October 14, 2021

NIL: It’s a Game-Changer

NIL: It’s a Game-Changer

Our research has shown that the reputation of the university matters and plays a role in the overall following of the student athlete. However, what matters a lot more than the reputation of the university is the individual student athlete’s ability to create a positive personal brand and to build their own personal following.

Thilo Kunkel, associate professor at School of Sport, Tourism and Hospitality Management and director of the Sport Industry Research Center

After decades of saying no to college athletes looking to earn a few dollars, the NCAA gave the go-ahead for athletes to make money from the use of their name, image and likeness (NIL). In short, it’s a game-changer—and not just for the athletes at the big Division I colleges and universities. Many social media-savvy college athletes are securing revenue streams via both big and small business sponsorships. Thilo Kunkel, associate professor at the School of Sport, Tourism and Hospitality Management and director of the Sport Industry Research Center, believes there is potential for student-athletes of all genders at all division levels to earn money by building a positive, personal brand. 

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Full Episode Transcript 

Host: Welcome to Catalyst, the podcast of Temple University’s Fox School of Business. I’m your host, Tiffany Sumner. There has been a major change in the rules around the ability of college athletes to earn money while playing a sport. [00:01:00] student-athletes are now able to monetize their name, image and likeness as never before. 

Today I’m joined by Thilo Kunkel, associate professor and director of the Sport Industry Research Center at the School of Sport Tourism and Hospitality Management at Temple University. Thilo shares his research into how student-athletes can use their name, image and likeness, or NIL, to earn money by developing a positive personal brand. He also shares insight into the role a university plays in providing resources and education for athletes to be successful in the world of personal branding.

Hi Thilo, welcome to Catalyst. [00:02:00] 

Thilo: Thank you for having me.

Host: Tell us a little bit about NIL, name, image and likeness and what impact it will have on college sports.

Thilo: Name, image and likeness, and the change that happened in regards to the ability to monetize that name, image and likeness, have really changed the common sport, not just football but for all college athletes. There are instances of gymnasts that sign six figures sponsorship deals because they are now endorsing a specific activewear brand, all the way to football quarterbacks signing seven-figure deals for sponsorship endorsements. So, it ranges from sport, it ranges from male or female athletes, [00:03:00] it ranges from D1 to D3. There are no boundaries to monetizing the name, image and likeness right now. Every week there is something new and exciting happening with new sponsorship deals and they’re getting really amplified by social media. So, it’s really nice to see athletes taking advantage of it. It’s also interesting to see how businesses are positioning themselves to really increase the value of sponsorships. 

Host: And so does that mean we’re going to see college athletes walking around with Gatorade gear or, you know, head to toe in Nike or other brands?

Thilo: We will certainly see athletes really taking advantage of the media attention they’re getting, as well as the social media reach that they have. So we see athletes really making use of being able to be content creators themselves and promote themselves beyond what the school offers in terms [00:04:00] of media exposure. And we will see some fully decked out in specific brands and we will see some going out all the way and signing way too many sponsorship deals for what they probably can handle. And we will see some just not getting involved at all. I think it’s going to be a really wide range of opportunities that these athletes have. 

Host: So why now? And what did student-athletes do before to make money?

Thilo: Why now? Because we’ve seen a lot of change in the state legislation around the country and that was much needed to change. So the NCAA as an institution was no longer able to restrict the ability to monetize name, image and likeness, which is great to see and hear. And, we will see a lot more of that activation throughout the nation. [00:05:00] Before student-athletes were monetizing name, image and likeness, they would often work for $10 an hour or $8 an hour somewhere behind the counter. So they were able to work in relation to anything that’s not associated with a sport or an image. 

And, so oftentimes, given the tight schedule these student-athletes are on—particularly during the actual season when the sport is on and they have 20 hours of training, they have travel days and some of them didn’t work—so this meant that for those who came from less fortunate families or underprivileged conditions, they have been really struggling with actually making enough money to not go to bed hungry. So, it’s been a real change that is particularly helpful for those who have been struggling with making money. 

Host: I can’t imagine having a full school schedule [00:06:00] and then practicing probably 20 hours a week and then actually, you know, game time and also working—it doesn’t seem like there’d be enough hours in the day or corners have to be cut somehow. 

Thilo: You’re right and the corners that have been cut in the past were oftentimes sleep, which is extremely important for development, it’s extremely important to be able to recover from physical stress so that would have lead to injuries, physical injuries, and could also lead to mental burn out and obviously increased stress, which would have negatively impacted student-athletes mental health. So, I think there have been corners cut in the past and probably are still cut every now and then here and I think we are really just at the beginning of the ability to monetize name, image and likeness. So, there are still thousands [00:07:00] of student-athletes who have not signed a sponsorship deal who have not made one dollar, or gotten a sample of Gatorade or a free sample of any sort of product so I think this is still the case around the nation.

Host: What made you start to focus on NIL as a research area?

Thilo: It was something that, not being from the United States, always baffled me—that an institution can prevent someone’s ability to monetize their name, image and likeness. And the arguments that the NCAA had were really flawed in my opinion. I think most people would agree that, back in the day, there were three main arguments that they had. One was around amateurism, as in we only watch this because the amateurs are clearly not up to pace. 

But then they were really banking [00:08:00] on the other two arguments, which were that the value lies within the institution, and the female athletes were at a disadvantage vs. male athletes because the most money-generating sports are men’s basketball and football. Given my other research in athlete branding on professional athletes as well as lesser-known athletes has been really shown that I think I could really debunk those two arguments through the research from social media. That’s really what we’re set out to do. And that’s also with the data shown and we were right, we were able to debunk those arguments and hopefully had a little part in the overall crumbling of the house of cards.

Host: What has your research shown for athletes of all genders at almost all division levels? How can they benefit? 

Thilo: Our research has shown that the reputation of the university matters and plays a role [00:09:00] in the overall following of the student-athletes. However, what matters a lot more than the reputation of the university is the individual student athletes ability to create a positive personal brand and to build their own personal following. So, within universities, we saw a large range of the number of followers as well as the engagement and we saw a large range between males and females

We actually did an average and did not find any differences between male and female athletes. If we’re looking at statistics, the female athletes are looking at the medium score, basically, that accounts for all of those superstar quarterbacks. If we take them out, female athletes would have a higher rate of followers than male athletes, that’s what our research has shown. So, I think overall looking at this ability to monetize that name, image and likeness, the wide range within each university, top tier [00:10:00] institutions matter much less than they thought they would matter. 

Host: That’s a really interesting finding. So, what role does a university like Temple play in NIL and how can it support its student-athletes?

Thilo: I think the role that is played by this university is providing opportunities, and by providing opportunities I mean media exposure, as well as education. student-athletes are only able to monetize name, image and likeness if they are able to build their own personal positive brand. And to do that it takes some education on how to do that and it takes resources and opportunities to get that out there. Basically, they amplify what the student-athlete is doing from the university and athletics perspective. 

So, what Temple is doing and providing, they have started now working in collaboration [00:11:00] with Athletics and the athletics center, which does an amazing job in supporting student-athletes. We have started a class focused on name, image and likeness showing student-athletes how to build that and how to make use of it and drive benefits to these student-athletes. So, that’s the educational part, which the university is really working on. 

And beyond those educational parts, it really comes down to providing network resources and opportunities and that’s when it comes to amplifying the student-athlete, the personal brands. It doesn’t need to cost a lot of money, it can be as simple as tagging the student-athlete social media account whenever they are highlighted. On the other hand, this means that the student and university need to stay combined and make sure that we’re not only highlighting the football players or the basketball players, but we’re providing opportunities for all sports and for all student-athletes. So, that means providing an opportunity for the [00:12:00] rowers, for the gymnasts, for the swimmers as well. 

Host: So, let’s talk about social media and building a personal brand. I think it’s very exciting that there is an academic portion at STHM at Temple that is going to help athletes make the most of these opportunities. What kind of advice would you have for a student-athlete who wants to build a personal brand and what does success look like?

Thilo: So, athletes should look into building a personal brand and have some name, image, the likeness of value they can be exploited in a way—I don’t really want to say exploited but it’s really gaining benefits from your personal brand and, in the end, it’s only as valuable as what you can do with it. So, that exploitation can mean making money off of it, [00:13:00] it can be getting free products, it can also mean making meaningful connections and networking beyond to land your dream job outside of sport, within sport or outside of sport. So I think it’s a wide range of benefits that can come from building a positive personal brand. 

And the main advice I have here is to take a long-term approach after personal branding and to take a positive approach. What I see often with student-athletes is that they feel like they don’t want to brag about whether it’s their performance or they don’t want to brag about their community engagements but they’re doing a lot. Our student-athletes go out in the community to help clean up some streets, they have to engage with kids, they do so much amazing work in the community that they are currently not promoting so they are missing out on that opportunity to build that personal brand. 

Host: Yeah, because I was going to say is‚ you know, and I think you have a marketing background as do I. [00:14:00] But I think it’s interesting—authenticity is something that we think a lot about in social media, right? So it’s this idea of just bringing your full self. Of course, your wins but also, like you were saying, the rest of you too. How you’re giving, how you’re doing other things within the community but at the end of the day, from a marketing perspective, and to really have that influence and to get those deals, don’t you think that a big part of it is just a pure volume game? Like the number of followers, how big of a community do they reach?

Thilo: I think the answer is two-fold. Yes, authenticity is super important and as you mentioned here, it’s about being yourself. And while I talk about causes and charities being beneficial, if that’s not you then you don’t pretend [00:15:00] like you want to build a brand around that. You are heavily into rap music and you want to get into rap and if this is your community you build a brand around that. 

What you also mentioned here is the growth of the community and the size of the community and certainly, the size matters a lot in this regard in terms of how we can monetize that. More followers generally mean the reach is larger. That was really how it started, that’s like step one in social media engagement, growing communities. What do I do then with the communities? You have to engage with the communities. Are they liking, are they commenting, are they engaged with your content? So, the more engagement you have, generally that means positive reinforcement for what you’re posting. 

However, there is a—I call it the third wave of social media—impact you can see. There are some influencers that have built large followings, very engaged followings. They become activated, which indicates actual influence to those followers to [00:16:00] actually take action. When they start selling a sponsored product, or when they try to activate a promotional code, 20% off for this product, etc. So that some student-athletes are slowly catching up on, saying “Look, yes you have a large following of athletes but you’re not driving any of my sales, you’re not helping me achieve my business objectives. So why should I pay you for a sponsored post? Why should I pay you for this?” So, I think we’re moving more and more towards these [00:17:00] promotional discount codes where it’s like, “I’ll give you a 20% discount but when no one buys, you get zero dollars.” So there are athletes that have invested so much time and effort into building this audience without actually gaining any benefits from it. 

Host; So, student-athletes are going to take a lot of time in some instances to build a personal brand to build a social media following, but what happens after they graduate? What are the opportunities for them with NIL post-graduation?

Thilo: I think there is a lot of opportunities to exploit the branding. So whether they want to stay in the sport as a coach, a mentor, or someone who provides personal training or as someone who is in that area. So I think there are a lot of opportunities to exploit name, image and likeness from a monetization perspective. I also think there are a lot of opportunities from the audience that builds on social media to leverage that jump outside of sport. So, those jobs could be still connected to sport as in [00:18:00] an organization that has some context in the sports field, all the way to being able to leverage being a student-athlete to grow a LinkedIn network. 

Say now I’m working for a big company because connections are going to also age, they are going to be professionals down the road that follow us now that did when you were a student-athlete. Sometimes they’re in the same age group where they are your peers but they continue along so you can transition that content from only being focused on the sport to sprinkling what other professional opportunities you are engaging in that can have real value to engaging you into that specific audience. 

Host: What types of jobs might become regularly available as a result of NIL?

Thilo: I think NIL and the changes that it’ll have is growth in the sports industry [00:19:00] and it’s providing multiple opportunities and it’s really a growing industry as a whole. It’s going to be agents that focus specifically on student-athletes, that have been agents before as well new professionals who are growing up and being a peer of a star athlete and be like “Hey, I can spin off my own agency off of this.” So in the agency world, there are a lot of movements, there are marketing and sponsorship agencies that are purely focused on student-athletes right now. 

And the athletic administration around the nation is certainly in need to increase what they are doing for the student-athletes and student-athletes are going to be creating new jobs that are really focused on business development for student-athletes. The athletic program wants to use NIL [00:20:00] and the changes in NIL can help for the improvement, they need to have experts. So right now, oftentimes, universities are buying that expertise from outside vendors. Moving forward I think they will bring expertise in-house. So there are going to be new positions added at a lot of institutions around the nation. 

And there are already quite a few consultants that are focused on helping institutions maximize the benefits of NIL, whether that’s an improvement, whether it’s in retention, as well as the services that are focused on the student-athletes themselves. Right now, it’s focused on monetization and sponsorship initially. But I think there is also a lot more legal work that can be really focused on student-athletes. Right now, they are transitioned purely to focus on student-athletes and helping them with trademarks, helping them set up NFT’s, helping them create [00:21:00] their LLCs and so forth. So, it’s an interesting massive growth to the industry, and that is also something that has a massive impact on the sports industry as a whole. 

And that impacts how we at STHM also worked some of that content in our classes—particularly my NIL name, image and likeness class—on not only how student-athletes can build their personal brand, but then also what do athletic administrators need to know, what do sponsors need to know that are working with student-athletes. So, we’re covering a lot of that content in these classes, as well just to make sure that it’s not only a benefit to the student-athlete but it’s also beneficial for anyone in the sports industry to actually have an understanding of how to read all of the benefits that these opportunities provide. 

Host: Yeah, it’s such great real-world [00:22:00] knowledge and skills to have to go into the next phase of their career or, you know, if they become professional athletes or professional marketers or agents any of those things. It seems so practical, that’s great. 

What advice would you have to give to an athlete or anybody really looking to venture into personal branding?

Thilo: I think everyone should at least give it a shot. Some people really don’t, like, fully understand where it’s coming from and if that’s you, it’s still an opportunity to hire someone to do all of that work for you and in this case, if you don’t like it, you may as well pay for someone to do it because you can reach some of the benefits. It is a certain skill set that these student-athletes are gaining. 

And it’s also interesting, you learn about yourself in terms of what you like, what are some of your strengths, what are some of your aspects where you’re like, “Well, actually, I don’t like this, I’m not really good at this.” So, figure out some of the strengths and weaknesses [00:23:00] that are out there while just learning more about the industry. So, I do think that ironically the NCAA’s mission about being student-first and providing learning opportunities has been actually spurred by what they have been fighting against for so long. 

And nowadays, student-athletes are really interested in what does an organization structure looks like, what is an LLC, what are some contracts, what are some work contracts, how do I set this up, how do I do taxes? All of those aspects are aspects they are now interested in that they oftentimes weren’t before. So, it’s something that is really helpful for their future career. Taxes are certainly something to keep in mind that, hey, you’re making $1,000 here, at some point you will have to pay taxes on that income. Don’t spend it all, [00:24:00] get a good accountant, or sit down and study tax law and taxation and figure out what it means for your own business and at what point does it mean, does it make sense to switch from being a sole proprietor to starting an LLC in your own name where you’re selling yourself as part of that? So, you can pay someone to do tax benefits. Taxation is really an important aspect of NIL and that’s something that we don’t see talked about very often. I think it’s a really interesting learning experience and learning opportunity for student-athletes as well. 

Host: Is there anything that has come about NIL that has surprised or intrigued you?

Thilo: Yeah, I think name, image and likeness is certainly one aspect that we’ve seen within the sport industry that is focused on the benefit of the athlete. Often what we haven’t really focused on as much as the amplification that deals get from the mainstream media, particularly right now. [00:25:00] There’s an athlete that signed an alcohol sponsorship as part of just being a student-athlete and their company gained so much exposure nationwide through mainstream media picking up that news. And we’ve seen umbrella sponsorships such as the University of Michigan, where their whole football team gets sponsored by a company and that company gets a lot of exposure just from the mainstream media. So we see mainstream media right now amplifying new sponsorships. And that’s a massive opportunity for businesses working with student-athletes. 

The one thing that I think is interesting, though, in particular about these umbrella sponsorships, is that it underpays a few and overpays a lot to certain athletes. So, you may be the star quarterback and your post may be worth $5,000. [00:26:00] Now you have to post for $500 because without you the whole team wouldn’t get the sponsorship deal. So, that plays a lot of social pressure on the individual in teams that have a lot higher value on their own, because they obviously don’t want their teammates to miss out on these bigger opportunities as well. 

So, I think we’re just scratching the surface on some of those ethical questions around that. And it’s not the ethical question as in, should someone get paid or not, but the question arises as what’s the pressure around getting forced into a contract. So, I think those are some interesting future research questions that we’re engaging in and that we’re really passionate about further advancing as part of our team at Temple University, as part of our team in the Sport Industry Research Center [00:27:00] . So we’re engaging in a lot of that conversation and research right now to dig deeper into NIL and hopefully make further contributions to the policy as well to business management.

Host: I want to thank Thilo Kunkel for joining me today. The future for college athletes looking to monetize their name, image and likeness is just beginning. A lot of work goes into building a positive personal brand. The most successful student-athletes will be those who grow and engage their communities by being true to themselves and recognizing [00:28:00] where they can make an impact. and it’s not just the student-athletes who will be seeing a difference. There are also opportunities on the business side of sports, as new career opportunities and revenue streams emerge. 

Join us next time for a conversation about how to use your skills to better your community. We’ll talk to Sarah Bergstein, a Fox alumna, military veteran and animal lover who harnessed her passion into boardroom action. Stay tuned for more next time on Catalyst. [00:29:00] 

Catalyst is a podcast from Temple University’s Fox School of Business. Subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts and visit us on the web at fox.temple.edu/catalyst. We are produced by Milkstreet Marketing, Megan Alt, Anna Batt and Karen Naylor. I hope you’ll join us next time. Until then, I’m Tiffany Sumner and this is Catalyst. [00:30:00]