Name / Image / Likeness: the now famous “NIL” acronym has made headlines for years, but it wasn’t until this very week that the NCAA agreed to allow athletes to finally sell their name / image / likeness rights — that’s right, for cold hard CASH.
Yesterday, the NCAA made a major announcement, which said:
“Name, image and likeness rights are frequently called an individual’s right to publicity. NCAA athletes will now be able to accept money from businesses in exchange for allowing the business to feature them in advertisements or products. Athletes also will be allowed to use their own status as a college athlete to promote their own public appearances or companies for the first time.”
But what does this mean for William & Mary? At first glance, the average fan might assume that a “small time” mid-major, FCS school such as W&M wouldn’t have to worry about this. But the average fan would be wrong. Let’s jump in!
1. W&M student athletes will almost certainly sign deals with businesses this year (and every year moving forward), getting paid for services tied to their image and likeness.
Now, first thing most folks will think of are big-time college athletes signing monster deals (think: starting QBs for SEC schools). And while these types of deals will certainly make the biggest headlines, there will also be multitudes of “under the radar” deals signed every year across all types of schools, athletes, markets, and sports. But wait, there’s a massive equalizer that will help bridge the gap between the big schools and the small schools when it comes to NIL deals.
What’s the big equalizer, you ask? That’s a little thing we like to call social media. Think about it: a college athlete who’s on a relatively “smaller” team at a relatively “smaller” sports school (think: an athlete on an Olympic sports team) can still make a lot of money. How? If this athlete happens to have a coveted social media following on Instagram and/or TikTok, they’ll bring with them a built-in network of followers that several brands will pay big money to get in front of.
Because at the end of the day, whether we’re talking about a local brand or a national brand, all brands want to get as close to their current and potential customers as humanly possible. And if a certain company’s target demographic aligns with W&M student athletes’ social followings, there is certainly money to be had. For William & Mary, there currently are and certainly will continue to be student athletes with large social media followings that brands covet.
But it can be even simpler than that: local Williamsburg brands (think Campus Shop, Paul’s Deli, local car dealerships, and more) will likely show some level of interest in William & Mary’s biggest athletes. A great example of this would be W&M’s recently graduated Nathan Knight. While Knight certainly wasn’t an athlete that was known nationally (nor even state-wide), he certainly had a following in Williamsburg, if we do say so ourselves.
While in the ‘Burg, there’s no reason why Nathan couldn’t have shot a commercial or two for a local brand, made an appearance at a local car dealership, or posted a branded social media campaign series — personally pocketing cash along the way. With these types of marketing partnerships (i.e. locally-focused ones with “big-time” individual W&M athletes), we expect these to occur, at least at first, with W&M student athletes playing the “bigger” sports — such as football and basketball. However, this does not mean that student athletes excelling in non-football & basketball sports couldn’t partner with a local brand in the same way; in fact, we expect that to happen in due time as well.
2. With NIL rights still freshly minted, could entire W&M teams sell their rights in unison?
Now think about this: if a W&M athlete plays for a “smaller” sport that doesn’t have a massive following, could he or she work with the entirety of the team to sell the collective team’s rights? Let’s say for example, W&M volleyball heard from a local Williamsburg company that there was mutual interest in shooting and promoting a social media campaign to promote said company brand. Would it be possible for the entire team to come together and make this happen? In this example, each player would be paid a portion of the fees charged to the Williamsburg company for the campaign.
In this instance, there’s still a lot of gray area. What seems relatively obvious to us is the fact that the school itself would have to be involved in a deal like this. Because when talking about using individual student athletes’ name / image / likeness, student athletes are now allowed to sell their own “brand.” However, companies cannot simply use William & Mary imagery, as of course William & Mary owns the intellectual property rights to the W&M brand and its subsequent logo.
It is for this very reason that one cannot simply (nor legally) print a t-shirt that includes a trademarked William & Mary logo without William & Mary’s official approval. The same would potentially be the case in this instance: if a brand wanted say that they were endorsed by the entire “William & Mary Volleyball team,” it would make sense to us that they could not do so without W&M’s approval — since this partnership involves use of the W&M moniker, so to speak.
In summary here, even the “smallest” mid-major FCS schools now need to have a serious plan for NIL, as the volleyball example above could occur at any school, on any campus, across the country. What’s W&M’s plan if this does come to pass? Answer: TBD!
3. Does this make college athletics the same as pro sports?
Short answer: no. Longer answer: it almost makes them semi-pro. Because while the schools themselves will not directly pay student athletes, brands across the country will pony up; the larger schools with the largest followings will command the most brand dollars. In essence, the best student athletes will go to the schools where they expect to earn the most amount of money. For better or worse, this is the way it will be (keep reading to see why this might actually benefit schools like W&M moving forward).
In order to recruit the biggest and best student athletes (especially in the largest revenue generating sports), no longer must universities “only” provide full scholarships for entire teams, spectacular facilities, incredible housing, and unparalleled academic support. They must also now prove that they have a platform that will enable student athletes to build their brand while on campus so that they can fully capitalize on their name / image / likeness rights (i.e. help them make the most money they can while they’re in college).
But here’s why this can potentially be good for schools like William & Mary and why college sports overall has a chance to return to relative “normalcy” (normalcy defined as: before big money got involved, when players stayed on campus for all four years and earned a degree, and when there was a relatively “even” playing field):
For smaller, mid-major type schools, it will now be nearly impossible to compete for the best student athletes (not that it wasn’t hard enough already). To us, it makes sense for the Power-5 to seriously think about “detaching” from D1 to form a “Super D1” of sorts. These schools will, in essence, be semi-pro with their “biggest and best” players paid like legitimate professional athletes.
As such, it doesn’t seem feasible for mid-major, FCS schools not only to compete for student athletes with schools that can indirectly (or directly, in certain cases) offer tens of thousands of dollars in NIL benefits to recruits, but it also really doesn’t seem to make sense for these same “professional” P-5 schools to still be playing against FCS / mid-major competition. Comparing the facilities, scholarships, and overall amount of money involved — it’s nearly akin to having the Yankees play a High-A baseball team. No thanks…But that’s just one man’s opinion.
Time will tell if our hunch on this is correct during the coming years, but with so many factors to think about when it comes to NIL rights, we’re happy that our beloved Tribe is led by our new, fearless leader Brian Mann. What do you think of the NIL change, Tribe fans? How do you think it’ll affect the Tribe? Let us know on social media!
LET’S GO TRIBE.