Until July 2021, NCAA athletes were forbidden from accepting endorsement deals, brand sponsorships, or any kind of compensation for the commercial use of their name, image, and likeness (NIL).
The new preliminary legislation, which permits student athletes to earn income by marketing their personal brands, marks one of the most significant shifts in the history of the NCAA.
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Supporters of the change cite the fact that student athletes, many of whom come from underserved communities, are not compensated for their labor, which generates billions of dollars for universities, the NCAA, and advertisers.
Detractors say that the concept of amateurism is essential to the integrity of college athletics, and that a no-sponsorship rule helps to ensure that less popular sports receive adequate funding.
It is not yet clear how the new ruling will impact college sports in the long-term. But in the short-term, student athletes are already beginning to cash in on their NIL rights as influencers.
We tallied up the social media followings of the top men’s and women’s college basketball players across the country to find out which athletes are best positioned to earn serious cash by marketing their NIL. At the rate of $0.80 per follower per year, here are the top 25 NCAA basketball players by sponsorship earning potential.
- Altogether, the top 25 college basketball players in the country have enough followers to generate more than $10.5 million annually in NIL deals. This is just below 1% of the NCAA’s total reported revenue in 2019.
- Three of the top 25 college basketball players have followings that could earn them over $1 million in brand sponsorship revenue: Shareef O’Neal of LSU, Adrian Nunez of Michigan, and Paige Bueckers of UConn.
- Twelve of the top 25 potential earners in college basketball are women, with UConn’s Bueckers leading the pack among women’s basketball players.
- The top player on our list, LSU’s O’Neal, has enough followers to earn an estimated $3.5 million annually. This amounts to more than a third of the revenue that LSU, his alma mater, generates from basketball.
Social media followings of these 25 players could earn them a median income of $124K a year
With Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok follower counts ranging from 80k to 4.4 million, here are the 25 most-followed college basketball stars in the country. Our top 25 list features 12 women and 13 men.
Many of Top 10 Are Already Cashing In
The most-followed NCAA basketball player in the country is O’Neal, son of NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal, and now the star player for the LSU Tigers. Having inherited both fame and athletic prowess, O’Neal has more than 1.5 million more followers than the next ranked player.
Since the ban on NIL endorsements was lifted, O’Neal has used his platform to promote a number of paid appearances and business ventures, ranging from panel discussions to NFTs to energy drinks. With a following large enough to generate over $3.5 million in income, O’Neal has the potential to earn nearly a third of the revenue LSU basketball makes in a year.
The second most-followed basketball player in the NCAA is Nunez of Michigan. The Wolverines’ guard has more than 2.7 million followers across Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok, and recently landed deals with brands ranging from designer labels like Coach to a local Ann Arbor gym.UConn’s Bueckers is the third most-followed basketball player in the NCAA and the most-followed woman, with an audience of 1.3 million. A national star in basketball since she was in high school, Bueckers recently filed for a trademark on her brand name “Paige Buckets,” under which she will soon be launching a line of athletic apparel.
Number four on our list is Hailey Van Lith of the Louisville Cardinals. With 762k followers, Van Lith was among the first student athletes to sign with Octagon , a sports agency representing NIL clients.
With 434k followers, our fifth-ranked NCAA basketball player is Chet Holmgren of Gonzaga. The 7-foot-tall freshman has yet to publicize any major endorsement deals, though he recently launched a YouTube channel featuring high production quality videos, a move which seems to suggest he is preparing for the offers to come his way.
At 412k followers, Jaden Owens is the sixth-most followed basketball player in the NCAA. The star player of the Baylor Bears has yet to announce any deals, though she has quietly begun posting to Instagram tagging the brands of her outfits, suggesting more to come.
The 7th and 8th most-followed NCAA basketball players are the Cavinder twins, Haley and Hanna, who together have nearly 650k followers across Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok. Both playing for the Fresno State Bulldogs, the Cavinder twins famously were the very first college athletes to close a major sponsorship deal. Just moments after the July 1, 2021, revocation of the NIL ban went into effect, they signed a marketing deal with Boost Mobile.
Another son of an NBA legend, Scottie Pippen Jr. of Vanderbilt is the 9th most-followed NCAA basketball player with an audience of 410k. The Commodores’ star has recently served as an ambassador for Raising Cane’s.
Rounding out our top 10 highest potential earners in NCAA basketball is Zia Cooke of South Carolina. A month after the new NIL legislation went into effect, Cooke promoted Bojangles to her social media audience of 213k.
March Madness Generates Majority of Revenue Via Advertising
The NCAA wouldn’t be what it is today without advertising dollars.
Every year, the NCAA March Madness men’s basketball tournament alone generates enough revenue to fund every sport in the entire NCAA. In 2019, March Madness reportedly generated $1.05 billion, which amounts to more than 90% of the organization’s annual revenue of $1.12 billion.
Some $800 million of this sum comes from broadcasting rights sold to CBS Sports and Turner, for whom the tournament means lucrative ad deals amounting to nearly $1.2 billion. March Madness generates some serious viewership, as 16.9 million viewers tuned in to watch at least one game between the Final Four in 2021, drawing in some 400,000 more viewers than even the NBA Finals.
Will student athletes suck up pre-existing ad spend, or will they create a new market?
There is no question that individual student athletes stand to make money from the newly won ability to market their NIL. But the question remains as to whether advertisers will now divert spending away from the traditional channels they once used in favor of this new opportunity in influencer marketing.
Certainly, the nature of advertising has changed dramatically over the past few years. Television ad spending was the dominant medium for marketing for many decades, but 2019 marked the first time that budgets for digital advertising (social media marketing, influencer marketing, etc.) surpassed spending on all other traditional advertising mediums.
Whether the pie for advertising spend grows or gets divvied up differently, there is a lot of money hanging in the balance. According to our analysis, the top 25 collegiate basketball players alone have the potential to earn a collective $10.5 million dollars. This is a staggering sum that is roughly 1% of the NCAA’s entire 2019 revenue -- and this figure doesn’t even account for other basketball players, nor the most-followed athletes in other sports.
During September 2021, we located the Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter accounts of the top men’s and women’s basketball players in the NCAA from existing compilations of top athletes for the coming season and athletes who have the most followings.
Only players who would be Freshmen-Seniors for the Fall 2021, Spring 2022 season were considered.
Social media counts are from September 2021. If no social media account for any given platform could be found, or if the account was private, the player received a 0-count for that platform.
Potential revenue was calculated based on the combined following across Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter at a rate of $0.80 per follower, per year.