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How CU Buffs student-athletes could benefit from NIL

Student-athletes will have challenge of dealing with popular pro sports teams in area

STANFORD, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 14: Brenden Rice #2 of the Colorado Buffaloes runs into the endzone for a touchdown after catching a pass against the Stanford Cardinal during the third quarter of their NCAA football game at Stanford Stadium on November 14, 2020 in Stanford, California. Colorado won the game 35-32. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
STANFORD, CALIFORNIA – NOVEMBER 14: Brenden Rice #2 of the Colorado Buffaloes runs into the endzone for a touchdown after catching a pass against the Stanford Cardinal during the third quarter of their NCAA football game at Stanford Stadium on November 14, 2020 in Stanford, California. Colorado won the game 35-32. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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Once the clock struck midnight Eastern time late Wednesday night, announcements of endorsement deals from college athletes began popping up on social media.

One of the most significant changes to the NCAA’s model has taken place, as student-athletes around the country are now permitted to profit from their name, image and likeness.

There will, no doubt, be some athletes who cash in. Some pundits project LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne, who has more than 1.1 million followers on both Instagram and TikTok, could make north of $1 million. Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler could have some lucrative deals, as well.

Student-athletes at Colorado may not see a significant impact from the NCAA’s decision, but there could be some profitable opportunities.

CU sits in a tough market for finding endorsement deals, as the state is ruled by the Denver Broncos and professional sports teams.

Von Miller of the Broncos is a potential Hall of Famer, a national star with 1.9 million followers on Instagram and he has endorsed Adidas and Best Buy, among others.

Jamal Murray of the Denver Nuggets has more than 1 million Instagram followers, while Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche has 252,000 followers and Trevor Story of the Colorado Rockies has 99,000.

While the number of Instagram followers isn’t the only indicator of marketability, it’s a good barometer for the type of interest one might draw when endorsing a product.

CU Buffs’ Rachel McArthur (Courtesy photo/CU Athletics)

Currently, there are no CU athletes who come close to the amount of followers of the state’s pro sports stars and there are only 12 current Buffs athletes with at least 5,000 followers. Women’s cross country/track and field runner Rachel McArthur leads the way, with about 21,300 Instagram followers, as of Thursday afternoon.

Football player Brenden Rice was close behind, with about 20,700 followers, while teammate Ashaad Clayton (12,200 followers) is the only other current Buff with at least 9,000 followers.

The rest of the top 12:

  • Keith Miller III, football: 8,641 followers
  • Evan Battey, men’s basketball: 8,598
  • Tayanna Jones, women’s basketball: 8,572
  • Emily Covert, cross country: 7,223
  • Daniel Arias, football: 7,128
  • Jarek Broussard, football: 5,977
  • Devin Grant, football: 5,792
  • Nigel Bethel Jr., football: 5,255
  • Jabari Walker, men’s basketball: 5,037

“This gives them the opportunity to actually see what their market value is,” said Abbey Shea, associate director of compliance for CU. “Maybe they have a perception of what it is, but this is what the free market does. It tells you what’s valuable and what’s not.”

That doesn’t mean those with lower numbers of followers aren’t valuable, but it might mean those student-athletes have some work to do to enhance their brand or figure how to monetize their value.

Rice, a true freshman last season, could be the most marketable athlete at CU. The son of legendary, Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice, Brenden was featured prominently on ESPN after the two games last season in which he scored touchdowns.

With good looks, a bright smile, an outgoing personality, a famous father and exceptional talent, Rice could be the face of CU athletics for the next couple of years. He flashed his talent in 2020, but a breakout season could be a major boost not only for the Buffs on the field, but for Rice’s bank account.

On Thursday, Rice announced he has partnered with Cameo, a video-sharing site that allows fans to book a one-on-one call with him. (It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Brenden endorsing the energy drink, G.O.A.T. Fuel, which was created by Jerry).

It’s not necessarily the big-money deals that will make a difference for CU athletes, however.

While the Denver market could be difficult, Boulder is a college town.

“Boulder is sort of a smaller college town compared to our other schools in the Pac-12 footprint,” Shea said. “I hope this is a way for our student-athletes to engage in our community. It would be cool if it was actual local restaurants and brands and stuff that they work with. I think being in Boulder actually helps us versus a bigger city where there’s so much more competition.”

Sports agent Mike McCartney, who has represented several NFL players, including former Buffs, said CU athletes ought to focus on barters – perhaps exchanging some autographs or appearances for free meals, groceries, hotel stays, etc.

“I think when an athlete is able to barter his name, image, likeness for some kind of product or merchandise, there are thousands and thousands of business out there that could potentially be open to having an agreement with a player,” he said. “For the vast majority, to get a few bucks in their pocket or a little relief while they’re in college is terrific.”

Shea agrees, adding that CU’s compliance department will likely spend most of its time monitoring local deals.

“Across the country that’s probably the majority of what this is going to end up looking like,” she said.

McCartney said he’s all in on the athletes profiting from their NIL, but hopes they remember that their performance on the field matters most.

“My one fear is that the focus for some athletes is going to be too much on off the field stuff and I hope that (athletes) don’t lose focus – whatever the sport, guys and gals – that the sport is where they can set themselves up,” McCartney said.