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Putting To Rest The Claim That NIL Isn’t For All College Athletes

A constant criticism lodged by those people who are not yet fully on board with providing college athletes the right to commercialize and make money off of their names, images, and likenesses (NIL) is that the vast majority of athletes will not benefit at all from it. These individuals argue that the disparity between the “haves” and “have nots” will be expanded and that only the blue-chip athletes will have the capacity to earn compensation from third parties through deals that include a provision for the use of athletes’ publicity rights.

I have long argued that there is no evidence to support such a claim and that the argument is merely a distraction to the overarching goal, which is to provide equal opportunity to all athletes, whether they be performing in revenue or nonrevenue sports, at every educational institution. Now, there is new research that not only supports my premise but also directly refutes the detractors who try to find any angle possible to rain on the athletes’ publicity rights parade.

Dr. Thilo Kunkel of Temple University’s School of Sport, Tourism, and Hospitality Management claims that, based on his research, both female college athletes and athletes participating in less-popular college sports may have much to gain with NIL rights. His study found that the average annual social media account value of athletes with merely 10,000 followers could be worth more than $5,000. Furthermore, Kunkel’s finding is that female college athletes rank higher than male college athletes with regard to their median social media account value.

Many of the opportunities for college athletes surrounding the exploitation of their NIL will come in the form of third parties paying for them to post content on their social media profiles. Most deals will include social media promotion as a component, but there will also be agreements that strictly revolve around that type of deliverable. As such, Kunkel’s research is important in that it demonstrates that there is a clear market for athletes with small follower counts (as compared to more nationally recognizable athletes) and that female athletes should not be ignored by corporations seeking to gain by way of association with college players.

Kunkel and his colleagues broke their study down into two components. First, they went through the social media profiles of Division I football and basketball players prior to the 2018 NFL and NBA drafts and applied a CPM, or price of 1,000 advertisement impressions on one page, to each athlete. Second, they tracked the social followings and engagement of college athletes at two top-tier (Clemson and Stanford) and two mid-tier (Temple and Jacksonville) Division I universities.

“Some of the top-tier male athletes skewed higher, just because they’re in the news all the time, but there was no significant difference to female athletes. In fact, when we consider the median, female student-athletes actually ranked higher than male athletes,” Kunkel said. “On average, they also post more content than their male counterparts. For years, the NCAA has said that NIL would not be beneficial for female student-athletes, but our research shows that’s not valid.”

Darren Heitner is the founder of Heitner Legal. He is the author of How to Play the Game: What Every Sports Attorney Needs to Know, published by the American Bar Association, and is an adjunct professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. You can reach him by email at and follow him on Twitter at @DarrenHeitner.

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