Opportunities await Olympic sport athletes with proposed NCAA name, image and likeness rules
Beneath a Pulp Fiction poster hanging on a wall in a dormitory suite, Mitchell Pehlke sits at his laptop and uploads a series of videos to his YouTube channel.
The edited clips show Pehlke, a sophomore on the Ohio State men’s lacrosse team, in everyday life, buzzing between dining hall meals, campus strolls, workouts and bantering with roommates.
He began vlogging in high school when he recorded a video of himself and a friend giving each other haircuts to the entertainment of their classmates.
“I just remember that next day going to school and seeing people’s faces, and them watching it and just being like, 'Wow, that made me laugh,' or, 'That made my day,’” Pehlke said. “That feeling is something I chase every single time I make a video.”
Driven by the response, Pehlke kept posting as his channel grew in popularity, adding more than 14,000 subscribers and leaving him with one of the largest online followings for any athlete on the 36 varsity sports teams at Ohio State.
Though longstanding NCAA rules have prevented Pehlke from monetizing his platform, it might turn into a source of income in the near future.
If the Division I Council passes legislation to allow college athletes to profit from the use of their name, image and likeness (NIL) at its meeting next month, Pehlke could be paid to promote products on his channel or TikTok account. He proposed a manscaping razor as one endorsement idea. Branded merchandise could be a possibility as well.
“There’s definitely different ways I can make money in that space,” he said.
Since the NCAA’s board of governors announced its support of NIL rules changes last spring, the dominant conversation has focused on the potential for top football and men’s basketball players to land lucrative endorsement deals by capitalizing on their national name recognition.
Opendorse, a digital marketing platform for athletes, estimated that former Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields could have earned more than $1 million a year, and it’s not difficult to picture future stars leading advertising campaigns.
But people familiar with the college sports industry expect the financial opportunities from relaxed NIL rules to extend beyond the two most high-profile sports, estimating that athletes from dozens of Olympic sports will see paydays of their own.
“The headline stuff is, ‘Oh how much money would Justin Fields have made?’” said Blake Lawrence, the chief executive of Opendorse and a former Nebraska linebacker. “And those are good stories to tell, but I think the hidden story is how much of an impact will this have?”
Getting a social media spotlight, outside of sports
When Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith co-chaired a working group formed by the NCAA in 2019 to study name, image and likeness, he listened to a presentation from Dylan Geick, a former wrestler at Columbia.
Geick discussed how he had built up a following on Instagram by writing poetry. It was an eye-opening moment for Smith, who realized the potential for athletes to gain influence on social media involved pursuits outside of their sport.
“I never thought about that,” Smith said. “He was a poet, and he has followers in poetry. It had nothing to do with his wrestling.”
Smith expects others to follow suit. While Olympic sports are less visible than football and basketball, the athletes participating in them have found varying ways to develop sizeable online followings.
Some, such as Geick, highlight niche hobbies. Others post frequent content that leads to high levels of user engagement.
Quality counts, too. In the case of Pehlke, he spends multiple hours each week editing his video blogs on Final Cut Pro software. Thinking about the short attention span of a typical young audience, he mashes together quick clips.
“I’m making a video that's really five minutes or less, and every 10 seconds, a new word or new picture popping up is going to really keep my viewer intrigued,” Pehlke said.
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Careful curation can be as critical for athletes in gaining followers as any athletic feat.
“Your on-field performance no doubt helps your online audience grow,” Lawrence said, “but sometimes your online performance is the leading factor in growing your online audience.”
Thilo Kunkel, an associate professor for marketing and sports management at Temple University, thinks social media platforms will democratize NIL opportunities.
“It’s really up to each individual athlete on how well they are promoting themselves,” Kunkel said. “If you're a volleyball player, and you don't get national TV exposure, but you can do some really cool TikTok dances, that's probably going to be better for your personal brand and audience building than if you're a football player who plays at Ohio State but you only ever see that person behind the helmet on national TV. You don't build that connection.”
Under the NCAA’s proposed rules changes related to NIL, athletes will be unable to endorse brands while using their school’s name, logo or trademarks.
But established followings would be helpful in securing social media deals.
In a study published in February, Kunkel and other researchers found athletes with more than 10,000 combined followers could earn $5,000 a year.
A handful of Olympic sport athletes at Ohio State clear that threshold, including four from last season’s wrestling team, led by freshman Anthony Echemendia, a former youth national champion in Cuba who has more than 35,000 followers between his Instagram and Twitter profiles, according to Opendorse’s tracking.
Women’s basketball player Dorka Juhasz, a two-time first-team all-Big Ten selection who transferred to Connecticut last month, also holds more than 16,000 combined followers.
The numbers are likely to grow as restrictions on NIL compensation ease and athletes are incentivized to expand their followings. In recent years, many have kept social media accounts on private settings.
“Once NIL rules change, I think behavior will also change,” Kunkel said, “and they're going to take a much more strategic approach to personal branding.”
Niche markets, open doors from fanbases
Tom Ryan thinks about the size of the crowds.
Before the coronavirus pandemic prompted the Ohio State wrestling team to tangle in empty arenas last winter, it had drawn thousands of spectators for its biggest dual meets in previous seasons. As recently as 2019, a crowd of 13,276 watched the Buckeyes host Penn State at St. John Arena.
When fans fill the seats, the longtime Buckeyes coach regards them as a sign of the sport’s passionate audience, something that could provide his wrestlers with assorted opportunities to make money.
“There’s a following,” Ryan said. “There’s a market for these guys.”
Wrestling at Ohio State is similar to gymnastics at UCLA or women’s volleyball at Nebraska. The teams hold avid local followings despite limited nationwide appeal for the broader sport.
Such fervent fanbases open the door for endorsement deals.
“They’ll potentially be more targeted and more niche,” said Zachary Segal, the founder of StudentPlayer.com, a crowdfunding website aimed at connecting athletes with potential sponsors. “The dollar amounts will be different than someone who has a large national audience, but if you think about this from a brand’s perspective, they’re interested in the best value.”
Eyeing a strategic approach, companies might not only pursue agreements with football players.
If a manufacturer wants to sell ice skates, it might turn to an ice hockey player. If an apparel brand is selling running shoes, it could turn to a cross-country runner.
But endorsements are only one path to reach a targeted audience.
An ESPN analysis of NIL opportunities determined one of the most lucrative income sources for the average Olympic sport athlete is likely to come from giving lessons or running summer camps for children. It estimated they could make $5,000 a year from private coaching.
Current NCAA restrictions have kept them from pursuing many of those possibilities.
When former Ohio State softball player Maddy McIntyre spent the summer after her sophomore season in 2013 in her hometown outside of San Diego, she declined offers from her high school and a local league to run camps for them.
McIntyre believes her teammates from Columbus or the surrounding suburbs would have been even more in demand for clinics.
“The commonality among players in Olympic sports and revenue sports is that they all come from a high school that they were a good athlete, probably a star athlete,” said Ramogi Huma, the executive director of the National College Players Association, an advocacy group for college athletes that has pushed for NIL legislation. “Going back to your own high school, doing a camp once a year, you have 40 kids at a camp, charge $25, that's a $1,000. That will start to chip away. If you do that every year, that’s $4,000.”
Can income from NIL lead to tuition relief?
How far could a few thousand dollars in NIL income go? It could be significant for Olympic sport athletes. Since most are on partial scholarships or are walk-ons, they pay tuition.
Only six sports — football, men’s and women’s basketball, women’s gymnastics, women’s tennis and women’s volleyball — give full rides to all of their scholarship players.
It means there are athletes who leave school in debt like other students.
When Ohio State surveyed athletes who graduated during the 2019-20 academic year, it found they owed an average of $27,900 in student loans.
The significant financial obligations leave Smith to contend that Olympic sport athletes will be the biggest beneficiaries from an extension of NIL rights.
“The impact on them, whether it’s $1,000, or $5,000, or $10,000, is going to be significant,” Smith said. “If you come in as a freshman, and if we can help you figure out your niche, and then you start it in your sophomore year, you got three years to run, to hopefully make X to mitigate your debt.”
Instead of leveraging their NIL, athletes have been relying on other means to make money. McIntyre estimated about a third of her former softball teammates at Ohio State held jobs in their offseason, working in retail or at frozen yogurt shops, among other areas.
Meghan Kammerdeiner, who was a senior on the Buckeyes’ women’s soccer team this past season, juggled a job at the office of university integrity and compliance and babysitting for families.
She said other players took coaching gigs within their sport, but were still limited. They were unable to sponsor training sessions or advertise 1-on-1 lessons, self-promotion that could have brought in more money to assist with tuition payments or living expenses.
“By opening up name, image and likeness to the non-revenue generating sports and student-athletes, you’re going to give them an opportunity to graduate with a little less debt or no debt at all and find an interesting and natural way for them to get a few extra dollars in their pocket,” said former Ohio State wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez, now a second-term Republican congressman from Ohio’s 16th congressional district. “For the overwhelming majority, they’re just poor college kids. They don’t have any money.”
Gonzalez, who last month reintroduced a bipartisan bill to allow college athletes to receive compensation for the use of their NIL, acknowledged they also balance tuition obligations with significant time demands from their sport.
In recent surveys conducted by the NCAA, athletes in Division I have reported participating in athletic activities for at least 30 hours a week.
By offering a potential avenue to reduce student debt, new NIL rules could also expand the pool of athletes who potentially enroll at schools.
Over nearly a decade as Ohio State’s field hockey coach in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Karen Weaver remembered one or two recruits every year turning down offers from her program to enroll elsewhere, citing financial considerations.
The prospective players were from outside Ohio and did not qualify for in-state tuition.
“I lost some really good kids because of out-of-state tuition,” said Weaver, now an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of education. “Their families just didn't have the money.”
In a NIL era 30 years later, Weaver imagines she might have made a different recruiting pitch.
Like a lot of ice hockey players, Christian Lampasso dealt with “lace bites.”
The irritation on the front of his ankle came when tight laces caused the tongue of the skate to press on his tendon.
To relieve pain, Lampasso had a solution. He modified foam padding and placed it inside his skates to absorb pressure.
It worked well enough when he first came up with the idea in high school in South Burlington, Vermont, that he used the pads throughout his career and passed them along to teammates on junior hockey league teams and at Ohio State.
During a summer internship in 2017 at the university’s center for innovation strategies, the engineering major thought about distributing even more pads. He considered selling and marketing them to hockey players across the country, using his connections in the sport.
“That was my first time I had ever really been introduced to entrepreneurship or innovation at all,” Lampasso said. “Just being an engineer, I had never been on the business side of it. Once I started talking to my boss, he was like, ‘Yeah, why don’t you just try it and go for it?’ And I was like, ‘OK, well, let me do it.’ And then that’s really where that red tape started to come in.”
NCAA rules prohibited him from commercializing the product. Since it related to hockey, he was unlikely to obtain a waiver to launch any sort of company that was centered on the sale of his invention.
As soon as the college sports governing body changes its NIL rules, Lampasso anticipates current and future athletes will start businesses of their own.
He reasons he was not the only one who was hindered by restrictions in previous years.
“I’m sure there's 100 different things that people have come up with that have been unable to be moved forward with,” he said.
Now a program manager at the center for innovation strategies, Lampasso believes athletes are also increasingly pursuing entrepreneurship.
Lacrosse players, swimmers and track and field athletes at Ohio State have approached him about the program, which aims to help students develop business ideas.
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Additional surveys highlight a similar trend. When McIntyre, the former softball player, worked as a director of student-athlete development at the Eugene D. Smith Leadership Institute, she surveyed the most desired career paths among seniors.
When they began during the 2017-18 academic year, entrepreneurship was not among the 10 most popular fields of interest. This year, it had risen to fifth.
With NIL reform on the horizon, it’s likely the possibility of making money has added to some of the appeal.
“Once you start hearing and understanding that this might be a real opportunity,” McIntyre said, “you can really take that into consideration and start getting creative with your ideas.”
College athletes are also influenced by their professional counterparts who have broadened their business ventures. Earlier this spring, NBA superstar LeBron James purchased a stake in the group that owns the Boston Red Sox.
“I think they’re following a lot of these success stories,” McIntyre said.
They might soon have the chance to write their own. Perhaps a business venture or startup. They step into the new landscape.
OSU prepares for changing NIL landscape.