Best Practices for Student-Athletes in the NIL Era

After years of athlete advocacy, fan anticipation and policy debate, the NIL Era of college sports officially began at midnight on July 1, 2021. The new world, which will dramatically reshape the sports business landscape, is being defined by the minute and will be fluid for the foreseeable future. Regardless of how the industry evolves, athletes should follow these five principles to effectively capitalize on their name, image and likeness. 

Be Prepared

Just like creating a game plan for athletic competition, athletes should invest time and resources in defining how they will monetize their NIL. Being proactive is important and it’s best to have a set approach that can serve as a north star as opportunities arise. NIL is a marathon, not a sprint, and it’s not too late for student-athletes to make a plan. 

University of Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz, who has worked closely with his parents to diligently prepare for NIL, grabbed national headlines on June 28 when he announced his trademarked logo with a flashy social media video. He followed up several days later with a personal website and online store.

University of Nebraska volleyball star Lexi Sun was ready to go live with her new apparel line, REN Athletics, at midnight on July 1.

Creating a strong brand in the NIL Era will take thought and time, but the payoff can make it well worth the effort. 

Be Deliberate

While making money is an exciting new frontier in college athletics, it’s important that student-athletes are thoughtful about the deals they accept. In preparing their plan, athletes should reflect on their values to ensure all opportunities are on-brand with who they are and how they want to be perceived. Every deal should align with their personal branding plan. It’s best not to take a deal just because. 

Indiana University basketball player Miller Kopp used a Twitter thread to share his goals and how he will activate in the NIL era.

University of Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler, who was prepared on July 1 with a custom logo and agent representation, announced his NIL intentions on social media. Rattler plans to donate a portion of his earnings to support underserved communities.

Be Consistent

Consistency will be key in the NIL Era, not only with deals that are accepted but in posting organic content. Feeds should not become oversaturated with #ad content, and a strong social media roadmap is key for audience growth. The Cavinder Twins, Hanna and Hailey, who were big winners on July 1, are models for posting quality content on a regular basis across all platforms. Their following is strong and engaged, and they were able to capitalize because of the work they have put in over the years.  

@cavindertwins

Shoutout to @Gopuff & @Opendorse for supporting student athletes across the country! 🤍 #fyp #gopuffpartner

♬ original sound – thefashionfreakk

University of Miami cornerback Al Blades Jr. is another one who has invested time in creating a consistent, interactive social media presence. Blades and the University of Miami figure to be big players in the NIL Era. 

Be Safe

A critical part of NIL monetization efforts is making sure student-athletes have a solid system in place for consistent reporting and disclosure of activities. Compliance professionals are learning the process along with everyone else, and they have a lot on the plate as they make sense of a catalog of new rules. 

Athletes should study the policies and follow the rules. They should make sure they are vetting companies and individuals with whom they do business. They should prepare to file taxes so there are no surprises at the end of the year, especially if in-kind compensation is received. Financial and legal advisors can help in these efforts, as well as tools like Opendorse Monitor™ for reporting, but ultimately, it is an athlete’s responsibility to make sure they’re protecting themselves and remaining compliant. 

Texas Longhorns softball player Lauren Burke wrote about her thoughts on NIL, accentuated by an all-important reminder about tax prep.  

And along with being smart with NIL opportunities, student-athletes must learn how to handle the new distractions effectively so they can perform at a high level in the classroom and on the field. 

Be Yourself

There is so much activity after NIL’s shotgun start on July 1. It’s a new world with endless possibilities. Student-athletes should not be scared or guarded; rather they should let loose so they can showcase their personality and interests. While making a little money on the side now, they are still college students, after all. 

LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne, the second-most followed student athlete in college sports, made a splash in Times Square, clearly having fun with NIL rights.

Dawand Jones, offensive lineman at Ohio State, showed off his goofy personality with a tongue-in-cheek tweet about his apparent love of candles, part of a unique activation between Gopuff and Opendorse. Through the partnership, Gopuff sent a deal to every student-athlete who opted into Opendorse Deals™ a deal on July 1.  

And Marshall University offensive lineman Will Ulmer showed off his musical talent on day-one, proclaiming how we will now be permitted to use his real name to play, and profit off, his live shows under the new policy. 

The NIL Era is off to a flying start in college sports. Day-one served as a showcase of what’s come as the preparation, intelligence, personality of thousands of student-athletes was on display across the country.

This moment has been building for years, and it’s safe to say that the best is yet to come. 

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