Sarah Bates leverages athlete status, TikTok into NIL success

Georgia Tech basketball player Sarah Bates reacts after a big play in an exhibition game against Clayton State on Nov. 1, 2021 at McCamish Pavilion. Bates is a 5-foot-9 senior from Fresno, Calif. (Photo courtesy of Georgia Tech Athletics)

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Georgia Tech basketball player Sarah Bates reacts after a big play in an exhibition game against Clayton State on Nov. 1, 2021 at McCamish Pavilion. Bates is a 5-foot-9 senior from Fresno, Calif. (Photo courtesy of Georgia Tech Athletics)

Sarah Bates has been a part-time starter for the Georgia Tech basketball team this season and was the team’s sixth-leading scorer as the Yellow Jackets were to begin NCAA Tournament play on Friday against Kansas.

From that perspective, she might not be the prototypical candidate to bring in hundreds of dollars through name, image and likeness endorsements. She has done so, however, achieving success in the NIL realm with effort, assistance from an agent and an active TikTok account.

“I just think it’s something that I’m looking forward to help throughout my life,” Bates told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “If I can start making money now, that’s going to help my life and my lifestyle that I want to live and be able to do this, especially while I’m in college.”

When Bates began seeking NIL deals last summer, her experience was typical of college athletes who weren’t household names. College athletes were long forbidden by NCAA rules from receiving compensation for endorsements, autographs and the like, or from using their “name, image and likeness” (NIL) in any way to earn profits.

“From the beginning, like right when NIL started, I was just getting some deals that I thought were good deals at the time, where people would just send me free things and I would just post about it (on social media),” she said.

If she were compensated, it might be $50. But then she began working with an agency that helped her field more offers. Reebok and Kerastase hair products were among them. While Tech is contracted with Adidas, a competitor of Reebok’s, Tech athletes are free to endorse other sports apparel companies – or any brand or business – as long as they follow the rules set by the athletic department for NIL deals, which includes not wearing team gear with visible trademarked logos or marks in an endorsement for any company that doesn’t have a sponsorship or licensing agreement with Tech. Regarding endorsements with sports-apparel companies, athletes must wear team-issued gear for activities such as games, practice or team-arranged media sessions.

A few weeks ago, she signed with another agent that she said has significantly increased her pay.

She declined to give specifics about her compensation but said that she used to think that getting paid “a couple hundred dollars was really good” for a post on TikTok or Instagram, two popular social-media platforms.

“But now that I have an agent, he’s basically telling me companies try to lowball you just because they know that you don’t know how much you’re worth,” she said. “Us as women college athletes, we’re really worth a couple thousand just to post one or two things. Which, people don’t think that you are, but if you have enough following, you definitely can.”

Bates’ TikTok account, with a little more than 30,000 followers, is a difference maker. To put that following into context, it easily clears one of the standards that TikTok has (10,000 followers) to admit users into its Creator Fund, which pays the platform’s most influential content creators. Bates said that she gets paid “way more” for posting on TikTok than Instagram, on which she has about 10,400 followers.

“There’s definitely people with more (TikTok followers), people with way more,” she said. “I kind of just post basketball things. Now I’m starting to take it a little more serious because I used to just post fun things. Now I’m like, ‘O.K., the more followers you get, the more money you make.’ It almost becomes like a job.”

Bates said that she spends a few hours per week on her NIL deals. She estimates she’s had about 10 deals that she made “a decent amount on,” and a few more for which she received free products or less money.

She recently posted a video on her TikTok account for the investment firm TIAA, part of a campaign that included women’s basketball luminaries such as South Carolina coach Dawn Staley and WNBA stars Arike Ogunbowale and A’ja Wilson to bring attention to the retirement income gap between men and women.

For the 107-second video, Bates shot video clips throughout a day as she and her team traveled for an away game. Another campaign with Urban Outfitters was upcoming, she said.

Bates’ experience isn’t unusual. According to data collected by Opendorse, a business that connects athletes with NIL deals and also helps athletes report them to their schools (as per NCAA rules), 69.1% of NIL deals by Opendorse users between July and February were for social-media posts, although they accounted for only 33.9% of total compensation. Women’s basketball players accounted for 18.5% of total compensation, behind only football (50.6%).

Tech provided broad numbers about the NIL activity among its 400-plus athletes. Almost a third of Jackets athletes had reported NIL deals to the athletic department from the start of July through February, with the total of the deals exceeding $175,000 in value, which includes cash and products/services. Given the lag in reporting deals, the actual totals were likely higher than that.

The NIL deal at Tech that perhaps made the biggest splash was by 90 members of the football team who signed deals with the television technology brand TiVo in August. They were compensated with a $404 debit card and a streaming device, among other gifts, in exchange for social-media posts touting TiVo products.

For Bates, who has started a clothing brand (Braze) and is contemplating her post-basketball options, this initial contact in the business and marketing world has been a valuable experience.

“I think people should start to do it because even if it’s starting off little, such as getting free things, I think it all can lead up to making money,” she said. “Everyone obviously wants to make money. Especially if you want to get in the business world, this is a good start. You should be able to us your athleticisms and all this to an advantage right now.”