Zayne Hilderbrand plays golf for the College of Coastal Georgia, an NAIA school in Brunswick. A freshman from Gainesville, he made history that had nothing to do with par or championships. A few weeks ago, he became among the first college athletes from the state of Georgia to be compensated for the usage of his name, image and likeness (NIL), or at least among the first to do so within the rules of college athletics.
He was able to do so because the NAIA, a college athletics governing body separate from the NCAA, passed legislation last October that allowed its athletes to be compensated for usage of their NIL while the NCAA continues to wrestle with the implementation of similar rules for its athletes.
It was not much – $30 for using his Instagram account to tout Smart Cups, a cup that comes with 3D-printed flavor capsules on the bottom and creates a beverage when mixed with water – but it was $30 for what he estimated was about 30 minutes of work, and he said he has since received more pitches.
That a golfer far removed from the spotlight of major college athletics could cash in speaks to what industry executives believe will happen for athletes at Georgia Tech and NCAA member schools elsewhere in the state on July 1, when all college athletes in Georgia will be able to earn money from their NIL.
“I think it’s a good opportunity,” Hilderbrand said. “It’s a small thing to go out of your way to help somebody out and also help yourself out.”
Hilderbrand was connected with SmartCups through PlayBooked, one of many companies diving into the NIL marketplace. PlayBooked’s model is to connect athletes with brands for deals like Hilderbrand’s. In the case of Smart Cups, the company wanted to have deals with every NAIA athlete that PlayBooked worked with.
Patrick Werksma, a co-founder, said that hundreds of athletes at NCAA schools have reached out to PlayBooked in anticipation of NIL laws going into effect on July 1 in a reported six states. Likewise, brands are seeking to be connected also.
“I believe there’s going to be plenty for all,” Werksma said.
Social-media influencing will be the most common means by which athletes will have deals, according to Jason Belzer, managing partner of Student Athlete NIL, a company with the objective of matching brands with college athletes. For one thing, it’ll be the easiest way for brands to attach themselves to athletes.
“It’s not like they’re going to have time to fly to LA and film three days’ worth of commercials,” he said.
Estimates vary on how much an athlete can make from a social-media post, but it’s generally based on the number of followers he or she has. Given the rush of potential endorsers to the market, it may take time for rates to set themselves. Belzer said that, on Instagram, a rule of thumb is $6 per 1,000 followers for an endorsement post.
For men’s basketball player Michael Devoe – who is testing NBA draft waters – that would mean about $80 with his 13,300 Instagram followers. Werksma believes it could be higher, saying an athlete with between 5,000 and 10,000 followers could earn between $150 and $300 for a post endorsing a product or service. (Mind you, the athlete couldn’t just repeatedly make the same post; it would likely be part of a larger campaign.)
Other Tech athletes with large numbers of Instagram followers (for accounts with 10,000 followers or higher, Instagram rounds off to the nearest 100): Julia Bergmann (volleyball, 14,300), Jordan Usher (men’s basketball, 12,600), Marquez Ezzard (football, 11,500), Saba Gigiberia (men’s basketball, 9,272). (Men’s basketball guard Jose Alvarado, who has declared for the NBA but could still return, has 17,400 followers.)
Belzer said he has been in conversations with representatives of college athletes “and a lot of that is just based on their social followings.”
For potential annual endorsement income, Belzer estimates it at 80 cents per follower. While Belzer considers them ballpark figures, that could potentially mean income of $11,440 for Bergmann (a two-time All-ACC performer who has played for junior team national teams in Brazil, where volleyball is highly popular) and $10,080 for Usher.
Credit: Danny Karnik
Credit: Danny Karnik
Regarding Bergmann, Belzer said that it may be that female athletes do better with endorsements than male counterparts. Female athletes often have larger followings of tween and young teenage girls, which he called “kind of the ultimate golden goose category for major consumer packaged good companies.”
For instance, Belzer said he was working with a consumer goods company that sells feminine products. The company is interested in a deal in which it contracts with 1,000 female college athletes across Division I. While few of them will be household names, if they average 10,000 Instagram followers, that’s an aggregate reach of 10 million people.
“So that’s where those opportunities are going to come, those big kind of deals where they can piggyback on stuff,” Belzer said.
There also figures to be opportunity in camps and personal appearances.
Given the reputation that former Tech punter Pressley Harvin built for himself in winning the Ray Guy Award last season, imagine how many high-school punters in the state might have been willing to pay $50 or more for a one-day camp with him had he stayed for one more season. Or, should Jackets running back Jahmyr Gibbs build on his promising freshman season, it’s not hard to foresee Jackets fans being willing to pay for a t-shirt with his image.
But even a backup team member on virtually any Tech team was most likely a star back in his or her home community, and it would seem that a camp – or something simpler like one-on-one training – for aspiring football players, runners or swimmers led by those Jackets athletes would have the potential to put money in their pockets.
“That’s the stuff that’s going to be available,” Werksma said.
To prepare the athletic department and its athletes, athletic director Todd Stansbury said in his May podcast that there was a campus task force looking at NIL and that there will be an “NIL academy” for Tech athletes.
In April 2020, football coach Geoff Collins began a partnership with branding expert Jeremy Darlow, which included access to his brand-development course, a series of video lessons to help players build their public reputation. Collins also likes to bring up how players have access to photo and video shot at practice at games that they can use on their social media, another way to help them increase visibility.
“Those kind of things, we try to be at the forefront of all of it because it’s important to me that our student-athletes are positioned to have great success when they leave here, to amplify their voice while they’re here, all those kinds of things,” Collins said in April.
It will be a new day in college athletics, one that undoubtedly has NCAA rules compliance officials on high alert. Said Werksma, “Come July 1, it’s a bit of the wild West.”
Consider the possibility for agents to enter the picture. In reality, it would likely be the case that only a small percentage of college athletes would attract enough in endorsement income to warrant an agent’s help. However, agents with unscrupulous motives or who are trying to get a head start on forming a relationship with potential professional athletes could get in the picture, too.
“Everyone and their mother is going to try to start signing these kids,” Belzer said. “It’s going to be a disaster. I’m not a fan of the NCAA, but I understand their trepidation with this. For as many kids that are going to be able to make money, there’s also going to be a ton of kids that are going to be taken advantage of.”
Even new ACC commissioner Jim Phillips, asked last week if he had a sense of how this new realm will operate, didn’t claim to have a grasp.
“I don’t know that any of us know that,” he said. “I just don’t.”
It’s one reason why college athletics leaders are so eager for Congress or the NCAA to create federal or membership legislation to govern athletes’ usage of their NIL rights. With several states having already passed NIL laws – including Georgia – the NCAA has recognized the need for rules or laws to govern all of its schools, appealing to Congress to create federal NIL law.
It would seem unlikely that legislation will arrive before July 1, when the doors open. Even if the NCAA isn’t ready, others certainly will be.
“(College) athletes being able to monetize their name, image and likeness will create the greatest grassroots marketing opportunity in history,” Belzer said.
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