal is your typical endorsement.

Jen Kuhn
Illinois Wesleyan athletics
Jen Kuhn

Jen Kuhn of Normal is a freshman softball player at Illinois Wesleyan University. She used NIL to host youth softball clinics on campus. Sure, Kuhn could have done the clinics on her own, but she said being able to directly tie them to her college program has made all the difference.

“I wouldn’t be able to advertise myself as a softball player from Illinois Wesleyan (without NIL) and I’d basically be saying, ‘I play softball, I give softball lessons,’ which doesn’t have the same ring to it,” Kuhn said.

Kuhn puts on softball clinics and does one-one-on coaching for a fee. She’s hosted close to a dozen clinics over the last year and does up to eight individual lessons per day. Kuhn said she's fortunate her family can cover her college tuition, so this becomes spending money for her.

Kuhn said she's grateful for that because all that coaching is a major time commitment. “I don’t have time to work a regular job or anything with softball and academics,” Kuhn said. “It’s a fun way and an easy way for me to make some money.”

Kuhn said NIL has worked well for her, adding it's proof Division III non-scholarship athletes can use these endorsements for their benefit, too.

Competition for sponsors

Make no mistake, the bigger the school, the greater the potential for big money for college students.

ISU athletics director Kyle Brennan welcomes the new earning potential for student athletes, saying it's long overdue.

“I think this is a right that student-athletes have been afforded a long time ago and when you look at the industry and see how much money is being made at the higher levels at least and that money is not being shared, I do understand where the student-athletes are coming from. So, I’m happy for them for this opportunity,” Brennan said.

College athletics are big business. Athletic departments rely heavily on sponsorships and fundraising to generate revenue to pay for facilities, coaches’ salaries and all the things that are intended to help their programs win. Brennan recognizes the time could come when student-athlete will compete with their own athletic departments for sponsorship dollars.

“It’s a concern for everybody I think across the country, but I think at the same time, our student-athletes always come first, so if it’s an opportunity for them then we come in second and we’ve got to find a way to backfill that money if it goes to a student-athlete,” Brennan said. “I’ve got no problem with that.”

Some athletic departments are trying to get that money for student-athletes before they get to campus. They are called collectives, where a school secures benefits for a student-athlete as part of the recruiting process. Think of it as a compensation package for college athletes. That's where Missouri Valley Conference Commission Jeff Jackson draws the line. He said these NIL deals should be student-driven and that collectives are not.

Jackson said schools for the so-called Power 5 conferences are taking advantage of the new NIL rules and a lack of clarity about what they mean. “It’s a concern, it’s already happening in other conferences and right now we are hoping for some type of federal intervention, but we also don’t have any rules right now from the NCAA that governs that activity,” Jackson said.

A report from the Business of College Sports shows nearly 50 colleges have established name, image and likeness collectives.

Team impacts

There are other concerns about students signing endorsement deals. Some coaches wonder how they might impact team dynamics.

“I have a lot of concerns about NIL,” said retired ISU Hall of Fame women’s basketball coach Jill Hutchison. “My concern with the NIL stuff is how it impacts a team and how they interact when there’s one superhero getting all that attention and money and nobody else is.”

Hutchison said these endorsement deals will likely bring more money and attention than some students and schools can handle, especially for high school students who haven't even decided where they will go to school. “It’s just not healthy for kids. They are not ready do deal with those kinds of contracts and investing that kind of money and that kind of attention,” Hutchison said.

But one basketball analyst said the NIL deals have not been as disruptive as first feared. Christy Thomascutty is a former ISU women's basketball assistant coach. Now an ESPN analyst, Thomascutty said she was “scared to death” when NIL started.

“For me, I think like a coach and that this is going to kill teams as far as culture, as far as camaraderie, and I don’t think it has because coaches have done a great job of getting out ahead of it,” Thomascutty said.

Thomascutty said NIL provides another benefit. Some athletes who are in a hurry to get out of school, either to turn pro or get a full-time job, might be more inclined to stay in school and finish their degree if they can make money off their name.

“If this keeps student-athletes in college longer, I’m all for it because I’m the daughter of two educators. I think the way it’s set up now, you should graduate with an undergraduate and a master’s degree, and if you can make some money along the way, do it as long as you can,” Thomascutty said.

Transfer portal

Meanwhile, many college sports programs are having a hard time getting their student-athletes. Another new rule that's had a profound effect on college athletics is the transfer portal. Student-athletes can jump from one school to another without penalty.

And they have.

The NCAA reported nearly 10,000 student athletes transferred to a different school last year. As students explore their options, it's likely their endorsement potential will influence their decision.

Liz Sattler
Liz Sattler

Liz Sattler, an assistant professor of sport management at ISU, said it's possible some student-athletes who can build their own network of endorsements in a community might be inclined to stay. “If you secure a good endorsement at the college you are at, that could be a way to keep a student-athlete,” Sattler said. “That would be a smart way for colleges to think of it, if they are wanting to build community within their teams, helping their student-athletes secure those types of endorsements might be a way to keep them.”

That is, unless some bigger school can offer a bigger pay day. Sattler acknowledged that is likely to happen. She doesn't see that as a shift from what college athletics has been for years. “The structure was already there. Those Power 5 schools are always going to be more competitive just based on the arms race that it is.(This) just is just another layer to it,” Sattler said.

But Sattler also considers it necessary to give college athletes new earning potential after decades of toiling for free for schools who have cashed in on a multi-billion dollar sports industry.

NIL will likely never be a cash cow at mid-major schools like Illinois State, but assistant AD Mike Williams expects to see a lot more athlete endorsements in the coming years, as student-athletes and business owners come to understand NIL’s potential.

“There’s probably a lot of businesses right now that are not getting involved in the NIL space that within a year probably will be, because they are going to be able to see what the impact of it is on current student-athletes and how they can help,” Williams said.

But don't expect to see ISU’s Cole Mueller on television commercials any time soon. Even as he figures to be one of the key players for the Redbird football team next season, Mueller said he's not going to spend much time marketing himself for a contract.

“They might come or they might not come. It’s not something you want to go out of your way (to pursue) and take away your focus from other things, because if you don’t have football and school, you don’t even get the opportunity to get an NIL deal,” Mueller said.

Mueller plans to let his game do the talking for him.

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Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.
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