The Smaller, Everyday Deals for College Athletes Under New Rules

Although players with six-figure deals have attracted most of the public attention, thousands of athletes are pulling in just enough for books or date nights under name, image and likeness agreements.

Emily O'Donnell, left, and Emelie Curtis, center, teammates on the Duquesne University lacrosse team, finish a lacrosse clinic in Pittsburgh. Credit... Jared Wickerham, The New York Times

Dec. 9, 2021

PITTSBURGH -- Dean Curtis and Traci Curtis might have been expelled from the Ohio State University teams of the 1990s if they had done what their daughter, aged 19, did last Saturday.

Emelie Curtis taught a lacrosse clinic for pay -- with her status as an athlete at Duquesne University no secret, but instead the selling point for her customers. After two hours of coaching, she came away with about $475.

The payday did not resemble the six-figure totals that some college athletes have commanded since the N.C.A.A., pressured by laws in states like Pennsylvania, loosened rules that had limited players' financial opportunities for generations. However, most college athletes who have been making money since July are much like Curtis. They make modest amounts on small stages.

"The biggest misconception was it was only going to help out the big names," Curtis, a business student with a tuition scholarship, said in an interview before she tutored nearly two dozen girls, most of them in middle school, on power and finesse shots.

"I don't have a Ferrari," Curtis, who drives a Honda, said later. "But I'm still glad to be here."

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Curtis instructs the girls in a drill. src="https://static01.nyt.com/images/2021/12/09/sports/00ncaa-smalldollar6/merlin_198002688_e9959337-abf9-441e-97af-d92a252007b6-articleLarge.jpg?quality=75auto=webpdisable=upscale"/>
Curtis instructing the girls during a drill. Credit... Jared Wickerham, The New York Times

The era of name, image and likeness, as the concept of college players making money off their fame is known in the industry, was never going to include equal earnings for, or even equal interest among, all athletes. The University of Pittsburgh athletic director said that most football players were more interested in a team paintball trip than the briefing they received on the relaxed N.C.A.A. rules.

The marketplace's first months offered many opportunities for college athletes. These included endorsements on social media, autograph signings and Cameo messages, review of high school prospects' game film, motivational speeches, and meet-and greets with children.

Similar results are evident, according to companies which have helped to administer or broker agreements for tens and thousands of athletes. Many participating players do not make $1,000 each.

Athletes are still barred by N.C.A.A. Opendorse stated this week that athletes are still prohibited from receiving direct salary for playing sports at their schools. It didn't report the median, but it said that those who had deals pass through its platform earned an average of $1138 since July 1, although they were not reporting a median. INFLCR said its median transaction value since July 1 was $51, and that its average deal was worth $1,306.

Many of the agreements involve either basketball or football players. The majority of compensation has gone towards male athletes. Opendorse revealed that basketball was responsible for close to a quarter (25%) of all the name, likeness, and image compensation it had tracked. Football is the only other sport.

"You've got the 5 percent of college student-athletes with bigger paychecks. And then you have the rest of those who are trying to make extra money," Keith Carter said. He is the vice chancellor of intercollegiate sports at the University of Mississippi. It is a school of the Southeastern Conference. Students have been paid large and small fees.

img alt="O’Donnell demonstrating proper technique for students." src="https://static01.nyt.com/images/2021/12/09/sports/00ncaa-smalldollar5/merlin_198002664_094352da-517a-4ef2-ab45-61c7c4c9ffa3-articleLarge.jpg?quality=75auto=webpdisable=upscale"/>
O'Donnell demonstrates proper technique to students. Credit... Jared Wickerham for The New York Times

Carter, a four year basketball player at Mississippi in late 1990s, stated that if you are given the chance to return to a clinic or create something new on your smartphone, then you should be able do so.

N.C.A.A. remained in force until July. However, athletes could not have made such arrangements without risking losing their eligibility to participate in sports. Although athletes were allowed to hold jobs and occasionally teach private lessons in their own time, the association argued for stricter restrictions to ensure amateurism and avoid corruption within college sports. Endorsements were forbidden, as was just about anything that mentioned a player's school, team or athletic talent.

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Vantage Sports' simple advert for the November event starring Curtis broke the rules.

Interest soared as the clinic approached at a fitness complex near the Penn-Lincoln Parkway.

The coach was there before the girls arrived to the facility. She had already spent more than a dozen hours planning the session with an Excel spreadsheet, drawing on drills she had learned as a young player and talking with parents to drum up attendance and scout the skills of the girls who had enrolled.

She even downloaded a whistle app for her phone. (It was not very loud.

"I thought it was me. She answered, "Why is it not me?" "You have done the work. It's clear what you have and it will take you where you want.

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Participants in the clinic face each other during a drill.
Participants in the clinic face each other during a drill. Credit... Jared Wickerham for The New York Times

She knew athletes at Duquesne had pursued other options -- one, for instance, had made a deal with a food delivery service -- but she had focused on teaching, she said, because she wanted to set an example for younger players. She didn't see how lessons could compromise what she believed was her integrity as an athlete at college.

"I know many people are against this because they see what kind of money and how crazy it is and that's all you see on the news." She stated, "This can so be such a good thing for so many, quote, normal, day-today athletes who don't have the big names."

Although many of the agreements involve students who play in Division I, the N.C.A.A. Athletes who compete in Division II or III could also be eligible to cash in. This is the tier that attracts the most attention and money. Opendorse said the average compensation for name, image and likeness participants was $75 in Division II, less than 10 percent of their Division I peers, and $37 in Division III.

"If you want to get it, go get it," said Shane Bell, a center on the football team at Erskine College, a Division II school in Due West, S.C.

Bell has made approximately $525, and received free food, from Mama's Sweet Shoppe. This is in exchange for appearing on Instagram and posting social media content. He was wary of a volatile economy but he saved what he had so far.

"I really don't need it right now," he said, "but I'm thankful for it."

Industry officials believe that students will continue to choose small-dollar deals, but that more students may benefit from team-wide contracts that could increase earnings for players with less individual notice. Some also believe that many students will continue to avoid any deals at all, including group contracts.

Carter said that "You have some student-athletes that just don't get involved with this space at all." They want to get their degree and go to class. I'd guess there are between 25-30% and 30% of student-athletes saying, "I don’t even like to mess around with that."

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Credit... Jared Wickerham, The New York Times

Pittsburgh was the exception to this rule.

Curtis was the last of her clinics. The girls gathered round Curtis. She gave her praises, some final tips and reminded the girls that private lessons were available.

"Whatever your heart desires," she said.

Curtis used her earnings to buy Christmas gifts and food. Curtis later scheduled two clinics and several one-on-1 sessions.

Already, her rates have increased more than twofold.