NCAA athletes have historically been forbidden from accepting brand sponsorships and paid deals. A recent NCAA decision changes this, allowing student athletes to monetize their name, image, and likeness. We charted the social media followings of every Division I athlete in Arizona to see for whom this new rule could be a game-changer.
As of July 2021, the NCAA will permit athletes to profit from their own personal brands.
Until now, student athletes were forbidden from accepting endorsement deals, brand sponsorships or any kind of compensation for the use of their name, image, and likeness (NIL). The former rule was meant to preserve the concept of amateurism — the notion that student athletes are students first, not professionals, and therefore do not require any compensation beyond incentives in the form of scholarships.
But two megatrends converged to weaken this foundational principle of the NCAA.
First, college sports have become hugely lucrative over the past few decades — generating billions in revenue through ticket sales, merchandise, and television deals, among other things.
In the age of social media, it also has become increasingly difficult — if not intrusive — to police the NIL rights of athletes’ personal social media accounts.
Note: Arizona SB 1296 took effect on July 23, 2021. The bill allows players “freedom to pursue endorsement deals, hire agents and promote their own independent ventures.” The NCAA’s announcement specifies that athletes must still follow their state NIL laws and that “colleges and universities are responsible for determining whether those activities are consistent with state law.”
How Can College Athletes Monetize Their NIL?
Sponsored social media content and advertising deals are the most obvious channels for many college athletes to market their personal brands.
For some of the biggest stars in college sports, the new NCAA rule opens the door to highly lucrative endorsement deals with iconic brands. But even for college athletes without national name recognition, a dedicated social media following among their classmates could make them ideal brand ambassadors for smaller brands and businesses in college towns.
Beyond social media and advertising, the right to monetize their own NIL would also give college athletes the ability to sell autographs, merchandise, athletic training programs, or use their platform to market other business or creative ventures as they wish.
How Much can College Athletes Expect to Earn?
The amount of revenue a college athlete can hope to generate by marketing their NIL will largely depend on the size of their social media following.
ESPN estimates athletes with only a few thousand followers may be in a position to earn $1-3K annually if they manage their brand with business savvy. On the other end of the spectrum, superstars with followings that reach hundreds of thousands of fans could earn as much as six or seven figures by monetizing their NIL in exclusive partnerships with iconic sports brands.
Which College Athletes in Arizona Stand to Earn the Most?
In light of the NCAA’s decision, we wanted to see which Division I athletes in Arizona are poised to make the most money by marketing their NIL.
Four universities in Arizona have Division I athletics teams, amounting to 23 different teams across eight different sports.
We added up the Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok followings of every player on these teams’ most recent rosters. Using an estimation of $0.80 per follower per year, we sought to better understand how athletic prowess and social media savvy can translate into real revenue for students.
- On average, men’s college basketball players in Arizona have the highest earning potential compared to other sports. Only five players currently have followings large enough to generate over $50K in income each year — four of them are men’s basketball players.
- Women playing basketball or softball at an Arizona university have higher social media followings, on average, than men’s football players.
- Compared with UA, GCU, and NAU, Arizona State University athletes across all sports have the highest average number of followers (5,904), and thus the highest average earning potential ($4,723).
- Marcus Bagley is the AZ student athlete with the highest earning potential by far. Bagley, who plays for the Arizona State men’s basketball team, has nearly 360K followers between Twitter and Instagram, more than triple the next highest follower count on the list.
The Top 25 Potential Earners in AZ College Athletics
Men’s basketball players dominate the top slots on the list of Arizona’s most-followed student athletes, as they make up five of the top ten individuals: Marcus Bagley (ASU), Dalen Terry (UA), Luther Muhammed (ASU), Aidan Igiehon (GCU), and Holland Woods (GCU).
Two women appear in the top 10 list at number five and six, respectively: Nicole Soto of the ASU women’s soccer team and Aari McDonald of the UA women’s basketball team.
Three football players also make the top 10 list: Jayden Daniels (ASU), Jaden Mitchell (UA), and Johnny Wilson (ASU). Mitchell, in particular, is a unique case. Despite his relatively low number of Twitter and Instagram followers, Mitchell has 37,800 TikTok followers — the highest of any athlete on the list.
Which Sports Get the Most Attention on Social Media?
Across all Division I NCAA sports nationwide, football is the biggest revenue generator. The same holds true in the state of Arizona, where football accounted for 42.3% of the income generated for the athletic department at UA and 38.3% at ASU in 2018, according to BizJournals.
But ticket sales don’t always translate into followers for individual athletes.
In Arizona, men’s basketball is far and away the best sport to play for those looking to monetize their collegiate athletic careers. Men’s basketball players at universities in Arizona have, on average, more than five times as many social media followers as football players. This translates to an additional $10,000 to their average annual earning potential.
But it isn’t just men’s basketball that outperforms football in terms of social media attention. Women’s basketball players at Arizona universities also have, on average, roughly 10% more social media followers than football players.
Women Athletes Can Make A Lot of Cash, Too
The financial gulf between men’s and women’s athletics is a well-known and troubling trend. A recent study by Global Sport Matters found that women college athletes receive less than 4% of the coverage on traditional media channels than their male peers.
But social media does not abide by the same trends as traditional media channels. With college athletes now permitted to monetize their NIL, many individual women are posed to out-earn their male peers.
Across all sports and schools, women athletes at Arizona universities have, on average, 30% fewer social media followers than men. But the picture is more complex on a school-by-school, sport-by-sport basis.
For example, the UA women’s softball team has, on average, nearly 6,000 followers per player, whereas the men’s baseball team averages only 2,200. Indeed, the UA softball team is one of the most successful in the Pac-12, having won 11 NCAA conference championships in the last 20 years as opposed to the baseball team’s three.
Women’s sports may be largely overlooked by a viewing audience, but the reach of female student athletes should not be underestimated. Of the 24 college athletes in Arizona whose strategic monetization of their NIL could bank them upwards of $10,000 per year, five are women.
NIL Rights a Game Changer for Many Student-Athletes
Only a handful of Arizona student athletes are poised to generate serious income from marketing their NIL. But even modest earnings could make meaningful improvements to these students’ lives and future careers.
Even a couple thousand dollars a year could be a big help to student athletes, many of whom do not come from wealthy backgrounds and whose training commitments make it difficult for them to seek part-time employment to support themselves while in school.
Fewer than 2% of NCAA athletes end up playing professionally after college. In the state of Arizona, this means only 15 of the more than 700 Division I student athletes across four universities will continue their athletic careers. Before the recent rule change, many student athletes never saw a dime come from their athletic careers (with the exception of scholarships). Without any money coming in, and with such slim chances of going pro, few student athletes even entertained the idea of a career in sports post-graduation.
In addition, there are still many unanswered questions about NIL and college athletics, with universities and states trying to understand the rulings. The space is still the wild west, with pitfalls and gray areas prevalent.
But the newly won ability to profit from their own NIL rights could provide student athletes with enough money to keep them active in the sports world. Whether the extra cash encourages them to train harder or to pursue a sports industry career off the field, this income could make a tremendous difference in the career trajectory of student athletes.
Here is how we calculated the earning potential of student athletes in the state of Arizona:
- Our analysis was limited to Division I sports teams in the state of Arizona. In total, our analysis spanned 23 teams across eight different sports at four different universities.
- To compile a list of athletes, we used the most recent rosters published by each university. For the most part, these rosters were from the Spring 2021 or Fall 2021 semesters.
- In the first week of July 2021, we found the Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok accounts of all players on these rosters and tallied up their current social media following. For accounts that were private or could not be located, the player was given a follower account of 0 for the platform.
- We used the figure of $0.80 per follower per year to estimate how much a student athlete might earn from marketing their NIL.
- Athletes without any discernible social media following were excluded from averages.
- Viewed raw data of all athletes in this spreadsheet.