It wasn’t quite 9 a.m. Thursday when Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth was asked if he’d heard of any Zags student-athletes reaching agreements on the first day of name, image and likeness (NIL) opportunities in college sports.
“I don’t know of any, but I wouldn’t be surprised,” Roth said. “As of midnight they could be signing deals, so I wouldn’t be surprised.”
The landmark day was still young, but those agreements – endorsing a product or business on Instagram, speaking engagements, autograph sessions, shooting commercials – are coming. And they’re permissible for every student-athlete, including two Gonzaga men’s basketball players who figure to be among the biggest beneficiaries with the NCAA finally allowing NIL rights for nearly 500,000 college athletes.
Forward Drew Timme probably will be the favorite for preseason player of the year. He has plenty of personality on and off the court with his slick post moves and ever-changing facial hair.
Freshman Chet Holmgren is the No. 1 recruit in the 2021 class. He’s been projected by many as the top choice in the 2022 NBA draft. He hasn’t taken the court yet for Gonzaga, but Holmgren, as Timme, has a sizable following on social media.
The Action Network listed Holmgren at No. 11 and Timme at No. 15 among its top 20 athletes who could capitalize on NIL. Only Louisiana State’s Shareef O’Neal, son of Shaquille O’Neal, at No. 3, is ranked higher among men’s basketball players than the two Zags.
“There’s definitely been a (NIL) game plan going in, going back more than just the time I’ve been here at USA Basketball and more than the time it came out officially that this was going to happen,” Holmgren said last week before leaving for Latvia to represent the U.S. at the FIBA U19 World Cup. “I’ve been working on it for some time.
“Me and my people have been working to try to put the right people in place to help me with it. But at the moment, that’s kind of been pushed to the side. I’m putting almost all my focus to this USA team and winning this gold. I don’t think I’m going to be doing commercials and stuff when I’m over in Latvia. That’s going to have to wait until after we go on this run.”
Holmgren took a few minutes Thursday for a Twitter post accompanied by a thinking face emoji: “About a year ago I cut fast food and most added sugars from my diet, I wonder what healthy brands I should add to my lifestyle?”
Roth said he believes GU is well positioned for its athletes to thrive in the new NIL landscape. The school recently announced Next Level, a program to help student-athletes build and elevate their personal brands, in partnership with INFLCR, an industry leader in brand-building.
“We’re all set, we’re rolling,” Roth said. “We have everything in place. We didn’t want to officially meet with parents and student-athletes until (NIL) got passed, so we’ve started in on that and we have more Zoom meetings.”
Estimates vary for what top athletes with strong social media followings could make, but nearly everyone agrees the top 2% should easily pocket six figures.
INFLCR CEO Jim Cavale declined to put a dollar figure on what former Zags star Jalen Suggs would have made last season had NIL been in place because there are numerous variables that influence whether an athlete makes 80 cents or $1.20 per follower.
“I think he would have made more than a dollar a follower, I’ll just say that,” Cavale said on a recent Field of 68 podcast. “You can do the math.”
Suggs has 460,000 followers on Instagram. Holmgren has 278,000 followers on Instagram, 24,000 on Twitter, nearly 7,200 on his YouTube channel and 37,300 on TikTok.
Cavale offered some more interesting numbers.
“Athletes at Gonzaga when they post, they have 23-24% engagement from their audience,” he said. “When Gonzaga men’s basketball posts, it gets 3-4%, and that’s actually really good for a men’s basketball account, but athletes get five to six times that. That’s the power of the athlete.”
Drew Butler runs the collegiate division for Icon Source, a digital marketplace that connects brands with athletes to facilitate endorsement opportunities. Icon Source recently teamed up with INFLCR.
“It’s unlimited, absolutely unlimited,” Butler said of Timme’s and Holmgren’s earning potential. “If Gonzaga has the type of season they had last year, which I’m sure they will with their great coach, players and support staff, their value will continue to soar.
“I wouldn’t cut them short. Certainly six figures, if not more.”
In the early days with NIL rights, student-athletes will probably lean on social media before expanding to other potential avenues for income.
“As we’ve seen (Thursday), that’s the easiest and most efficient right now,” said Butler, a former Georgia and NFL punter. “As it evolves, opportunities will arise for student-athletes to make speeches, shoot a commercial.
“Brands understand that student-athletes are smart when it comes to social media. There are a lot of really interesting marketing ideas that are coming up.”
There are five football players in Action Network’s top 15, including Oklahoma State quarterback Spencer Rattler at No. 1 and Washington’s Brendan Radley-Hills at No. 9, one gymnast, one volleyball player, one wrestler and one track and field athlete.
Rattler’s worth was estimated at $740,000 in social media alone, according to Opendorse, an online platform for athlete marketing.
Women’s basketball was represented by Fresno State twins Haley and Hanna Cavinder (No. 4), UConn’s Paige Bueckers (No. 6) and Louisville’s Hailey Van Lith (No. 8), who played at Cashmere High School in Washington.
The list demonstrates that it won’t just be football and men’s basketball cashing in on NIL opportunities.
“There’s money to be made for all of them,” Butler said. “I live in Georgia and (the University of) Georgia has a great equestrian team and swimming and diving team with a lot of athletes competing in the Olympics. That’s an amazing opportunity for brands to activate with those athletes. Those smaller niche sports have very passionate followers and people that support them.”
Asked for advice for student-athletes who want to thrive with NIL, Butler responded: “No. 1, sign up on Icon Source and create a profile. No. 2, it takes work, be better on the field, in the classroom, on social media, interact more with fans. That is just going to drive up their value.”
Roth acknowledged that Gonzaga will have to add more employees in the compliance office, but “we knew that going in. We’ll have to speed it up and get that in place. But so much of this goes back to the type of student-athletes we recruit, the type of staff we have. They know we’re all working in their best interests.”