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Collegiate athletes look to become influencers after NCAA rule change

College athletes are now able to make money off their likenesses. Seemingly overnight, their social media accounts became influencer gold mines.
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In the photo posted to Instagram, Haley Cavinder holds her twin sister Hanna’s hand, their backs to the camera, as they point at a huge billboard in Times Square showing an image of the two women.

The billboard announced that the Cavinder twins, who play basketball for Fresno State, had signed a deal with Boost Mobile — the first for a college athlete since the National Collegiate Athletic Association gave student athletes the green light to make money off of their name, image and likeness, often referred to as NIL.

“First my twin, then my teammate, now my business partner,” Haley Cavinder wrote.

Seemingly overnight, college athletes have found themselves sitting on a social media gold mine. Since the NCAA’s new policy went into effect on July 1, a flurry of students have rushed to go from athletes to influencers.

They have begun signing brand deals, meeting with experts in the industry, and preparing for their future making money on social media.

"We've been waiting for this change, and we've been actively watching the NCAA and really making sure that we're going to be ready when this actually passed,” said Mae Karwowski, CEO and founder of Obviously, an influencer marketing agency. “This is going to be a huge boon for college athletes, and we're really excited.”

Even athletes with smaller followings, like a handful of those at the University of Arkansas, have been excited to learn how they, too, can capitalize on the influencer industry.

“With this being able to become a reality, it really opens your eyes … to what the possibilities are, and there really aren’t a lot of ceilings put on you when you’re an influencer,” said Grant Morgan, 23, a senior linebacker on Arkansas’ football team.

Student athletes are uniquely positioned to take on the influencer industry and sign brand deals. With their high visibility, they are able to easily build a following, and many of the tools and discipline they learn as athletes make them brand safe to potential partners.

Not only can student athletes now build a business for themselves, in addition to the skills they’ll learn turning their social media presence into a brand, experts estimate that their income could be substantial.

“I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility within a year the average student athlete who is serious about it and is brand safe and is someone who is thinking about how they want to capitalize on their business from an influencer perspective, I don’t think it’s crazy that they could make $10,000 to $30,000 a year,” said Bryce Adams, director of brand partnerships at Captiv8, a company that helps link brands with influencers who fit their needs.

Adams suggested that the income student athletes can make from influencing will depend in large part on where their school is and the type of social media presence they have. But he added that he wouldn’t be surprised to see students making in the high six-figures as more athletes use social media to make a living.

“I definitely think the way our possibilities have gone and what we can do with this is kind of mind-blowing,” Morgan said.

The time of year could also affect brand deals. For example, a college basketball player could theoretically reel in major brand deals during an event like March Madness, the annual NCAA championship tournament.

Some companies are so eager to use the reach of Division 1 athletes that they’re creating partnership opportunities for them. Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy announced on July 1 that the Barstool brand would be creating Barstool Athletics as a way to capitalize on student athletes. The idea to create the brand came from Adelaide Halverson, a volleyball player at Jacksonville State University in Alabama, who messaged Portnoy once the rule went into effect.

“She’s like ‘Yo, I want to be the first Barstool Athlete.’ I was like, ‘All right, what does that mean? I’m in. I don’t even know what that means — I love the sound of it,’” Portnoy said in a video posted to social media.

It’s unclear exactly what Halverson’s brand deal will entail, but Portnoy suggested the athletes, several of whom have since partnered with the company, might help sell Barstool’s merchandise.

As students and brands rush to partner, Karwowski advised that college athletes be savvy about who they align themselves with and what brands they choose to take on now. She advised the fledgling influencers to take time to research the companies they partner with.

“You really want to defend who you are online and you want to make sure you’re coming off as the best version of yourself,” she said.

Because there’s so much to learn as college athletes add influencer to their repertoire, companies like Captiv8 have begun meeting with them to help teach them about the potential of an influencing career and how they can monetize their reach. Captiv8 met with students at the University of Arkansas before the NCAA’s decision to talk about the potential benefits of influencing.

“There’s so much that I think we didn’t realize on how much our reach is getting out into the community and especially the entire state so it was very, very interesting to figure all of that out,” said Bumper Pool, 21, a senior linebacker on Arkansas’ football team.

The athletes at the University of Arkansas who took the course said they’re excited about the opportunity to become influencers and the chance to reach an audience. They added that their athletic careers have prepared them for this moment.

“Captiv8 came in and helped us do a flagship class on it, and they’ve basically opened our minds for how big the incentives are for being an influencer, how much impact we can have on the community,” Pool said.

While many students who play college sports will not pursue their athletic careers after graduation, influencing is something that could benefit them long after they leave the game behind.

“It’s really going to provide an actual career and livelihood for a number of people who would have otherwise had to stop playing or stop talking about their passion for sports,” Karwowski said. “And I think that’s really fantastic.”