Colin O'Brien
Colin O'Brien is a Sports Consumer Insights Analyst at Mintel. Utilizing his lifelong passion and knowledge of the industry, he is responsible for researching and writing reports on the world of sports in the US.

On July 1, 2021, the NCAA removed prohibitions that prevented college athletes from benefiting from their name, image and likeness (NIL). Thus, college athletes can now make money through partnerships, endorsements, social media posts or any other utilization of their NIL. Similarly, brands now have an entirely new batch of athletes to partner with to reach and connect with dedicated fans of college sports. As fans have a higher affinity for brands that partner with their favorite athletes, Mintel believes brands across industries should consider leveraging partnerships with college athletes.

In the few months since the change, national and local brands have already formed partnerships with athletes from a variety of college sports under these new rules – with several announcements even taking place at 12:01 am on July 1. Some of these include:

  • A local Miami MMA gym offered $6,000 to each of the 90 football players at the University of Miami.
  • The regional restaurant chain Runza offered every college athlete in Nebraska a NIL deal, with the partnerships going to the first 100 to accept and promote the chain on social media.
  • “Kool-Aid” is the nickname of Alabama football defensive back Ga’Quincy McKinstry. Naturally, the flavored drink mix brand chose McKinstry for its NIL partnership, announcing the deal over Twitter and the Alabama player changing his Twitter name to Kool-Aid McKinstry.

Pro teams utilize appeal of college athletes under new NIL rules

One interesting utilization for NIL partnerships thus far has come from professional sports teams. The Florida Panthers became the first professional sports team to establish an entire NIL program and then signed University of Miami quarterback D’Eriq King, making King the first college player to sign an NIL deal with a professional sports team. Through the partnership, King will make appearances at Panthers games and the NHL team will utilize the quarterback on social and digital platforms to engage fans in South Florida. King will have exclusive merchandise, art and a menu concession item available at Panthers games. The partnership will conclude following the end of King’s college eligibility.

The Atlanta Braves agreed to partnerships with two athletes, Georgia Tech football player Jordan Yates and University of Georgia gymnast Rachel Baumann. The two athletes will promote the team through social media and receive a stipend and commission on Braves tickets sold through links from the players’ social media accounts. Both the Panthers and Braves intend to sign more athletes in the future.

The two professional teams provide a very interesting take on NIL. Neither the Braves nor the Panthers opted to sign its first NIL athletes from the sport they play, instead opting for football and gymnastics in the Braves case. Football is easily the most popular sport in the US and for some pockets of the country, the most popular sports team is the local college football team. Choosing college football players offers pro teams partnerships with some of the most visible and marketable college athletes from popular local universities. These deals let the pro teams capitalize on the fandom of both the players and local universities as a whole and lead an entire audience of new fans to at the very least increase interest in the Panthers or Braves and at best convert these consumers into new fans. Teams across all of the professional sports world should, and Mintel expects they will immediately look at other college athletes that might be a good fit to form NIL partnerships.

NIL creates untapped market for female collegiate athletes

One of the common misconceptions over the years when it comes to athlete compensation and NIL laws is that it will only impact the athletes from college football and men’s basketball – the two most popular, highest visibility college sports. This is simply not true. Every college athlete can benefit from these rule changes.

In fact, NIL partnerships will likely have greater benefits overall to female athletes than male athletes. The professional sports opportunities for women are less populous and financially rewarding than for their male counterparts. For many female athletes, the most marketable time of their athletic careers is in college. Furthermore, the social media followings of many female collegiate athletes exceed that of male athletes (for instance, eight of the top ten most followed college basketball players on Instagram from the 2021 NCAA tournaments were women). All of this is to say, that female college athletes are a new massive opportunity for brands to leverage these athletes at the height of their public visibility.

The rise in influencer marketing has demonstrated the value of advertising through social media platforms such as Instagram. The massive followings of influencers make them prime candidates for brand partnerships, and several female college athletes have just that.

  • LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne is the most followed collegiate athlete on social media, with over five million followers on Instagram and TikTok combined, and estimates are she stands to make seven figures over the next several years due to NIL.
  • The Cavinder twins, two women’s basketball players from Fresno State, are set to be some of the highest earners of all collegiate athletes. The twins primarily make TikTok and YouTube videos and were two of the first athletes to announce NIL partnerships on July 1.


Additionally, women’s sports audiences are growing and the fans are just as passionate. According to Comperemedia Senior Research Analyst Nicole Bond, this year’s Women’s College World Series was the most viewed ever, averaging 1.2M viewers per game, up 10% from 2019. The NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship also saw viewership increase in 2021, breaking several standing records.

What it means

The opportunity to use the NIL of college athletes opens many new doors for brands across categories. College sports fandom creates incredibly high affinity locally, but also on a national scale for many universities; it creates a strong target market of Gen Z students, as well as an entire network of fans of all ages, according to Mintel research on College Football and Basketball. As brands  consider exploring potential partnerships with collegiate athletes, Mintel suggests keeping the following factors top of mind:

  • Consider partnerships with athletes beyond the top schools and most popular sports (ie football and basketball)
  • Utilize female athletes and their strong social media presence
  • Create content across various social platforms
  • Leverage athletes’ personal interests and personalities

The NIL market is new and moving quickly and with nearly half a million college athletes, there should be a fitting partnership available for every type of brand.