Student-athletes’ newest play: marketing themselves.
BY COOP DALEY
Celia Crompton, a Weinberg third-year, wanted to get free Mortal Kombat merchandise. Warner Bros., which produced the movie, had sent representatives to Northwestern to promote the movie. It was a simple exchange: students would film an unboxing video, and in turn, they could keep the merchandise. The only thing keeping Crompton, a member of Northwestern’s fencing team, from Mortal Kombat swag, were National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) rules against athlete brand deals.
“That had nothing to do with my athlete status, but I couldn’t do it because it was against compliance [rules]” Crompton says. “There were a lot of rules that were excluding us from silly stuff like that, that are now lifted, which feels a lot better, and also feels a lot safer.”
In June 2021, the Supreme Court ruled that college athletes should be allowed to make money from their own name, image and likeness (NIL). Many felt the decision was a long time coming, as student-athletes previously had not been able to profit from their own success or participate in brand-affiliated programs like the one Crompton was interested in.
Now, some students in big-name athletic programs like football are making millions of dollars. University of Alabama quarterback Bryce Young has already made nearly $1 million in NIL signings, while Clemson University quarterback DJ Uiagalelei has appeared on television advertising Dr. Pepper soda. Though Northwestern athletes are not raking in millions from national brands, local and small-scale deals are increasingly common for the school’s varsity players. The NIL decision also means players like Crompton can engage in outside marketing activities, such as social media giveaways.
The new legislation is a step in the right direction, according to Medill third-year Harrison Larner, co-founder of 8 in the Box Productions, a company that helps student-athletes build their brand through video content.
“Things aren’t perfect now, but with this ruling, we get a lot closer to proper treatment of student-athletes,” Larner says.
Compared to other Northwestern sports, the Court’s decision has been more lucrative for players on the football team. 2020 All-American safety Brandon Joseph has accepted several deals for cash and other rewards — the most notable being an Alfa Romeo car, given to him by a dealership in Ohio. Graduate kicker Charlie Kuhbander has signed deals with businesses like local pizza joint Cantuccio’s.
“Things aren’t perfect now, but with this ruling, we get a lot closer to proper treatment of student-athletes.”Harrison Larner, Medill third-year & co-founder of 8 in the Box Productions
“I think in Evanston, local businesses are motivated by [making deals with athletes as] ways to connect to the University because they know students are a big opportunity, and student-athletes are an excellent way to connect with the community,” Larner says.
Athletes in sports with less name recognition, such as fencing, tend to seek out deals from independent startups, often financed by fellow students. Crompton, for example, has sourced most of her NIL engagement from social media. Through her accounts, she has become a “Barstool athlete,” meaning that Barstool, an online sports media company, sponsors her social media and engages with her content. Crompton has also connected with independent startups on campus. She is currently working with Litterbox, a startup storage company at Northwestern, about being in an advertisement.
“We’re just in the process of setting up how we’re going to incorporate fencing into the commercial. Are we gonna stab or carve boxes?” Crompton says.
Athletes also have the chance to use their status for other jobs and professional opportunities, from small roles as recreational leaders to more powerful networking opportunities. Former Northwestern swimmer DJ Hwang says the decision has allowed new flexibility for athletes hoping to promote their services.
“If I was to give out lessons in any sport, before I’d have to be like ‘Hey, I can offer some lessons. I have a background with swimming.’ With [NIL], I could say stuff like, ‘I’m a [Division-I] student-athlete from Northwestern.’ You can advertise yourself from a certain institution and use that to your advantage,” Hwang says.
The choice between focusing on one’s sport and giving time to outside opportunities is a difficult one for most student-athletes.
“A vast majority of athletes [are generally] not going to make millions of dollars,” Larner says. “I think it’s another thing that’s piled on top of them. It’s really difficult, and so many of them don’t have time.”
Larner says while most athletes are not impacted significantly by the decision, there is a small percentage who want to market themselves. The University provides these athletes with stepping stones to be successful in their self-promotion, according to Paul Kennedy, the athletic department’s communications director.
“To come here, and basically study the basics of small business in which you are the small business, I think we have a lot of opportunity here,” Kennedy says.
“With [NIL] ... You can advertise yourself from a certain institution and use that to your advantage.”Former Northwestern swimmer DJ Hwang
Kennedy also identifies resources for athletes on campus, including The Garage, where students can pitch and begin working on their own startup opportunities, as well as the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship, another campus resource for students to test their ideas.
When deciding which brands to represent on the playing field, Northwestern athletes are limited in the amount of support they receive from the school’s administration. NIL legislation requires schools to follow individual state guidelines — in Illinois, that means the University’s administration cannot serve as a negotiator for the student-athletes.
“They’re entrusting the universities with the bookkeeping and compliance part of it. We need to make sure that [athletes] self-report,” Kennedy says. “So that’s the involvement that we have: You educate the partners, you educate the student-athletes, you make sure everybody’s following the rules, because if we slip up, it’s gonna be a problem. We can’t be involved anywhere in the middle, which complicates the matter.”
The lack of negotiation assistance from the University places more pressure on student-athletes to make sound decisions regarding which brands and products they associate themselves with. Kennedy recommends that the athletes surround themselves with good people and opportunities.
“Make sure you have people that are looking out for you, would be my advice,” Kennedy says. “I don’t think it’s going to be a big deal for [the majority of athletes], but for the people that it is, I hope they’ve got a core support system around them, just to make sure that somebody is advocating on their behalf.”