High school athletes enter the NIL marketplace, but few are getting rich
Maddie Niles wants to play NCAA Division I field hockey in a few years, and she'd like to give modeling a try, too.
That's why the sophomore at Fairfield's Lawrence High is one of the first high school athletes in Maine taking advantage of a policy known as name, image and likeness that allows her to market her celebrity as an athlete.
Niles, 16, recently signed NIL deals with three companies: Hilltop Boilers Maple Syrup, a Newfield-based maple products maker; SEAAV, an activewear manufacturer; and Epic Vue Studios, which produces broadcasts of high school sports in Maine.
"They're the perfect fit for my social media brand," she said.
Athletes at NCAA colleges and universities have been able to cash in on name, image and likeness opportunities since July 1, 2021, in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that raised questions about whether the NCAA was violating antitrust laws by not allowing athletes to be compensated for their NIL. Now high school athletes in many states are entering the NIL marketplace.
The Maine Principals' Association, the agency that oversees high school sports in the state, established a policy last spring that allows for high school athletes to cut NIL deals. In December, Illinois became the 25th state, along with the District of Columbia, to pave the way for high schoolers to take advantage of name, image and likeness.
Some are cashing in big. Jada Williams, a high school basketball standout who moved from Missouri to San Diego to take advantage of California's NIL policy, makes six figures from endorsement deals. Bronny James, the son of NBA superstar LeBron James, has deals with Nike and other companies.
But they are the exceptions. In return for social media posts showing her sponsors, Maddie Niles is paid in product by Hilltop Boilers — yes, compensated with maple syrup — and SEAAV. She also can earn a small commission from SEAAV if people use a promo code she includes with social media posts showing her wearing its clothing. For Epic Vue, Niles will appear in a 30-second commercial.
For most high school athletes like Niles — who in November scored the only goal in the Class B championship game to lead Lawrence to its first state title in field hockey — NIL deals aren't about making a lot of money. They're about increasing their visibility with college coaches.
"Ultimately, we decided this would be a good fit for Maddie," said Kim Niles, Maddie's mother. "Her No. 1 goal is to play Division I field hockey. These are opportunities she would not have had."
'T-SHIRTS, AND MAYBE SNEAKERS'
In the 18 months since NIL policy went into place at NCAA schools, college athletes around the country have benefited from the new rules to wildly varying degrees. At the top of the scale are athletes like Caleb Williams, the University of Southern California quarterback who won the 2022 Heisman Trophy. According to On3.com, a database of student-athlete NIL values, Williams' deals are worth $3.2 million.
The overwhelming majority of student-athletes will never see opportunities such as that.
"A lot of really nice college players have a deal for T-shirts, and maybe sneakers," said Mike Cound, a sports agent based in Chattanooga, Tennessee. "It's confirmed what I thought would happen. It's all very regional. Aside from very few exceptions, these are things that are locally going to happen."
Consider Riley Geyer, a 2021 graduate of Cony High in Augusta. Geyer attends Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont, where he plays football and baseball. He recently signed an NIL deal with the End Zone, a pizza shop and deli, and Countryside Diner, both in Augusta.
In exchange for social media posts on the offerings at the two establishments, Geyer is paid in gift cards he can redeem for food. He'll also shoot a commercial for them. Geyer doesn't see his NIL deals as a way to make a lot of money. Rather, he sees it as an opportunity to prepare for a career as a physical education teacher.
"I feel like all of this is going to help me at getting a job down the line and be a more confident speaker. I have to be confident talking to people. Nobody is going to want a nervous PE teacher," he said.
Despite being the only NCAA Division I school in the state, the University of Maine has few student-athletes who have taken advantage of the new NIL rules. Just seven have informed the school they have an NIL deal this academic year, said Chandler Sperry, the athletic department's assistant director of compliance. That's down from 15 in 2021-22. Of the athletes with NIL deals this year at UMaine, three compete in swimming and diving, two in track and field, and one each in men's hockey and men's basketball.
These are small deals, Sperry said, with the students paid in product in exchange for social media posts. For example, athletes with a sponsorship deal with Celsius energy drink will receive a case of the drink for making a certain number of social media posts about the product, Sperry said.
UMaine women's basketball coach Amy Vachon said none of her players has an NIL deal. Seven of the 15 players on her roster are international players, Vachon said, and ineligible to sign an NIL deal unless it's with a company in their home country because of restrictions on their student visas that do not allow for work in the U.S.
College athletes from Maine attending out-of-state schools are faring slightly better when it comes to finding NIL deals. Gorham's Mackenzie Holmes, a standout on the Indiana University women's basketball team, has NIL deals with Hoosiers For Good, a nonprofit that helps Indiana student-athletes work with charities throughout the state, and Campus Ink Locker Room Store, from which Holmes earns a commission when apparel worn in social media posts is sold, similar to Niles' deal with SEAAV.
Golfer Caleb Manuel of Topsham attends the University of Georgia and has an NIL deal with SwingU, a golf app which, among other features, allows players to record their scores and receive playing tips. It's not for big money. Manuel said he is paid $5 for every regular round he posts on the app and $10 for every tournament round. The most Manuel has made in a month from the deal is $250, he said.
But name, image and likeness opportunities are not for all college athletes.
Cole Anderson of Camden, a golfer at Florida State, is taking a cautious approach. He has no NIL deals right now, and said anything he agrees to will have to align with his career goal of playing on the PGA Tour. Anderson said he's not interested in signing any NIL deal for a quick cash grab.
"I'm taking a long-term perspective. I just need to get to the Tour. That's where the money is," Anderson said. "For somebody like me in the golf world, we're not talking about giant money (with NILs). It's about building relationships that are meaningful and align with the brand I want to build. It's cool if a company gives you a thousand bucks for a few (social media) posts, but if you don't make the Tour it doesn't matter."
Alyssa Bourque of Benton is a sophomore on the University of Vermont track and field team. Like Maddie Niles, she has a deal with SEAAV. Bourque is a client of Greg Glynn, who runs an Augusta marketing firm named Pliable. She said she wants to make sure any NIL deal she signs aligns with her interests. For example, when Bourque needed to buy tires and Glynn suggested finding a deal with a tire store, she nixed the idea.
"I said, 'That sounds great, but I'm not sure I want to post about tires,'" Bourque said. "I want to keep it true to what I am."
HIGH SCHOOL GUIDELINES
The Maine Principals' Association enacted a simple policy regarding name, image and likeness for high school athletes in the state. No school employee may be involved with a student's NIL endeavor, and students may not make a reference to their school when engaging in NIL activities. Nor can they endorse or promote any product during team functions. Among the products and services the students cannot promote are adult entertainment, alcohol, tobacco, cannabis products, controlled substances, prescription pharmaceuticals, casinos or gambling, and weapons, firearms or ammunition.
"We have an NIL policy in place but have no problem with these athletes profiting from their name, image or likeness," said Mike Burnham, executive director of the MPA's Interscholastic Division.
JP Estrella, who last winter led South Portland High to the Class AA boys' basketball state title, is now a senior at Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. That state does not allow high school students to make NIL deals, but Estrella can take advantage when he joins the University of Tennessee men's basketball program next fall. NIL opportunities were not a big factor in choosing Tennessee, he said, but he knows those opportunities will be ample. The Volunteers have a coach on staff who helps players find NIL deals.
"I didn't really care about that (during the recruiting process). I just want to hoop, but what Tennessee does (with NILs) is ridiculous," Estrella said. "When I get to Tennessee, I'll be able to jump right in."
Niles and her family inquired about NIL opportunities after meeting Glynn through his broadcasts of Lawrence High field hockey games. After he spoke to them about Maddie's NIL potential, they signed on with his Pliable marketing agency. Glynn's clients are charged $250 to $500 for a starting fee, depending on the scope of deals they want to pursue. Glynn also represents Riley Geyer and Caleb Manuel, along with athletes in 12 states.
"Part of Maddie's goal for NIL is to increase the popularity of field hockey, so promoting where to watch the games was a perfect fit," Glynn said. "Plus college recruiters will then see her while watching the game, which shows her personality and eagerness to NIL deals, which colleges will love to see because NIL helps colleges get their name out there, too."
For Niles, it's a chance to expand her presence on Instagram, where she has close to 500 followers, and Facebook. Niles said she enjoys cooking, and plans to post dishes she creates using maple products in the recipe. With a goal of modeling along with playing Division I field hockey, posing with the Hilltop Boilers products and in SEAAV clothing is a chance to build a portfolio.
"I think it's pretty exciting," she said.