Will NCAA Triathletes Cash in on NIL Deals?

“Name, image, and likeness” policies are still in disarray, but experts offer some suggestions about how college triathletes might benefit.

Photo: Nils Nilsen

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Triathlon is on track to become an official NCAA sport by 2024, and among the many ways that move could change the landscape for athletes is the ability to capitalize on the Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) deals that are all the rage in college sports right now.

While it’s unlikely that triathletes will garner the eye-popping multimillion-dollar deals that some football players seem to be raking in, those with ambition could still earn some cash. But first, it’s important to understand what NIL is, how it’s regulated, and what opportunities are available. And good luck with all of that because even the NCAA doesn’t seem to know quite yet—a year since it went into effect.

We’ll take a crack at explaining what we know about NIL and how it could play out for NCAA triathlon.

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What is NIL, and how much can athletes make?

Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) is a way for college athletes to earn money and build their individual brands while competing in college—something they weren’t allowed to do before July 2021, when the new state laws went into effect. Before that, athletes were barred from receiving financial compensation outside of scholarships.

In June 2021, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled against the NCAA that it could not limit education-related payments to student-athletes. Then the NCAA kicked it over to the states to determine laws about NIL. For states that haven’t passed any laws, individual colleges and universities make their own policies.

So, although athletes still can’t receive direct payments from their schools, they can now sign endorsements, profit from corporate partnerships and local businesses, or get paid for making appearances, coaching, attending fan meet-and-greets, and more. Big universities also have third-party “collectives” that are luring the best football and basketball recruits—boosters pooling their resources to offer big bucks and connections to high-paying opportunities.

Although athletes are supposed to report any NIL-related activity they’re involved in to the designated person in their athletic department (often the compliance officer), nobody is really paying attention, experts say, so it’s hard to know how lucrative NIL really is outside of the big deals that football and basketball players have periodically announced (for example, in March, The Athletic reported that a five-star football recruit signed a deal for $8 million over three years). Is a triathlete is getting $100 to post an endorsement on Instagram for the local coffee joint? It’s hard to say whether anybody is keeping track, which makes it harder to say how much athletes are really pulling in.

“A lot of athletic departments don’t have the time or resources to even really try to police it,” says Natalie Welch, an assistant professor of marketing at the Albers School of Business and Economics at Seattle University, who recently led a workshop on NIL for NCAA triathlon coaches. “I hate to say this because it’s been said so much already, but it really is kind of like a wild, wild west.”

Opendorse, a marketplace and NIL technology company that helps athletes and supporters “monetize their brand value” offered a glimpse into its numbers as of May 2022. Its data is only based on deals that were booked through its services, but show that women’s swimming and diving is the sixth-largest sport in compensation for NIL deals—however it only accounts for 1.8 percent of total NIL compensation, while football and men’s and women’s basketball represent 82.6 percent. Women’s track and field was ninth, with 1.2 percent of total NIL compensation.

Kira Gupta-Baltazar, 2021 collegiate national champion. (Photo: Thomas Fernandez)

What NIL opportunities can NCAA triathletes go for?

Creating a side hustle takes time, which is a precious resource when you’re an athlete and a student. Most don’t have a lot of energy to negotiate branding partnerships and show up to events—and the collectives are mostly serving football and basketball players at this point.

“The idea of a local pizza joint navigating the metrics needed to determine a successful Instagram campaign, it’s pretty overwhelming so they just don’t do it,” says Matt Brown, who covers NIL at Extra Points, a newsletter he publishes about college sports. “And then the athlete who is working 30 hours a week as an athlete and going to class and occasionally going to a frat party isn’t spending that time either…the Olympic sport athletes that are really benefitting are treating NIL like a job, cold-calling people. The infrastructure hasn’t matured in a way to really support those athletes.”

The Opendorse data shows that most NIL compensation is coming from social media posts (34 percent), as well as licensing rights, autographs, and creating content. In Division I, men were earning 73.5 percent of total compensation, leaving women with 26.5 percent. The average total compensation per DI athlete from July 1, 2021 to May 2022 was $3,711.

“Unless you’re willing to really put the time into grinding social media, making more than a couple hundred bucks is a challenge,” Brown says.

It sounds bleak, but Welch and Brown agree that triathletes have room to get creative if they want to get involved in NIL. Brown identifies three ways:

  1. Commercial activity, which is not attached to an athlete’s sport but was still prohibited two years ago. “For example, if an athlete was going to compete but was also a really good guitarist and would play at bars or something, it was an impermissible benefit,” Brown says. “Now I know a softball player who’s a painter and sells her artwork.”
  2. Coaching and camps. A triathlete could monetize her expertise by going to high schools or clubs, giving private lessons, or putting on training camps. “There’s a demand to pay people for this,” Brown says. “A lot of high school and club teams don’t have great coaching or enough coaches.”
  3. Social media. Triathletes who have an interest in increasing their Instagram presence can attract sport nutrition, apparel, and gear brands looking for influencers to plug their goods. It takes upwards of 40,000 followers, Brown says, to compete for these deals. “Some Division II athletes could potentially make a lot of money if they’re really good at being an influencer,” Brown says.

Where’s it all heading?

Welch believes that triathlon has potential to get team deals, from bike or wetsuit brands, for example, which can take the pressure off the individuals who may not have the skills to broker their own opportunities.

“It comes down to making sure it’s what the athlete wants to do—I’ve been surprised by how many young people just don’t want to be on social media at all,” Welch says. “And they don’t want to have to be a brand, you know? They shouldn’t feel forced into that.”

One reason NIL might be useful to triathlon specifically? Making it more accessible to young people. Brands could step in to cover the costs of the equipment and travel that often makes it too expensive for so many to compete.

“Maybe there’s a way for bike companies to really support women who aren’t from economically advantaged backgrounds,” Welch says. “There’s a way that they can do that now without having to worry about violating NCAA rules. Triathlon and some other sports for too long have had the stigma of being very white and cisgender and male-dominated. NIL is a chance to show commitment to diversify.”

RELATED: Why Is Triathlon So Expensive?

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