‘Set me up for life’: Female college athletes stash NIL cash

Feb 28, 2022, 8:23 PM | Updated: Mar 1, 2022, 12:05 pm
University of Kentucky track & field athlete Masai Russell during practice at the Nutter Field Hous...

University of Kentucky track & field athlete Masai Russell during practice at the Nutter Field House in Lexington, Ky., Friday, Feb. 18, 2022. Russell is among a cohort of NCAA women's athletes who are making a name for themselves on social media. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

(AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

A figure sprints toward the camera along a walkway at an apartment complex, first in real time, then in slow motion before going back to real time. The woman is dressed in a tracksuit, she’s fast and the spoken word-song playing over the video says “it’s me against me.”

More than 20,000 people have viewed this Eastbay-sponsored TikTok post on Kentucky sprinter and hurdler Masai Russell’s account, and 2,000-plus engaged with it. It’s just one of several name, image and likeness deals sending a good chunk of change in Russell’s direction since July.

She said she “loves the camera” and loves being able to “reap the benefits of what I love to do on a daily basis outside of track.”

Russell and a growing number of female college athletes are making a name for themselves on social media and cashing in under the NCAA’s interim policy covering athlete compensation by serving up a range of looks: serious business on the court, laid-back casual at home, approachably confident, slinky, sexy coed. Whether their self-run social media profiles are more wholesome or risque, they’re embracing the power of their image, hoping it brings attention not just to their sport and themselves but also financial independence after college.

“We can’t play forever and we have to have something to fall back on. The ball stops bouncing at some point,” North Carolina sophomore basketball player Deja Kelly told The Associated Press. She said she has six NIL deals, including Dunkin’ Donuts, Outback Steakhouse and a couple yet to be announced, and some of the deals have equity partnership.

“… (I)t’s a generational opportunity, it’ll set me up for life,” Kelly said. “If I were to stop playing basketball in five years, I would be fine because all the things I’m setting up now and I’m focusing on now.”

West Coast Conference Commissioner Gloria Nevarez said she believes that NIL deals soon will matter less about an athlete’s alma mater as they build a brand that will last beyond the final year of eligibility.

“And I hope it’s not just the attractiveness category,” Nevarez said, “but because I’m very skilled in the sport or because I happen to have a (clothing) line or code programming at a really high level that you’re going to start to get more of that engagement.”

It’s hard to ignore the attractiveness factor for some female athletes landing big deals.

The Barstool Athletics Instagram page, which features its NIL athletes and has more than 200,000 followers, featured posts with 46 women and 11 men over the span of a recent month. Beautiful Ballers, a brand that aims to “inspire women to believe that being an athlete doesn’t diminish your beauty,” features female athletes for its 468,000 followers on Instagram, where it posts pictures and videos of anything from athletes playing their sport to wearing barely-there bikinis.

Image-based NIL deals lead the way for college athletes, according to Athliance, meaning social media and photos, video or film. About 36% of reported deals to NIL platform Opendorse from July 1 to Dec. 31 were either for posting content on social media or creating visual content.

LSU gymnast Livvy Dunne is one of the most recognizable college athletes on social media. She has 1.5 million followers on Instagram and 4.8 million followers on TikTok. She told the AP in a written response to questions that she has about 10 deals, most of them recurring, and said she’s “a top-earning athlete in the NIL space.”

“When the rules changed, there was a lot of hype about how big of an opportunity this could be for me and nothing has fallen short of those expectations,” she said.

In recent TikTok and Instagram ads , The 19-year-old wears a short white tank top and pops her hip to show off how well American Eagle jeans fit. She does some modeling as part of her NIL deals, though mostly she posts on social media.

“I try to use my social media to show different sides of my personality. It is important to show that I am more than just my sport,” Dunne said. “I like to think my vibe is happy and confident. I really am a normal college student, so I am comfortable showing myself studying with no makeup, all dressed up and going out, or flipping around in the gym.”

For people like Russell and Dunne, social media’s long been integrated into the fabric of building their brand. That hadn’t been the case for Bailey Moody, who plays wheelchair basketball for the University of Alabama and was a member of the bronze-medal-winning U.S. paralympic team.

“It’s a lot of work,” Moody said. “I give all the people that are influencers — like big-time influencers on social media — credit because it’s a lot of time. You’ve got to make your post look good and get followers, and the way you get followers is posting videos and all of these things.”

Moody’s main NIL deal — with Degree deodorant’s Breaking Limits campaign — came through Team USA. She makes videos and posts graphics, captions and hashtags, mostly on Instagram. She’s thrilled that Degree is highlighting adapted athletics, which “deserves to have these deals,” but said becoming a brand is a balancing act.

“(I’m) always constantly stuck between how much do I post versus how little do I post,” she said. “I want to be as genuine as I possibly can, but I also know that I’m building a brand for myself … generally, I will lean more towards the genuine side of who I am, and then people can take it or leave it.”

Russell’s “20 or so” NIL deals include Walgreens, Hulu and WWE. Most of her NIL activities have been on social media, which has left her wanting “more exposure” and to explore “who I am outside of just pictures.”

“Instagram gets kind of old to me, and I think that my followers get kind of used to it because … the pay-partnership posts don’t usually do as well as authentic posts,” said Russell, who also has her own merchandise. “So I just want to be seen somewhere else other than Instagram.”

An All-American who helped set a school record in the 4×400-meter relay and participated in the Olympic team trials, Russell has her sights set on the future — real estate investing — so she is saving what she is getting from NIL, which she said is in the six-figure range.

“I don’t want to say that I was 21 making this amount of money, and now I’m 30 and I don’t have anything,” she said, “so I’m trying to play it out very smart and play it out the right way so that I’m pretty well-off in my later years.”

That is exactly what Ketra Armstrong, a professor of sport management and director of the Center for Race and Ethnicity in Sport at the University of Michigan, hopes NIL does for female athletes.

“Social media … has elevated their entrepreneurial spirit,” Armstrong said. “The DIY things that some of the women are doing, the modeling that some of them were doing on the side in preparing for life after sports — all of these things now are not just the sidekicks that they were thinking about, but now it’s the cash cow! … It’s a way that they can become financially independent, using their skills and their talents.”

Kelly, who leads the Tar Heels this season in at 15.8 points per game, is pairing with well-known brands and setting herself up, but she is also clear about what she wants her image and likeness to advance: “women’s empowerment,” “Black athletes’ empowerment” and “giving back to my community.”

“I’m not trying to change myself just to get a certain deal,” Kelly said. “If they won’t take me for who I am, then it wasn’t meant to be.”

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‘Set me up for life’: Female college athletes stash NIL cash