How NCAA athletes with little fame will benefit from NIL rights

Aquinas College (Mich.) volleyball player Chloe V. Mitchell parlayed her social media following into sponsorship deals and is helping other college athletes do the same.

Credit: Rachel Campbell

Credit: Rachel Campbell

Aquinas College (Mich.) volleyball player Chloe V. Mitchell parlayed her social media following into sponsorship deals and is helping other college athletes do the same.

Chances are you’ve never heard of Chloe V. Mitchell. She’s a freshman volleyball player at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Mich. Her team plays in a small gym. Her games aren’t on television.

Start typing Mitchell’s name in Google, and the search engine guesses that you are looking for something related to “TikTok” or “She Shed” instead of volleyball.

That’s a clue that Mitchell is social-media famous, but she started off small. Bored during the early days of the pandemic, Mitchell posted videos for a small group of friends to show off her do-it-yourself skills, fixing up a shed at her parents’ house. Mitchell’s audience since has grown to 2.6 million followers on TikTok, where her videos routinely get hundreds of thousands of views. She’s parlayed that following into sponsorship deals for promoted content.

Mitchell can cash in without forfeiting her sports eligibility because Aquinas is part of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, not the NCAA. The NAIA in October decided to allow athletes full rights to their name, image and likeness (NIL). Mitchell is believed to be the first athlete to take advantage, and her experience shows the hollowness of arguments against full NIL rights for NCAA athletes.

One of those claims is that allowing men’s basketball and football players to profit from NIL would be unfair to less-famous athletes in other sports. Critics of NIL for college athletes say that would especially be detrimental to women’s athletes. Like most disingenuous arguments, they fall apart at first contact with reality.

Mitchell is proof of that. Here is a women’s volleyball player at a small school who’s already made enough money from sponsorships that she’s paid off student loans and purchased a vehicle.

“You don’t have to be a Trevor Lawrence, a ‘top 10-percenter’ college athlete,” Mitchell said. “I play at a level that’s not close to funding D-1 schools. But at the level where I’m at, there are the same opportunities as those athletes. There are hundreds of athletes who are getting paid who only have 1,000 followers.”

Mitchell is helping them do it. She co-founded PlayBooked, a platform for connecting NAIA athletes with deals to post promoted content to their social-media channels. About 400 athletes have signed up, and about half of those clients are women. Once the NCAA inevitably is forced to adopt expanded NIL rights for athletes, Mitchell’s platform will be ready to help them, too.

Mitchell isn’t just profiting from her NIL. She’s also learning about business and marketing. None of that would be possible if her school were part of the NCAA, which purportedly is dedicated to the education and “lifelong success” of college athletes.

The actions of NCAA schools show that they mostly are dedicated to colluding to steal the labor and marketing value of athletes who generate billions in revenue. The NCAA’s “amateur” model allows everyone else in the system to profit. They use the participants in other sports -- most of whom don’t receive full athletic scholarships — as cover.

You’ve probably seen the NCAA TV commercials about most college athletes not going pro in sports. They are meant to emphasize the educational benefits received by athletes (never mind the NCAA’s poor record with educating football and men’s basketball players). Really, that NCAA propaganda highlights how wrong it is that college athletes who aren’t going pro in sports can’t cash in on their fame while they are in the spotlight.

“We have this (limited) amount of time to capitalize on NIL and to be told we can’t do that is unfair,” Mitchell said. “It makes me super angry for my fellow athletes who can’t do it.”

That will be change soon, whether NCAA schools like it or not. Georgia is among 14 states that have signed laws expanding NIL rights for athletes. The laws are set to take effect July 1 for five of those states, including Georgia. The Supreme Court is expected to provide more clarity when it rules on an NIL case this summer.

Recruiting is the reason why I suspect that none of the NCAA schools in Georgia will activate one provision of the NIL law. It allows them to collect up to 75% of NIL compensation from athletes and put it in a pool to be shared with all athletes from the same college after they leave school. That’s a nod to critics who say unequal NIL money among athletes could cause problems for teams.

It’s another hypothetical claim that doesn’t match Mitchell’s real-world experience. She said she offered to set up all her teammates with sponsorship deals. Some took her up on it. Those who didn’t haven’t expressed any resentment.

Said Mitchell: “If an athlete like myself is putting herself out there, putting in the work, and my program just cut this deal where the money would be split between other girls, that’s what it is going to cause the animosity. When you are an athlete you know that you have to work for a skill set and scholarship money, and in this case you know you have to work to get the (NIL) money.”

The NCAA also said it opposes athletes being compensated for work because it said it would distract from schoolwork (never mind missed classes because of hours of unpaid work as athletes). Mitchell said that hasn’t happened “one bit” with her. She notes that creating social-media posts for sponsors is much less time-consuming than a regular job. And athletes can be compensated for, say, sending personalized messages to fans, which takes just a few minutes.

Mitchell also rejects the argument that allowing athletes to earn money disconnects them from fellow students who don’t play for college sports teams.

“The only issues I can see is if legislative policies get in the athletes’ business, like with the (Georgia) profit sharing,” Mitchell said.

NCAA schools always are protecting their cartel by interfering with athletes’ free-market rights. The NCAA’s proposed NIL reform included “guardrails” that would severely restrict the market for athletes. The NCAA delayed a vote on new NIL rules in January after the Department of Justice warned they could violate antitrust rules.

Meanwhile, Mitchell is cashing in now. She founded PlayBooked with her father, Keith. He played football at the University of Michigan and went on to become a screenwriter with credits that include the sports movies “Eddie” and “Mr. 3000.”

“My father was always talking about leaving college with empty pocket: ‘If you’re a Wolverine, you don’t have time to go work’,” Chloe said. “Having him on the team has helped to make (PlayBooked) a career-focused model. We want to help athletes with their future beyond playing. Teach them how to manage their (brand) and what to do with the money when they are no longer playing.”

Chloe Mitchell is learning those lessons now (her next financial goal: buying an investment property). It’s likely that none of this would have happened if not for the pandemic. She said she was “bummed” because she couldn’t go on a planned spring-break trip with high school friends. Boredom and a lack of personal space in her house motivated Mitchell to create a space for herself.

“I put something on TikTok for my friends to make fun of,” she said. “I made them laugh, and before I knew it, it made tens of thousands of people laugh. It’s crazy.”

Now she’s a college athlete who’s also an entrepreneur. It’s long past time for NCAA athletes to be allowed to do the same.