After crunching the numbers, Blake Lawrence is certain that Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields could become a rich man before he becomes a richer man in the NFL.
It’s a moot point, really, because Fields likely will be out of college and playing in the NFL by the time the NCAA institutes name, image and likeness (NIL) rules at the beginning of the 2021-22 academic year.
Still, Fields serves as a model for what future famous college athletes can expect to make from endorsements, personal appearances, social media participation and businesses they develop.
Lawrence, CEO and co-founder of Opendorse, a Nebraska company that helps athletes calculate their value, estimates that if NIL were operating today Fields could make at least $250,000 annually on social media posts alone, not counting compensation from autograph and memorabilia shows. Lawrence grabbed a calculator during an interview with The Dispatch and quickly determined Fields’ market value.
“At Ohio State, which is one of the top five sports sponsorship markets in college athletics, there are high-dollar sponsors who support Ohio State every year,” Lawrence said. “And 10 are spending a million or more a year. Those type of sponsors have discretionary income to invest in an annual campaign with someone like Justin.”
Fields could expect half of those 10 to hire him to promote their product or business by posting once a quarter via his Instagram and Twitter accounts, which have 391,000 and 131,000 followers. Do the math — $11,000 per sponsored Instagram post and $1,500 per Twitter post, according to Lawrence — and the money would collect without the QB breaking a sweat.
Add personal appearance fees, autograph signings and maybe even a weekly radio show or podcast appearance and Fields would become the BMOC (Big Money on Campus), putting him at about the same $300,000 income level as his position coach, Corey Dennis.
Granted, athletes would face compensation limitations. Players would not be allowed to identify themselves by sport or school, and the use of conference or school logos and trademarks would be prohibited. Also, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith cautioned that the amount of payment cannot be “abnormal” for the services provided.
Lawrence explained that assessing each NIL transaction compared to fair market value, or with other athletes, is easy to say but difficult to execute, although analytics programs exist to meet the challenge.
“If Justin Fields were a pro athlete today, and based on NIL value, then he could expect to receive $5,000 per hour in appearance fees,” Lawrence said. “Therefore, as a college athlete if you go to a car dealership and can get a $50,000 car (as compensation) for one hour, that is 10 times market value and would likely be flagged and reviewed.”
But what if Fields did 10 appearances over five months in exchange for the same car? You begin to see how college compliance departments could become a hot mess in trying to track every NIL transaction.
Of course, Fields represents only a tiny fraction of college athletes.
Bill Carter, a partner at Fuse, a marketing company in Vermont specializing in young adult brand engagement, explained that football and men’s basketball players will garner the bulk of NIL endorsements, much more locally than nationally, and only at schools consistently ranked in the top 25.
“If you believe that premise, then you’re talking 50 schools,” Carter said. “Let’s be generous and say you’re talking about 15 athletes at those 50 schools who have the kind of local or national brand a business is thinking of using. You’re talking a total number, just in Division I, of slightly under 1%.”
That means 99% of all athletes will make out financially at a much lower level than a player of Fields’ stature, if at all. But at least they will have the opportunity to make a few bucks, which is more than they can do now.
“They deserve to participate in the marketplace,” Carter said, adding that opportunities will exist for many. For example, the field hockey athlete won’t register a NIL take in the six figures, but making $100 by speaking at a camp or clinic is doable.
A more interesting question for highly prized college athletes is whether they even should try to maximize their earning potential?
Peter Miller of JABEZ Marketing Group in Boston thinks a player such as Fields should not hit the endorsement trail hard until leaving college.
“If you think you have a career beyond this, you don’t want to maximize your opportunity here, because you could cost yourself loss of value,” said Miller, a reserve offensive lineman at Ohio State in 1994.
Fields might sign 10,000 autographs for $5 each and make $50,000, Miller said, but by flooding the market his signature becomes less valuable once he reaches the NFL.
It will be interesting to see how future famous college athletes navigate the NIL terrain. Some will stumble, but at least will be able to trade their celebrity for a box of Band-Aids.