Million Dollar Babies: NIL marketing isn’t a meritocracy

Twin sisters and Fresno State basketball players Haley and Hannah Cavinder have already parlayed their large TikTok following into endorsement deals under the new name, image and likeness rules. (Photo: Twitter/@CavinderHaley)


Lane Kiffin couldn’t believe it. Or at least, he acted like he couldn’t.

“I’m still blown away on this Bryce Young,” he said last week at SEC Media Days. “The guy’s made a million dollars already? That’s good. He don’t need to play next year against us then.”

Kiffin, entering his second season as head coach at Ole Miss, was reacting to the news that Alabama quarterback Bryce Young is nearing a million dollars in endorsements under the new name, image and likeness rules before he takes his first snap as a starting quarterback on the college level.

Which seems absolutely crazy.

Is it any less crazy, though, for Jackson State to give Deion Sanders a contract worth $1.2 million a year to do something he’s never done – coach on the college level? Prime Time’s only prior coaching experience was at a couple of charter high schools, including one that he founded himself.  

Neither of them is being paid for what he’s already achieved. They’re being paid, we might assume, on speculation of what they’re going to do.

Except that’s not even really true.

If Bryce Young is even an average Alabama quarterback, the endorsements he’s received will likely be well worth it for the companies that have signed him. People in this state know who he is, they’re excited about him and they’re rooting for him.

And do we really believe Jackson State gave Deion all that money because of his stellar coaching acumen? They’re paying him for his name – the one he doesn’t want to be called.

They think that name will draw recruits that might not otherwise have considered Jackson State, which went 4-3 in Sanders’ first season – and they’re probably right. They think that name will draw attention to their university that they wouldn’t have ordinarily received – and they’re definitely right, but they might find it’s not the type of attention they want.

So why are we surprised by one and not the other?

It will be more than skill and success at their chosen sport that turns college athletes into successful marketing machines. Yes, quarterbacks and shooting guards will make bank because of the positions they play or their status as the leading scorer on their teams. Yes, an Olympic gold medalist like Suni Lee will draw a level of interest that will make even Young’s pale by comparison — and the fact that she’s even going to college at all after becoming one of the biggest stars of this Olympics is an NIL success story.

But athletes don’t have to win Olympic gold to cash in on name, image and likeness. They can use something just as powerful – their personalities.

Collegiate athletes like Fresno State basketball twin sisters Haley and Hanna Cavinder (3.3 million TikTok followers) and LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne (1.2 million Instagram followers) have already established their own personal brands on social media. Those followings are worth as much, if not more, than all the touchdown passes Bryce Young will throw this year.

We live in a world in which the “Cash Me Outside” girl signed a record deal that could be worth as much as $1 million after doing nothing more than acting like a moron on national TV. A world in which Skip Bayless is paid $8 million to make up gibberish in the name of being “provocative.” A world in which Deion Sanders is paid $1.2 million a year to get Jackson State mentioned on ESPN while he’s learning how to be a college football coach.

And there have been other unproven coaches like him. They all have to start somewhere.

These decisions aren’t based on merit or talent. They’re based on exposure, audience and reach. They’re based on marketing – just like the decisions of the companies who decided to hitch their cash-filled wagons to Bryce Young’s train.

Kiffin, of all people, understands this. He’s used these principles for his own purposes in recruiting. And while he marveled at the amount of endorsement money Young has drawn, he did also acknowledge that players profiting off their hard work is “basically what everybody else in America gets to do.”

And a year from now, that number probably won’t seem so crazy. A year from now, we’ll probably have several college athletes making seven figures off endorsements and life will go on. A year from now, we’ll realize that allowing athletes to profit from their names, images and likenesses instead of suspending them for selling their autographs or game-worn memorabilia isn’t that big a deal to the overall quality of the game. A year from now, we’ll realize that most of the best players were getting paid in some form or fashion anyway and the impact of NIL on the balance of power in college football is negligible – no matter how deep some Miami booster’s pockets are.

Pretty much every major program has rich boosters who are willing to throw money at college athletes. This is nothing new.

But some of us want to act like it is. Back in 2014, I threw a question out to readers at “If college athletes were paid, would you lose interest?” About 36 percent of the respondents said they’d quit watching college football.

The NCAA laughably tried to introduce the poll into the record during the Ed O’Bannon case as evidence that college football would suffer from NIL, prompting a survey expert to dismiss it as “junk science.”

And he was right. We never claimed it was scientific. In fact, I didn’t believe the results were accurate at all.

People can say anything they want in response to polls, especially those done online. If they think it’s a bad idea for players to be paid, they might say they’d quit watching just to underscore that opinion. But does that mean that when the football is kicked off this fall, they won’t be tuning in to watch Alabama-Miami, Clemson-Georgia, Wisconsin-Penn State or LSU-UCLA?

I’ll believe it when I see it.

College football will keep marching merrily on, even as it changes shape with conference expansion again on the horizon. We will continue to watch and it will continue to rake in billions. Only now, the people who put on the show can get a little of that money beyond the cost of their educations.  

And if that bothers you so acutely that you’ll give up your Saturday afternoon pastime to make a point, then one has to wonder how big a fan you really were in the first place.

Categories: College basketball, College football

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